Having read Stefan Kanfer’s biography of Groucho Marx, it is clear that the Marx Brother’s greatness comes from performing thousands of shows, day after day, week after week.
This is the case for most vaudeville performers – but I think repetition provides something unique for clowns – something different to the obvious benefits of practice needed by skills-based performers such as jugglers and acrobats.
I call it “petulant deviation”. Groucho’s wild conversations are great examples of it.
Petulant what now?!
Apologies for making up terminology – let me try and explain myself!
Most performers who have done a show more than 40 times will know that there comes a point when you know it inside out. After that, there comes a period when the performer is so familiar with the show that little cracks start to appear.
Maybe you see things that don’t make sense, or you notice things that don’t quite fit the rhythm of the show. Maybe you get the feeling that there should be more or less emphasis on certain sections.
But more importantly, little opportunities offer themselves up. And as long as the performers stay in character, the theatrical illusion can be maintained to allow some improvisation.
That is what I mean by “deviation”.
“Petulant” deviation occurs when performers are so familiar with a show that they start actively looking for opportunities to improvise. It is often in these moments that real truth can be found in a show. It can also be where performers start destroying a show – the Marx Brothers were particularly good at that. Groucho and family were well known for being wild and unreliable. Their film bosses would insist on a tour of a stage version of each film to “run it in”. This was a great way of ironing out any problems – and testing out new material. But Groucho and the gang were so “petulant” that they would improvise with little regard for the fact that shows would over run by hours.
In his brilliant biography, Kanfer describes an incident where a young starlet who had offended the film company bosses was sent to work with the Marx Brothers as a punishment.
In the clip above, you can see how a pretty straightforward comedy scene may have been expanded through wild improvisation. In the clip below you can see how years of repetition and messing around has allowed Harpo and Chico such effectiveness as comic performers.
As I said before, this process feels quite different from the repetitive practice needed by jugglers and acrobats. It is about accessing a unique “zone” of clowning – the chaos zone, the boredom zone or the messing around zone. If you wanted to make up another piece of terminology, you could call it “finding an anarchic impetus”. But I wouldn’t – it would be too pretentious.
Without it, we have to be satisfied with well-rehearsed, technically accomplished performances.
But, with it, we get that unique wild quality which makes great clowning great.
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