"The Wisdom of Marx"
by Rev. Dr. Tony Larsen,
October 4, 2020
OPENING WORDS (Aztec):
The ancient Aztecs prayed this prayer: "Grant me, Lord, a little light--but no more than a glow-worm gives, which goes about by night, to guide me through this life...this dream which lasts but a day wherein there are many things on which to stumble, and many things at which to laugh, and others like a stormy path along which one goes leaping."
For the things that make us stumble and the things that make us laugh (and sometimes they're the same) and the “glow-worm” light that guides us through them all--we kindle this chalice flame and go leaping on our way.
WORDS BEFORE MEET & GREET (Buddhist):
Zengetsu, a Chinese Zen master of the Tang dynasty, said to his students: "Someone may appear to be a fool and yet not be one. They may just be guarding their wisdom carefully."
The people around you may or may not appear to be fools. But since appearances can be deceptive, assume they are wise, and greet them as if you were welcoming great sages to your home.
PRAYER AFTER JOYS & SORROWS (Christian?):
"Lord, thou knowest that I am not always the easiest person to get along with. Please keep me today from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject. With my vast store of wisdom it seems a pity not to use it all, but thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I might be mistaken. And keep me reasonably sweet, Lord. But not too sweet. I don't want to be a saint. Some of them are hard to live with. Above all, let me see joy and humor and love. There are so many funny things around me, and I don't want to miss a single one.” Blessed be and Amen.
~attributed to "Seventeenth Century Nun's Prayer"
and "Prayer of an Anonymous Abbess"
READING BEFORE THE SERMON:
To get you in the mood for the sermon, I'd like to read some of the correspondence between T. S. Eliot (who was one of the greatest English poets of the last century) and Groucho Marx, one of the best-known comedians (of the same century).
Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot never knew each other, until one day when the poet (T. S. Eliot) wrote a fan letter to the comedian (Groucho Marx), asking for his photograph.
Then Groucho wrote Eliot a fan letter and asked him for a photograph. And here's what Eliot wrote back:
Dear Groucho Marx,
This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W. B. Yeats and Paul Valery. Whether you really want a photograph of me or whether you merely asked for it out of politeness, you are going to get one anyway. ... Incidentally, if and when you and Mrs. Marx are in London, my wife and I hope that you will dine with us.
Yours very sincerely,
T. S. Eliot
Dear T. S.:
Your photograph arrived in good shape. ... I had no idea you were so handsome. Why you haven't been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the stupidity of the casting directors. Should I come to London I will certainly take advantage of your kind invitation. ...
A later letter from Groucho:
If this isn't your first name, I'm in a hell of a fix! But I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons', a prizefighter who once lived in St. Paul. I had no idea you were seventy-five. There's a magnificent tribute to you in the New York Times Book Review...with an excellent photograph of you by a Mr. Gerald Kelly. I would say, judging from this picture, that you are about sixty and two weeks. ... By next May or thereabaouts, I hope to be able to eat that free meal you've been promising me for the past two years. My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.
From T. S. Eliot:
...I cannot recall the name of Tom Gibbons at present, but if he helps you to remember my name that is all right with me. I am sorry that you are not coming over this year... I hope, however, that you will turn up in spring. ... If you don't, I am afraid all the people to whom I have boasted of knowing you (and on being on first name basis at that) will take me for a four flusher. There will be a free meal and free drinks for you by next May. ...
Since you are actually an early American, (I don't mean that you are an old piece of furniture, but you are a fugitive from St. Louis), you should have heard of Tom Gibbons. For your edification, Tom Gibbons ...was, at one time, the light-heavyweight champion of the world. ... The name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom--unless they have been fixed.... And the third President of the United States' first name was Tom... in case you've forgotten Jefferson. So, when I call you Tom, this means you are a mixture of a heavyweight prizefighter, a male alley cat and the third President of the United States. I have just finished my latest opus, "Memoirs of a Mangy Lover." ... I doubt whether it will live through the ages, but if you are in a sexy mood the night you read it, it may stimulate you beyond recognition. ... My best to you and Mrs. Tom.
This is to let you know that we have arranged for a car to collect you and Mrs. Groucho at 6:40 pm on Saturday...and to bring you to us for dinner. ... The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, amongst other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood....Obviously I am now someone of importance.
That's how they met.
THE SERMON: "The Wisdom of Marx"
And now to the sermon.
