Turner Classic Movies did a good thing yesterday, running a Marx Brothers marathon. I was able to watch Animal Crackers with the kids last night, which gave them another look at the anarchic humor of these now American icons. Over 75 years have passed since Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo shared their zany antics with the world and yet the humor is so universal that it stands up well today.
Humor is, inevitably, a very self-referential form of communication. Context can be everything and many comedians who had audiences in one era have great difficulty reaching an audience later on. If you ever have a chance to watch an episode of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" on television, you should do it. It is amazing to see how gracelessly the humor there has aged; the one major talent on the show is Lily Tomlin, who has made a fine career for herself in Hollywood, but nearly everyone else on display has faded quickly from the scene. For that matter, watch some Lenny Bruce if you can. You'll be amazed at, with the distance of 50 years, his humor seems to lack the edge that was his calling card back in the era. Just guessing here - audiences 30 years on will mostly wonder what the fuss was all about when they watch re-runs of "Seinfeld."
The great comedians of every era understood (and understand) what while humor is self-referential, the best humor is grounded in understanding of the human conditions and the inherent silliness that resides within all of us. We all need a laugh and the Marx Brothers knew how to get one. And now, so many years on, they still do.