4.2 The Standard Language and Common Sense Meet the Marx Brothers

Chico’s attack on one aspect of the standard language has already been shown in the discussion of his use of his nonnative pronunciation to deliberately alter the relationship between standard sounds and meanings. The following will concentrate on his and Groucho’s use of nonsense to undermine the norms of interaction and interpretation’ and to demonstrate what might be called their ‘Uncooperative Principle’.

In these first two extracts from the works of the Marx Brothers one example each from Groucho and Chico will be offered to show how they can seemingly be cooperating in creating commonsense discourse only to suddenly inject a piece of nonsense when the conventional discourse is allowing the other participant(s) to exercise power over them. In the first example, which comes from the film ‘A Day at the Races’, Groucho is a horse doctor posing as a medical practitioner in a clinic. The other doctors are increasingly aware of his position and are beginning to challenge him. Groucho has just been found giving a horse pill to the hypochondriac benefactor of the clinic. Among other complaints, one doctors notes that to swallow such a large pill would require a lot of water.

(1) Groucho: Nonsense, you can swallow that with five gallons.
(2) Whitmore: Isn’t that rather a lot of water for a patient to take?
(3) Groucho: Not if the patient has a bridge in her mouth. You see, the water flows
under the bridge and the patient walks over the bridge and meets the pill
on the other side. [The doctors are appalled at Groucho’s remarks.]
(Pirosh, Seaton, and Oppenheimer. 1972: 140-1.)

The first piece of nonsense in this context is the prescribing of a horse pill for a human in front of genuine medical practitioners. When they challenge this with the commonsense medical opinion that it s too big and requires too much water Groucho responds (1) by asserting that it is they who are speaking nonsense and then immediately adds (1) a further piece of nonsense. When the doctors continue their attack (2) Groucho responds with a further piece of verbal nonsense which is cleverly constructed (3). The opening sentence of (3) refers to the patient’s mouth and this is relevant as it is the place where the themes of the discourse, the pill and the water, must go. By mentioning the bridge in the mouth he suggests that this in some way might make possible (or even deem necessary) the ingestion of a large pill and a large volume of water. This will no doubt interest the doctors - perhaps their colleague’s seemingly nonsensical behaviour and assertions have some strange but simple rationale underlying them. The norms of interaction and interpretation seem to be still followed when Groucho begins the next sentence with ‘You see...’, a common and considerate device for signalling to listeners that all is about to be made clear. Yet what follows is not common sense, nor is it relevant. Having led them to the brink of a sensible explanation Groucho suddenly reveals it to be a pit of nonsense into which he rudely dumps them. Although in Groucho’s construct the patient manages to cross one type of bridge, thus avoiding all the water (the excessive volume of which the was the basis of Whitmore’s attack on him (2)), and also is reunited with the pill ‘on the other side’ (3), this answer is gross nonsense and the doctors are suitably appalled. Yet it has served its purpose of deflecting the attack on his status; their power has not prevailed.

The second example, which involves Chico, comes from the film ‘Duck Soup’ in which Chico plays a spy who has been paid by the Sylvanian Ambassador, Trentino, to spy on the Head of State of Freedonia, Firefly. Here Chico is making his report in Trentino’s office.

(1) Trentino [wagging finger]: I want a full detailed report of your investigation.
(2) Chico: (2a) All right, I tell you. (2b) Monday we watch Firefly’s house,
but he no come out. He wasn’t home. (2c) Tuesday we go to the
ball game, but he fool us. He no show up. (2d) Wednesday he go to
the ball game, and we fool him. We no show up. (2e) Thursday was
a double header. Nobody show up. (2f) Friday it rained all day.
There was no ball game so we stayed at home and listened to it
over the radio.
(3) Trentino [exasperated]: Then you didn’t shadow Firefly?
(4) Chico: Oh sure we shadow Firefly. We shadow him all day.
(5) Trentino: But what day was that?
(6) Chico: Shadderday. [Trentino clutches his head in his hands]
(7) ’At’sa some joke, eh. Boss?
(Kalmar and Ruby 1972: 117-8)

Trentino begins the exchange as the superior of the two, demonstrating his power through his finger-wagging gesture and expressing an order as a declarative (1) knowing that the contextual power differential between Chico and him will give it the illocutionary force of an order. Indeed Chico interprets it as such (thus giving it perlocutionary force) as he immediately responds by giving his report (2). Though he begins cooperatively (2a) and the report is given in an orderly and concise manner – day by day, a succinct comment on each day’s events – the contents are the purest nonsense. His task was clear, to secretively watch Firefly. Yet he seems to have seen more significance in watching the ball game. And while it is an essential part of any surveillance that the surveyed remains unaware of the surveyor, Chico seems to think that Firefly was a conscious player in a game of cat and mouse, with each side trying to out-fool the other (2c and 2d). In this imagined game, the actual ball game seems to have played the major determining role – ‘there was no ball game so we stayed at home’ (2f). Even though it didn’t take place, Chico claims to have listened to it over the radio (2f). And while illogicality is piled upon impossibility, Trentino, the apparently more powerful of the two interlocutors, is denied a turn which he might use to steer the exchange back towards common sense. When he does eventually get a turn he has become so exasperated he begs clarification (3 and 5). As this serves to confirm Chico’s control over the new level of meaning he has created in (2) he feels sufficiently powerful not only to play with his boss’s words (‘Shadderday’ in (6) echoes and transforms ‘shadow’ in (3)), but to openly reveal at the end of the exchange (7) that from his point of view it has all been a joke anyway. Chico’s contribution has reduced Trentino from the demanding, fingerwagging superior in (1) to the head-clutching victim of nonsense between (6) and (7).