He was one of the world's most beloved comedians for over 60 years--a star not only of stage and screen, but of radio and television too. He was friends with poets T. S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg; musicians Alice Cooper and Elton John (whom he insisted on calling John Elton); and comedians Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson (whom he introduced to American audiences as the new host of The Tonight Show, having himself been a guest host several times between Jack Paar's stint and Johnny Carson's). The British rock group Queen named two of their albums after his movies: "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the Races."
Groucho Marx, born on October 2nd, 1890 (exactly 130 years ago this past Friday) in a room above a butcher's shop on 78th Street in New York City.
To give you a few examples of Groucho's quirky sense of humor, here's some of what he wrote in letters to other famous people:
When Time Magazine published his picture on the cover of their December 31, 1951 issue, he wrote to the publisher:
Dear Mr. Linen:
The picture of me on the cover of Time has changed my entire life. Where formerly my hours were spent playing golf...I now while away the days loitering around Beverly Hills' largest newsstand, selling copies of the December 31st issue at premium prices.
Admittedly the picture on the cover didn't do me justice (I doubt if any camera could capture my inner beauty), but nevertheless my following is so fanatical that they buy anything that even remotely resembles me. Yesterday, despite the fact that it was raining, I made $13. This is all tax free, for I steal the copies of Time while the owner of the newsstand is out eating lunch.
Please use my picture again soon and next time I promise to give you half of everything I get away with.
And here's his 1954 letter to former President Harry Truman, who was recovering from an illness of some kind:
I don't know if you will remember me, but I am the chap with the black mustache, glasses, and increasing baldness who, I hope, convulses you every Thursday night on television.
I just want to join with the thousands who have written you wishing you a speedy recovery and many happy years as our living former President. Oh, I forgot Hoover is still around.
I know you are busy writing your memoirs and dozens of other assorted jobs, but I think that one of these days you ought to pay a visit to the Coast as a private citizen. If you want to come I can put you up. I have a swimming pool and a pool table. I shoot very badly and if you are any good with the cue, you could possibly win enough to pay your expenses.
At any rate, I am glad you are up and around and I certainly enjoyed that lunch we had together in Kansas City, although I could have stood less of those henchmen chattering in back of you.
And here's what he said about his experiences with clergy: "Once, I was at the Plaza Hotel and there was a priest in the elevator. He said, 'Aren't you Groucho Marx?' And I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'My mother is crazy about that quiz show you do.' I said to him, 'I didn't know you fellows had mothers.' The priest turned red. I tried to recover. 'I always thought it was Immaculate Conception.'
“Then I was in Montreal. I was making a quick exit out of another elevator. A priest came up. 'Groucho, I want to thank you for all the joy you've put into the world.' I shook his hand. 'Thank you, Father. And I want to thank you for all the joy you've taken out of it.' The priest laughed. 'Could I use that next Sunday in my sermon?' 'Yes, you can,' I replied, "but you'll have to pay the William Morris office ten percent.' Which I suppose was the first time a church had to pay a tithe instead of the other way around."
Some things about Groucho's life that you might find interesting: His mother's name was Minnie--which is probably where the line came from that was in the movie, "A Night at the Opera": "Is my Aunt Minnie in there?" (Also, Minnie's brother was Al Schoenberg, which he shortened to Al Shean when he became part of a popular vaudeville act called Gallagher and Shean.)
Now, Groucho (actual name Julius) wanted to be a doctor when he grew up, but his family's finances forced him to leave school at the age of 12, though he read voraciously all his life to help overcome his lack of formal education. His mother had always wanted her sons to have a show-business career--like their uncle Al (of Gallagher and Shean)--so she organized them into a singing group called The Four Nightingales. However, they weren't all that successful so one night, after a particularly lackluster performance at a small town in Texas, they started making wisecracks on stage--mostly to amuse themselves, since the audience certainly wasn't feeling entertained. And they discovered they were more successful as comedians than as singers. So they adapted their routine to do comedy instead, and eventually became headliners.
I mention these things because they show how little events can sometimes change the course of a person's life. For example, Groucho had wanted to become a doctor but his family couldn't afford it. If they had been able to--and he hadn't had to leave school after 6th grade--he might have become a doctor, maybe even a good one. But the world at large would never have known his wit.
Or: If audiences had liked the Marx Brothers as singers--we probably wouldn't have had any of their zany movies.
Or, again: The Marx family was Jewish. And then, as now, there was a fair amount of anti-Jewish sentiment. So Leonard, the oldest son, developed an Italian accent to use when roving bullies in the neighborhood were looking for Jewish kids to harass--he did that to convince them he was Italian, not Jewish. He later used that accent as "Chico" in Marx Brothers skits and movies.
