My Uncle Groucho was simply one of the funniest men who ever lived. Period! Despite having only a sixth grade education he was a very smart guy who was also a voracious reader. Among his comedian peers he was generally regarded as one of the most quick-witted ad-libbers in the business.
This is what helped him become a big television star of the Golden Age back on You Bet Your Life in the 1950s. People used to ask my friend (and Groucho's announcer, George Fenneman) if Groucho's funny lines on his TV show were scripted or were ad-libbed, and George would always answer, "Yes."
It's true Groucho was fed lines to say based on pre-interviews the show's staff did with the contestants. But Groucho always insisted on never meeting the contestants ahead of time and he was free to say anything he wanted. About half the stuff you hear on an old episode of You Bet Your Life was written and about half is ad-libbed, and I can tell the difference. (And to my taste, the ad-libbed stuff Uncle Groucho came up with off the cuff is usually funnier than the prepared jokes.)
Despite the fact that Uncle Groucho wrote much of his own material (and ad-libbed a lot) he never failed to credit the many writers he worked with in movies and on TV for helping him be funny. He was also very generous to other comedians, particularly Woody Allen and Dick Cavett, whom he encouraged with his friendship.
But Uncle Groucho was a difficult human being to be around at times. He was always "on" - always wanting to tell a joke... or to top one. He was at times insensitive - preferring to tell a good joke at someone's expense rather than worry about hurt feelings. I don't think he did this to be malicious; I think he had a "humor reflex." If you threw him a straight line - accidentally or otherwise - he felt the need to swing at it. More often than not, he'd knock it out of the park with a witty, cutting comment. This made him a great comedian, but I suspect a hard person to live with.
Which is ironic because Uncle Groucho never really wanted to be anything but a writer, a husband and a father. He had three wives (and three kids). But after 60 years of performing onstage he needed to hear that laughter - that positive feedback.
Lucky for us.
One of the rarest things in the world - Uncle Groucho laughing. He hardly ever did it, but you can see him laugh in a couple of TV out-takes. One of my happiest memories is a family reunion with the Brothers after Uncle Zeppo re-married in the 1950s. Zeppo was telling a story (yes, it's true... he may have been the funniest Marx Brother of all and he was one of the few people who could make Groucho laugh.) Anyway, I remember turning to my mom and saying, "I've never heard Uncle Groucho laugh that way."
I've been told one of the few times he ever cried was when he learned my Dad died.
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