But Chico’s and Groucho’s attack on common sense and deliberate flouting of the norms of interaction and interpretation is not only aimed at people; sometimes the target is language (and all its standards – phonological, lexicogrammatical, semantic) itself. They best accomplish this together when there is no third party acting as a constraint and it is such a scene which now follows. It comes from the radio shows in which Groucho plays a seedy lawyer, and Chico his work-shy assistant. They have been assigned the task of finding a missing Rembrandt for which there is a reward of five thousand dollars. They are discussing how best to find the painting. They are in the house of the owner of the painting. The scene has been edited.

(1) Groucho: You say that you are going to go to everyone in this house and ask them if they took it, eh? Suppose nobody in the house took the painting.
(2) Chico: Den we go to da house next door.
(3) Groucho: Well, suppose there isn’t a house next door?
(4) Chico: Well, den, of course we got to build one.
(5) Groucho: Well now you’re talking. What kind of house do you think we oughta put up?
(6) Chico: I think we build something nice and small and comfortable.
(7) Groucho: That’s the way I feel about it. I don’t want anything elaborate.
(8) Now all we got to do is find the painting.
(9) Chico: Ah, dat’s where my detective brain comes in. Now we got to hurry
up and build the house because I think the painting’s inside.
(10) Groucho: Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not getting enough sleep these days.
Let me take a look at those plans [which they have drawn on the table]. Say, maybe that’s the painting down in the cellar.
(11) Chico: Dat’s no cellar, dat’s da roof. You see we keep the roof in the
basement so when da rain comes, da chimney he’s a no gets wet...
(12) Groucho: How about the painting?
(13) Chico: I tink da kitchen should be white, da dining room should be green…
(14) Groucho: No, I’m not talking about the kitchen. I mean the painting that was stolen. Don’t you remember that there was a painting that was stolen?
(15) Chico: Hey,boss, it comes to me like a flash...Dis painting wasn’t stolen . . . Dis painting disappear. And you know what make it disappear? Moths. Moths eat it. Left-handed moths. Dat’s my solution.
(16) Groucho: Well I wish you were in it. You say that left-handed moths ate the painting, eh?You know I’d buy you a parachute if it wouldn’t open.
(17) Chico: I got a pair of shoes.
(18) Groucho: Well, let’s get out of here. I’ve taken an awful lacing tonight. We solved it, though. You solved it. Let’s go and get the reward. The painting was eaten by a left-handed moth. I don’t know how I overlooked it.
(Barson 1988:214-5)

Though it is Chico who nominates the nonsensical topic of building the house next door in order to find the painting (4), this new direction of the discourse would not get very far without the collaboration of Groucho (5 onwards). Groucho actually ends up disenchanted with the excursion (16,18), yet he it was who had the chance in (5) to reject the diversion and keep the focus of the discourse on the original theme – the lost painting. But he chose to participate in the deconstruction of common sense with the construction of an imaginary house on a plot of nonsense.

The very idea is mad but the way it is earnestly pursued in detail (10,11,13) (and not just as what Jefferson would call ‘a side-sequence’ (1972) ) , indicates a thoroughgoing rejection of common sense. Yet at the same time Groucho purports to distain anything elaborate (7). What could be more elaborate than this plan they have hatched? Still, he maintains a modicum of common sense by reminding Chico of the task (8). Chico’s reply is an assertion of impossibility (9) at which Groucho, one of whose roles, recall, is a bridge for Harpo and Chico into the conventional world, voices his first doubts (10), but is not sure where precisely to locate the problem. However, he again chooses not to challenge or reject the creation of this parallel world, but projects himself further into it – ‘Maybe that’s the painting down in the cellar’ (10).

Even Groucho’s Gricean relevance in this new context is not sufficiently cooperative for Chico as he now gives the discourse a further Escher-like twist in (11) by turning even this mad world upside down. Groucho, perhaps chastened by the increasing degree of absurdity, attempts to return to the task at hand, the retrieval of the painting (12). Chico, unable to interpret any utterance other than in terms of his new creation, proceeds to describe how he would like to paint the new house (13). Groucho now returns (for his part) to interactional norms and is quite insistent about the theme of the discourse (14). Not so Chico. His new solution is yet more remote from common sense (15). Groucho (16) reverts to clever abuse ( a play on the word ‘solution’, a suggestion of a present which kills) but such verbal aggression is grist to Chico’s mill and he responds by taking the sting out of Groucho’s attack with a typical play of his own (17). At this point the sounds and meanings of the standard language and the common assumptions and expectations of conventional discourse seem to have gone completely under and Kaplan’s (1966) diagrammatic representation of the movement of different discourses from different cultures comes to mind:

figure 9

Figure 9. Kaplan’s models of the movement of discourse in different cultures (p.15)

However, it is difficult to discern which, if any, is the most appropriate for the foregoing extract. Before the exchange ends Groucho finds the energy for one more play on words in (18) (‘lacing’ is both an admission of the defeat of conventional discourse and also a reference to ‘shoes’ in (17) ) before commenting ironically and finally on Chico’s solution. The whole episode is a telling demonstration of what Halliday (1978) calls ‘antilanguage’, which is ‘typically used for contest and display’ and the speakers of which ‘are constantly striving to maintain a counter-reality that is under pressure from the established world’. And as a final and fitting comment on this section it can be added that ‘an anti-language may take into itself – may encode at the semantic level – structures and collocations that are self-consciously opposed to the norms of the established language’ (p.180).