And here's another: All the Marx brothers used ethnic accents in their vaudeville acts. Groucho used a German accent because of a character he played in one of their early routines. However, after Germany sank the British ship, The Lusitania, in 1915, the American public turned against pretty much anything German, so Groucho's accent was booed. As a result, he dropped it and developed a fast-talking kind of wise-guy character instead. Again, if not for the sinking of the ship, Groucho might still be remembered for his humor--but it would probably be different from what it came to be.
And still another: Groucho Marx became well known for his bushy eyebrows, mustache, and glasses--so much so, in fact, that eventually "Groucho Glasses" became the rave, and you can still get them at novelty stores. But they began in an interesting way. In the early 1920's Groucho had to go on stage for a vaudeville act he was playing in, and he didn't have time to put on the glue-on mustache that he was supposed to wear for his part. (Plus, it had been hurting every night when he had to take it off from the same patch of skin). So he took some black greasepaint and smeared it above his lips--and then looked in the mirror and saw that his eyebrows didn't match (they were too thin)--so he put greasepaint up there too. And that eventually became his trademark look. (It was so popular, in fact, and so associated with him, that when the radio show "You Bet Your Life" was going to go on television, the producers wanted him to put on the greasepaint. He didn't want to do that, but he did agree to grow a mustache--which he kept for the rest of his life--and by then he actually needed glasses so he didn't mind wearing them.) Again, though, this trademark look (of big eyebrows and mustache) came about pretty much by accident. If Groucho hadn't been in a hurry to get ready for his part (in that 1920's performance)--and...if he hadn't noticed that the eyebrows didn't match the mustache--we might have had a very different-looking Groucho.
And just one last example. In the mid-1940's, when Groucho's film and radio career had wound down, he was asked to be on Bob Hope's radio show. He was kept in a waiting room for 40 minutes before he could come on, and he was rather ticked off about it. So when Bob Hope said, "It's Groucho Marx, ladies and gentlemen" (applause) and then "Groucho, what brings you here from the hot desert?"--Groucho, in a foul mood, said, "Hot desert, my foot. I've been standing in the cold waiting room for 40 minutes!" The audience thought he was being his usual sarcastic self, and laughed uproariously, and so Groucho completely gave up on the script he was supposed to use; and Bob Hope (a pretty good ad-libber himself) had to try to keep up with Groucho's comments. It ended up being so entertaining that a producer listening in asked Groucho if he would host a quiz show. "A quiz show!" said Groucho. “Only actors who are completely washed up resort to a quiz show." But the producer explained that the quiz show would just be a vehicle for Grouch to interview people and make wisecracks, so he agreed, and "You Bet Your Life" began in 1947 on radio and moved to TV in 1950, lasting there until 1961.
To give you a bit of a flavor for that show, here's a little compendium of Groucho one-liners from it.
To a guest who was a cook, Groucho said, "You know, I tried boiling pigs' feet once, but I couldn't get the pig to stand still."
To a rabbi who was a guest on the show: "Tell me, Rabbi, do you get many actors at your temple?"
"Yes," said the rabbi. "Quite a few."
"Gee," said Groucho, "I'm surprised you allow so much ham in your temple."
To a man who had lived with cannibals in Africa: "You're lucky you didn't go to pot."
And once, when he asked a woman on his show "How old are you?"--and she was a little reluctant but answered, "I'm approaching 40"--Groucho said, "Approaching 40? From which direction?"
"You Bet Your Life" was quite the sensation, and it generally had very ordinary people as its guest contestants, so it wasn't expensive to produce. But again, the show came about because of a fluke. If Groucho hadn't been ticked off because of being kept waiting for 40 minutes before the Bob Hope show, he probably wouldn't have done the impromptu wisecracking that led to being asked to host a quiz show, which turned out to be the hallmark of his later career!
My point is, simply, that small events in our lives can sometimes have huge impacts, and we cannot always foresee what those impacts will be. And even the events that seem negative at the time can sometimes bring positive--even redemptive--consequences.
Poverty--and lack of a formal education--led away from a medical career, but to a very successful entertainment career. Lackluster success at singing led to a great comedy career (for all the Marx brothers). Anti-semitism led to personal strength and cultivating an Italian accent. The sinking of the Lusitania to a new wisecracking persona; being late for make-up creating a whole new comedy look; and being ticked off (for being kept waiting), to his own very successful "You Bet Your Life" show.
