Modern comedians of all kinds, stand-up, sitcom, sketch, film and stage, look on the Marx Brothers with awe at how brilliant they were at every aspect of comedy. They grew as vaudeville performers, and although they couldn’t tapdance, they could certainly do everything else, and this lister means EVERYTHING.
Harpo played the harp better than most professionals, and he taught himself by ear. His form was all wrong, but professionals came to him for instruction on how to play like him.
Groucho was a fine singer, and usually sent himself up as a horrible singer.
Chico could play the piano effortlessly, and was loved for his “shooting the keys” manner of playing, seen in A Night at the Opera, among others.
Groucho’s one-liners and insults run throughout all their films and are still the stuff of legend. His greasepaint eyebrows and mustache are part of the classic Halloween, or gag glasses, with huge nose, that kids like to wear, or cartoons use to hide identities.
Harpo’s voice was a rich baritone, and too low for his clownish persona, so he elected never to speak, except a few times at ceremonies, and on a talk show in the 1970s. This was one of his finest jokes, since he was begged to finally say something, and once he got going, the talk show host could not shut him up for a good 15 minutes.
Chico’s name should be pronounced “Chick-O” not “Cheek-O,” because he was the brother all the chicks were after (according to him). He was also a gamblaholic, and they made some of their films just to pay off his debts.
According to the late, great George Carlin, Groucho Marx told by far the funniest “Aristocrats” joke in history. It’s a notoriously dirty joke told from the turn of the century, by comedians who ad-lib the nastiest filth they can think of, and then end with the stupid punch-line “The Aristocrats!” Groucho didn’t care for dirty jokes, preferring clean jokes, in which more art is required to get a laugh. When asked about his version of it, he replied, “Well, bestiality’s not all that dirty.”
Their performances in A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup are their finest efforts. The former includes the famous stateroom scene, the complete destruction of a production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and “The First Party of the First Part” sequence between Groucho and Chico.
The latter includes their legendary mirror scene, the lemonade stand, their combat spoof (Groucho wears an American Civil War hat, then a coonskin cap, then a Napoleon hat, etc.) and their parody of Paul Revere’s Ride.
They used a running joke throughout their films involving their meager accommodations growing up. Whenever they spot food in a film, they dash madly around the set, getting to the table, where they devour everything in sight, even their clothing.
Martin and Lewis
Martin was the straight man to Lewis’s utmost in zaniness. From 1946 to 1956, they were the pinnacle of the comedy world in Hollywood, performing around the country and in films. Martin was one of the finest crooners in history, but Lewis could belt out a song when he wanted. They could do it all, sing, dance, slapstick, vaudeville jokes, stand-up, and outstanding ad-lib segments. Their patented sketch was a Martin crooner, into which Lewis would walk with a silly face, and continue to interrupt him while he sang.
Laurel and Hardy
Well known to film buffs today as a duo of true friends. They were vaudevillians, in countless silent films together and separate, before teaming up in 1927, and remained together until Hardy’s death in 1957, appearing in a lot of films. By the 1950s, their healths were declining rapidly, and they no longer looked like their old selves.
They were masters of slapstick, and an interesting idea that Laurel called “white magic.” A good example is in the film Way Out West, from 1937, one of their most famous, in which Laurel (the thin one) makes a fist, pours tobacco into it, flicks up his thumb and lights it, then blows real smoke out of his fist. Hardy proceeds to try duplicating it throughout the film, getting it right at the end, and freaking out about burning his thumb. They also have a famous soft-shoe dance number in this film.
Abbott and Costello
Bud Abbott played the straight man to Lou Costello, and even if they had only done one routine during their entire career, “Who’s on First?” would net them the #6 spot. They had already rehearsed it to perfection, but had not had a chance to perform it on stage.
The first televised performance of it was at the Steel Pier, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They had a few sheets of material written by someone else, and they didn’t think much of it, so Abbot asked Costello, “You wanna do Baseball?” “Yeah, let’s do it.” And they walked out and made history.
It had been many times since before the radio days of burlesque vaudeville, with the simple gag of Who and What being proper nouns. Abbott and Costello were the first to hone it into its modern form of a baseball team’s names. They copyrighted it, and performed it several times in different films. None of this mentions the host of other outstanding performances to their credit.