I believe in Zeppo Marx.
That’s not to say that there’s some movement of people who do not concede Zeppo’s existence. I’m not fending off a cult of Zeppo-atheists. No.
Nor am I here to praise Herbert Marx—Zeppo’s alter ego—someone whose true achievements have long been overlooked. Even though Herbert Marx—Zeppo’s alter ego—is someone whose true achievements have long been overlooked. A businessman and inventor with a fine singing voice who founded a corporation that helped build the Enola Gay, Zeppo either helped win World War II or usher in an era of nuclear terror, your choice. But that’s not my Zeppo.
I believe in a conceptual Zeppo, not a physical one, although I believe in that one too. I may have an unusual belief system, but I’m not crazy. I believe in the unnamable chemistry Zeppo represents: the guy on the edges of greatness, contributing in some way he doesn’t understand to something wonderful. Listen: the Marx Brothers were greater with Zeppo than without him. From The Cocoanuts to Duck Soup, the four brothers’ films traced an ascending arc of mayhem, madness, and comic genius.
Then, Zeppo left. And what happened? A descending spiral of diminishing returns, where one Zeppo-come-lately straight man after another replaces our hero: conventional comedies, conventional plots, conventional Hollywood happy endings. The genius of the Marx Brothers only bloomed with Zeppo, knocking Margaret Dumont on her assets. I’m not saying Zeppo did anything particularly well in these films. In fact, if there is some hidden treasure trove showcasing Zeppo’s latent talent, he would not be worth believing in.
The four Marx Brothers were the purest comedy team ever filmed. They helped no one, did no good, built nothing. They only tore down authority in escalating fits of comic rage. In The Cocoanuts they attack a Florida resort. In Monkey Business they turn a cruise ship upside down. In Duck Soup, they destroy two fictional European nations in a meaningless war. An early 30’s comedy about a senseless European war started by a tiny madman with a goofy mustache? Genius!
Comedy is a fragile, existential mystery. Why were the four brothers brilliant while the three brothers were only a hollow echo of greatness? Here is what I believe. Our lives contribute to greatness all around us, greatness of which we may be oblivious. When we exit stage right, we take the greatness with us. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” his poem of New York, Walt Whitman wrote about the “impalpable sustenance” we take from everything and everyone we pass in our daily wanderings. He knew that we are constructed every day anew by our social interactions whether we realize it or not. Perhaps on a stroll late in life, Walt passed a young immigrant couple pushing an infant Chico in his carriage: the Good Grey poet passing Minnie, Sam, and little Leonard in Manhattan. Probably not, but I like to think so, for Zeppo is “Mr. Impalpable Sustenance,” the patron saint of clueless contributors to the mystically hilarious. He says to us, like Whitman, “You furnish your parts toward eternity; / Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.” As its sole parishioner, I believe in the first church of Zeppo. I believe we matter—I believe we are all Captain Spalding, or at least his secretary. I believe in Zeppo.
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