From which, again, here are a few more Groucho-isms.
To a dance instructor from the Arthur Murray Dance studios: "What do you do?" "I'm a dance instructor for Arthur Murray."
"You mean after all these years Arthur still hasn't learned how to dance?"
To a man whose profession was drawing cartoons, "If you want to see a comic strip, you should see me in a shower."
When science-fiction author Ray Bradbury was a guest on his show Groucho asked him, "What kind of a job do you have, Ray?" Ray answered, "I'm a writer."
"What kind of a rider?" asked Groucho. "Pony express, motorcycle, or what?"
"Writer," said Bradbury. "W-R-I-T-E-R."
"Oh, that's refreshing," said Groucho. "A writer who can spell."
And when the vocalist John Charles Thomas was on, Groucho said, "Now, did you always want to be a singer?" "No," said Thomas, "I always wanted to be a surgeon."
"Oh well, I should think medicine and voice would go very well together," said Groucho. "You could operate on a patient and then pick up another couple bucks singing at the funeral."
Now, in case you're wondering what a sermon on Groucho Marx has to do with religion--and, more generally, what laughter has to do with spirituality--let's leave Groucho aside for a few moments and look at a little biblical tradition.
We begin with the Hebrew scriptures (the “Old Testament”), where the most celebrated example of laughter is to be found in the Book of Genesis. In chapter 17, God tells Abraham: "I will bless your wife Sarah and give you a son by her, and she will become the mother of nations."
Now, this is just too much for Abraham to take with a straight face because Sarah is ninety years old and he's a hundred. So the passage continues: "Abraham fell on his face and started to laugh. And he said to himself, 'Can a man have a child when he's one hundred years old? And can Sarah have a child at ninety?'"
Later on, in the next chapter, Sarah finds out the good news, and she thinks it's hilarious too. She's in the tent while Abraham is entertaining God (who has come to earth in the form of three visitors). "Then they asked him, 'Where is your wife Sarah?' 'She is there in the tent,' he answered. The Lord said, 'I will return to you in the spring, and Sarah, your wife, shall have a son.' Sarah was behind him, at the door of the tent, listening. ...Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex?' Then the Lord asked Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you and Sarah will have a son.' Because Sarah was afraid, she said, 'I didn't laugh.' But the Lord said, 'Yes, you did. You laughed.'"
The clincher on this deal is the name that God had Abraham and Sarah give to their child. He told them to name their child "Isaac"--which is the Hebrew word for "he laughs." Yitz-khawkh.
Maybe God was the one with the sense of humor after all.
And if we turn to the New Testament we don't find any direct references to Jesus laughing or smiling (though you sometimes see pictures of him that way). However, I can't help but think that some of his parables and metaphors might have elicited a chuckle or two.
In Matthew 7:5, for example, Jesus says, "How can you say to your brother (or sister) 'Let me take the speck out of your eye' when there's a log in your own?'"
Now, can you picture someone walking around with a log sticking out of their eye? Think about it. A bit of sawdust maybe, or a piece of a toothpick--maybe even a popsicle stick...but a log?
Jesus was great at coming up with exaggerated metaphors (a camel going through the eye of a needle, for example, or forgiving people 70 times 7 times)--he was a master of hyperbole. Whether he intended to be funny or not is a little difficult to tell from a distance of 2,000 years. But he was a master of incongruity for sure.
Which, it seems to me, is the essence of both humor and religion. Incongruity: You expect one thing and something else happens. You hear something going in one direction and then, surprise, it goes somewhere else. In traditional Christianity the great incongruity is that God became a human being. For some UU's it might be the great incongruity that humans can become gods. But all religions have this tension between the great and the small, the transcendent and the immanent, the sacred and the secular. Even Humanism has this tension: between the world as it is and the world as it could be--and how we might bridge that gap.
So religion--all religions actually--is about incongruity, bringing unexpected things together. Sarah and Abraham facing the incongruity of having a child in their 90's. Jesus showing the incongruity of complaining about a speck in your neighbor's eye while missing the log in your own. Religion is all about incongruity--bringing things together that seem poles apart.
Which is what Groucho Marx (and indeed all humor) actually does: It surprises people with something they didn't expect--as when Groucho asked a woman on his show, "How old are you?"
"Oh, a gentleman never asks a woman her age, Groucho."
"That's right," says Groucho. "How old are you?"
Or, he asks a contestant who has just won, "What are you gonna do with your money, Colonel?"
"I'm gonna make my wife happy, Groucho."
