R K Narayan, a pre-eminent author who wrote in English, could be described as a humorous writer but this was a mantle he wore with trepidation. He was well aware that funny writers don’t necessarily make for funny people. A fan who met him could be the type to hang upon his every word with wide eyes and an anticipatory grin, ready to convulse with laughter at the slightest word the author utters. More likely, an astute fan would come away disappointed, thinking, “Is it really him that writes all that funny stuff?” Even P GWodehouse was pleasant enough in company, but people who met him or saw him appear on TV were disheartened to note that this ‘tottering septuagenarian’ was no ‘chuckling Cheerybyle’.
Most authors of humorous prose and verse fall into this category. Left to themselves and their keyboards they work extremely hard at witty constructions and turns of phrase but are at a loss to deliver the goods extempore.
There is one majestic exception to this rule – Groucho Marx. His is a peculiar case: during his earliest days on cheap vaudeville stages he specialised in uttering a variety of non sequiturs, atrocious puns and subverted phrases that were mostly the work of professional writers who kept his image in mind. This trend extended into the phase when he and his brothers became movie stars, with Groucho contributing his bit or trying to ad lib on the original script.
Before long he was inseparable from this image, especially when he turned his talents to writing. He reached a stage when he was never ‘out of character’: interviewers describe his contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin or Stan Laurel as being polite and respectful, but never funny in real life; Groucho simply was.
Websites abound with Grouchoisms and in later life he only seems to have bettered his past work. Bemoaning the diet his doctor had enforced, he said “One swallow does not a supper make”. When Warner Bros threatened to sue him for using the word ‘Casablanca’ in the movie A Night in Casablanca, his response is legendary: he threatened to counter-sue them for using the word ‘Brothers’, because he (along with Chico, Harpo and Zeppo) were the Marx Bros before they were the Warner Bros!