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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What George S. Kaufman learned from the Marx Brothers

What better testimony to the enduring appeal of the snappish wit of George S. Kaufman than Dick Cavett closing not one but two posts in the past two months on The New York Times Opinionator blog with punchlines Kaufman delivered as a panelist on the 1950s television show This Is Show Business. From 1921 through 1958, Broadway audiences could depend on seeing something either written or directed by Kaufman. He wrote, or more often co-wrote, forty-five plays: twenty-six were hits, two won Pulitzer Prizes: Of Thee I Sing in 1931 and You Can’t Take It With You in 1937 (the film version of the latter also winning an Oscar for Best Picture in 1938).

For Kaufman, whose birthday is today, writing comedy was serious business. Biographer Scott Meredith describes him writing the first Marx Brothers musical The Cocoanuts in 1925:
If eating was an annoying interruption to him during leisure times, it often became an unbearable burden to be completely avoided during work periods. He much preferred to spend the time pacing the floors, lying prone on the carpets, picking up hundreds of pieces of lint, tying innumerable and permanent knots in window-curtain cords, and in general struggling over and perfecting every line and plot situation in the agonized way which once caused [Alexander] Woollcott to say about him, “In the throes of composition, he seems to crawl up the walls of the apartment in the manner of the late Count Dracula.”
Kaufman co-wrote another musical, Animal Crackers, for the Marx Brothers, and the screenplay for what many consider their best movie, A Night at the Opera. Kaufman’s painstaking approach to writing didn’t always mesh with the comedy team’s compulsive improvisation. As Kaufman summed it up: “The Cocoanuts introduced me to the Marx Brothers. The Cocoanuts was a comedy. The Marx Brothers are comics. But meeting them was a tragedy.”

Yet Kaufman came to respect their instincts and experience, as he explained in an address at Yale in 1939:
Morrie Ryskind and I learned a great lesson in the writing of stage comedy. We learned it from the Marx Brothers. We wrote two shows for them which, by the way, is two more than anybody should be asked to write. Looking back, it seems incredible that this was something we had not known before, but we hadn’t. We learned that when an audience does not laugh at a line at which they’re supposed to laugh, then the thing to do was to take out that line and get a funnier line. So help me, we didn’t know that before. I always thought it was the audience’s fault, or when the show got to New York they’d laugh.
Morton Eustis shows Kaufman applying that lesson that same year as he directs the rehearsals for the Broadway run of The Man Who Came to Dinner, the comedy Kaufman co-authored with Moss Hart. Eustis quotes Kaufman’s reaction after he and Hart have just run through a scene they rewrote moments before:
It’s amazing, you know. . . You think you have a script just as tight as possible. Then you get it on the stage and dead chunks appear all through it. When you get it in front of an audience, a whole new set of dead spots turn up. And three weeks after the New York opening you still find places you can cut.
Of related interest:
  • Edward Copeland’s recent celebration of A Night at the Opera
  • Yid with Lid’s tribute to Of Thee I Sing
  • Read more about George S. Kaufman at the website created by Laurence Maslon, editor of George S. Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies
  • George S. Kaufman as a panelist on This Is Show Business:

Related LOA works: George S. Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies; The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes Morton Eustis’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner with George Kaufman Directing”)

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