"What are you gonna do--get a divorce?"
Look at the weird, zany things Groucho threw together in a speech he gave to honor his movie producer, George Jessel: "He is the only man I know (said Groucho) who can take a beautiful love song, send it through his nose, and have it come out sounding like an air raid warning. (He is also) the most relentless speechmaker of our time. He speaks at weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs. Speaking that often, it's only natural that he sometimes gets confused. On one occasion he married a thirteen-year-old boy to a woman who had been dead for three days."
Pretty incongruous stuff.
Admittedly, humor like this might seem to be at other people's expense. But Groucho did this sort of thing so consistently that no one could really take it personally. (Like the priest who liked his insult so much he wanted to use it in his sermon the next day.) In fact, as Groucho later pointed out to several talk-show hosts, he was unable to truly insult anyone because everyone he tried to insult ended up taking it as a joke. (Like the audience on the Bob Hope Show.)
Besides, Groucho just as often made jokes on himself, as when he gave up his membership at a Hollywood club because, as he explained in a letter to its president, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
You know, there have been times in my life when someone insulted me--but in such a gentle, humorous way--that I didn't mind. And in fact, I grew from it. If they could find one of my flaws funny, I thought, why can't I? Some of the most helpful and growth-producing times in my life have happened when someone took the time to laugh at me. Or, better yet, got me to laugh at myself.
And there's another thing humor can do for you. It can be a gentle weapon against injustice. Groucho used it in this way once when an exclusive California beach club refused to accept him as a member because he was Jewish. "Since my daughter is only half Jewish," said Groucho, "can she go into the water up to her knees?"
(Barry Goldwater apparently liked this line because he used a variation of it when he was refused membership in a golf club. "Since I'm only half Jewish," he said, "can I play nine holes of golf?")
Groucho Marx died in 1977--just 3 days after Elvis Presley died, so his death was a bit overshadowed at the time. But he seemed to keep his deadpan humor pretty much to the end. The radio and TV announcer for his show "You Bet Your Life"--George Fenneman (also his lifelong friend)--said that on one of his last visits with Groucho, who was very frail at the time, he picked Groucho up out of his wheelchair to take him back to bed and he had his arms around Groucho's chest and was sort of walking him backwards (so it looked pretty awkward), when he heard a very weak voice in his ear: "Fenneman, you always were a lousy dancer."
I think Groucho Marx knew the soul of the country, in a way that a more serious person might not be able to. He said things that other people thought but didn't have the nerve to say. And he could insult you and have you enjoy it, because you always knew Groucho was laughing at himself at the same time. Once a few people from Kansas met him in a clothing store in Beverly Hills and told him how much they enjoyed watching "You Bet Your Life." They had just seen a show with a contestant on it who they said was "so dumb" they couldn't believe it. "They're all dumb," said Groucho. "That's why they're on the show." And then he added, "Why do you think I'm on the show?"
In a way human existence is the greatest joke the universe has ever played. We are tiny, almost insignificant creatures, but we're conscious of a whole universe! We're limited, we're finite, but we can imagine the infinite. We live sometimes stupidly, clumsily, making so many mistakes, yet we fumble on--in fact we march along with dignity!-- because we have the capacity to reach out to something much bigger than we are. This capacity--to strive for the most high--is our religious urge. The fact that humans can be as silly and stupid as we are, and yet rise to such glorious heights--is funny. Religion is all about incongruity. If people ever tell you that religion is no laughing matter, tell them they're wrong. It is our religious nature that enables us to perceive the humor of our situation.
We must forever live in the tension of failing to be all that we want to be, failing to do all that we want to do, the tension of striving to be gods, yet, as Groucho said, being pretty dumb. We're all dumb, he said--that's why we're on the show. And you see, that's what I think it means to be human: to be dumb and divine.
Thanks for being on the show with me.
CLOSING WORDS (Hindu):
In the ancient Sanskrit it is written: "Look to this day. For it is life, the very life of life. In its brief course lie all the verities of your existence: the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day." (attributed to Kalidasa)
Or, as Groucho once put it: "Though my memories are more crowded than most, and I often look back on yesterday, I choose to revel in today. The yesterdays I cannot change, even if I wanted to, and as for the tomorrows, I could take a walk next Thursday and get run over by a DeSoto."
So go in joy upon your road, this dream which lasts but a day-- wherein there are many things on which to stumble, and many things at which to laugh, and others like a stormy path along which one goes leaping! This service on humor has ended; your service on humor has just begun. Peace and Unrest.