3.1 Groucho

Groucho acts as the bridge between the brothers’ position as outsiders and the world of conventional society. He usually does this by adopting some bogus professional identity – a lawyer, a doctor, an opera agent, and so on. His two chief drives are monetary and sexual and these two find a common focus in the person of the rich dowager character in the films (Margaret Dumont), who, through a weakness for Groucho, unwittingly sponsors him in his sham social positions. His prime linguistic feature is a torrent of personal insults directed at anyone he encounters but particularly at those who he sees as a professional or sexual threat, and it is on this practice of insults which this dissertation now focuses.

A number of studies have concentrated on the trading of insults between adolescents in certain cultures. Labov’s (1972) study of the black American practice of sounding looked at the ritual insults between black adolescents in various parts of the US in which the object was to degrade the opponent or the opponent’s family (often the mother). The source material for these insults is extremely varied, ranging from television culture and advertising to direct obscenities. In New York they could also be rhymed:

Iron is iron, and steel don’t rust
But your mamma got a pussy like a greyhound bus

Labov saw these exchanges as one way of managing challenges within peer groups in a depersonalised, ritualised way (p.168). Of particular interest here is the manner of evaluation of such exchanges.

One of the most important differences between sounding and other speech events is that most sounds are evaluated overtly and immediately by the audience [and] the primary mark of evaluation is laughter.
(p.144, emphasis added)

A study of even greater linguistic interest is that of Dundes, Leach and Ozkok (1972), which looked at Turkish boys’ verbal duelling rhymes. Whereas in sounding Speaker A would initiate the insult and this would be countered by Speaker B trying to out-do the original insult with an even greater insult, in the Turkish verbal duels a critical stylistic principle is involved in that B’s retort must end rhyme with A’s initial insult, a demand requiring great verbal dexterity (p.138). Another difference is that the content of these duels is overwhelmingly sexual, either directly homosexual to the opponent or indirectly heterosexual to the opponent’s mother or sister. Dundes et al, speaking metaphorically, put it thus:

Much of the skill in the duelling process consist of parrying phallic thrusts such that the would-be attacking penis is frustrated and the would-be attacker is accused of receiving a penis instead. According to this code, a young boy defends and asserts his virile standing in his peer group by seeing to it that his phallus threatens the anus of any rival who may challenge him.

An example which illustrates this (p.138):

Speaker A Has Siktir  
  Come on penised get  
  (Get fucked)    
Speaker B Siktir digin yere mum diktir
  penised got that you place to candle set up
  (Put a candle at the spot where you got yourself fucked)

While it is clearly not expected that a 1930’s Hollywood comedy would contain rhyming couplets about sodomy, there is a linguistic link with Groucho’s verbal behaviour and this can be seen from the following extract from the film ‘A Night At The Opera’ (1935) in which he competes with a man over a woman and simultaneously insults the woman. In this story Groucho is a bogus opera agent who is patronised by the rich widow, Mrs. Claypool. Hermann Gottlieb, director of the New York Opera, would like Mrs. Claypool to invest in one of his productions. Groucho has just introduced them.

(1) Gottlieb: Mrs. Claypool, I am so happy [kisses her hand. As he releases it Groucho immediately snatches it up and inspects it].
(2) Groucho: I just wanted to see if your rings were still there.
(3) Gottlieb: Mrs. Claypool you are as charming as you are beautiful.
(4) Mrs. Claypool: I’m afraid you’ve used that speech before Mr.Gottlieb.
(5) Groucho; (5a) Now listen here, Gottlieb, making love to Mrs.Claypool is my racket. (5b) What you’re after is two hundred thousand dollars. (5c) And you better make it plausible because, incredible as this may seem, Mrs. Claypool isn’t as big a sap as she looks. (5d) How’s that for love-making?
(Kaufman and Ryskind 1972:103)

Though this exchange is not openly a duel as Gottlieb directs his attentions solely to Mrs. Claypool (1 and 3) it can be seen as sexual (and financial) combat for Mrs.Claypool’s favours in which Gottlieb prefers the ‘weapons’ of polite terms of address and compliments (1 and 3) and Groucho his usual personal insults in the form of impolite terms of address (plain ‘Gottlieb’ in 5a) and gross accusations, both indirect (2) and direct (5b). Groucho also succeeds in insulting Mrs Claypool by referring to his love-making as a ‘racket’ (5a) and calling her a ‘sap’ (5c). While the context here is sexual, it will be seen in Part Two that Groucho uses this linguistic combativeness in most of his encounters as a primary means of attack on conventional discourse.