Vo­cab

Friday - - Mind Games -

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!

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