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CSBG Archive

Comic Book Legends Revealed #200 – Part 1

This is the two-hundredth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous one-hundred and ninety-nine.

For our 200th installment of Comic Book Legends Revealed, there are so many legends that we’re going to need THREE installments for it! The special theme week is a walk through comic history, with legends from every decade from 1900 to 2009! Part One is up now, Part Two will be up Friday afternoon and Part Three will be up Friday night!

Let’s begin!

1900s

COMIC LEGEND: The Marx Brothers’ names were inspired by a comic strip.

STATUS: True

Charles Augustus “Gus” Mager was already beginning to make a living drawing cartoons for various Hearst papers when he came upon the idea that would eventually lead to a longstanding comic strip, but not before a number of changes.

After doing some funny animal drawings, the funny animals slowly turned into a series of funny “monks” (who all looked like anthropomorphic monkeys). Originally titled Knocko the Monk in 1904, Mager soon introduced various other monks, all with silly names, almost always ending in o.

Rhymo the Monk, Henpecko the Monk, Groucho the Monk…you get the idea.

Ultimately, he introduced a parody of Sherlock Holmes called Sherlocko the Monk (and his assistant Watso). This proved so popular that Mager gave them their own strip, Sherlocko the Monk.

However, to put into context how long ago this was, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive and he threatened to sue unless Mager changed the name of the strip.

He did, and Hawkshaw the Detective was born.

The strip continued until 1952 and Mager died in 1956.

That said, the issue here is the popularity of the Knocko series during the late 1900s, when the Marx Brothers were a burgeoning vaudeville act.

One night, while playing poker with the brothers, vaudeville monologist Art Fisher came up with “o” names for each of the brothers, based on various facets of their personality, Harpo (played the harp), Chicko (he got lots of “chicks”), Gummo (something to do with shoes) and Groucho (people aren’t actually sure exactly why he was called Groucho at the time). The names stuck, and the brothers soon became national stars.

What’s amazing to me is that this sounds like the type of story you’d have a lot of trouble verifying, except as it turns out, that night was amazingly reported on – pretty much every brother wrote about it in their biographies (all matching up) and Fisher recounted the story many times after the fact as well, and they all agreed with the basic premise, that Fisher named them after the Knocko comic strip one night while they all played poker.

Very cool.

1910s

COMIC LEGEND: Bringing Up Father had a character based on the creator of Dinty Moore beef stew.

STATUS: False

The basic concept behind George McManus’ popular strip, Bringing Up Father (known mostly as Maggie and Jiggs, after the main characters) is that an Irish guy from the streets named Jiggs comes into a whole lot of money. So now this guy without “refined” taste is now quite rich, but he refuses to give up his old haunts and habits (which does not please his wife, Maggie, who wants the social status being rich is supposed to give you). It’s a charming comic strip that lasted until 2000, a remarkably run for a comic.

It was popular enough to spawn about SIX film adaptations plus a radio show.

One of the major supporting characters in the comic is Dinty Moore, who runs the tavern that Jiggs hangs out at. The character of Dinty Moore likely WAS based on a real guy, but he was not named Dinty Moore, but rather James Moore.

Moore changed his name TO Dinty Moore, though, and soon opened up a chain of restaurants under that name.

That said, the famous beef stew has no connection to the comic strip or James “Dinty” Moore besides, as was the case with Skippy peanut butter, likely just an attempt in the 1930s to cash in on a popular name (back when trademark protection was much flimsier).

1920s

COMIC LEGEND: A comic strip indirectly led to the creation of Amos and Andy.

STATUS: True

I’ve featured Sidney Smith’s The Gumps in the column before (right here!). The Gumps was one of the first comic strips that was dedicated to “ordinary” folk, who Captain Joseph M. Patterson (publisher of the Chicago Tribune) felt would be a good market to aim a comic strip at, so he told Smith to do a strip about ordinary people (who Patterson referred to as “gumps”).

The strip became a massive, massive success.

Amusingly enough, though, the success of the Gumps led to the creation of ANOTHER great success starring “ordinary” people.

The Gumps were so popular that they starred in more than 50 animated shorts in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were working on staff at the radio station WGN in 1925 when a studio executive said that they should do a radio serial starring the Gumps, which was still a novelty at the time (a sitcom-like continuity narrative). Gosden and Correll thought it over and put together a pitch, but then decided that instead of doing a licensed product, they would adapt their radio drama about “normal” people into an ORIGINAL show. They first called it Sam ‘n’ Henry and after a year of that name in 1927-28, they renamed it Amos ‘n’ Andy in 1928, and, well, the rest is history…

But in case you’re not up with “history,” Amos ‘n’ Andy became one of the most successful radio series of all time, running nightly from 1928 until 1943, weekly until 1955 with a side project as a disc jockey-type show until 1960.

Of course, it also starred two white guys doing stereotypical humor about “ordinary” black people of the time, so there’s more than a little bit of blackface involved, but right or wrong, the show was a massive success (it even spawned a TV series in the 1950s, this time using actual black actors).

The Gumps eventually did make their way to radio for a four-year run in the 1930s.

Okay, that’s it for part one! Part two will be up Friday afternoon!

While you wait, feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is cronb01@aol.com.

And as you know by now, Plume Books (a division of Penguin Books) is publishing a collection of my Comic Book Legends Revealed columns (half expanded “best of”/half new stuff) and it is due out on April 28th.

Here is the cover by artist Mickey Duzyj. I think he did a very nice job (click to enlarge)…

If you’d like to pre-order it, you can use the following code if you’d like to send me a bit of a referral fee…

Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed

See you Friday afternoon!

67 Comments

cool about the Marx bros – but where did Zeppo come from? Maybe with “Z” in the name he was the youngest? The guy was miscast in pretty much every film, except for Animal Crackers. If he could have pulled it off he’d have been a good romantic lead in the pictures.

And Gummo never appeared on film, although he might have on stage. I think he was the business manager and did some costumes for the troupe, no?

Dang. Once again you put us all to shame. Well, me. Maybe not Other Greg, with his selfless devotion to making new cartoonists in this world. All I do is pick on Jeph Loeb. :(

Is it still called “blackface” if they’re doing a radio show and, presumably, aren’t made up? Can’t it just be called “racist”?

It seems like I read somewhere years ago that Fisher dubbed him “Groucho” because the notoriously tightfisted Marx brother carried his cash in a “grouch bag” instead of a wallet. But since I couldn’t tell you what a grouch bag is for the life of me, don’t hold me to that. You might contact Mark Evanier, Brian. If he doesn’t know, nobody does.

If I remember correctly what I’ve read, a ‘grouch bag’ was something that could be worn around the neck to keep valuables hidden within. The point was to make it more attached to your person and more difficult to steal. Groucho was known to be tightfisted and had such an item. I’ve also read that it was a comment on his personality, which might be why Brian refuses to get specific. :)

‘Gummo’ referred to the ‘gum’ soles on his shoes, like an early version of the sneaker.

‘Zeppo’ = zeppelin?

It’s early in the morning for me so I may be totally misremembering the info from all the Marx Brothers books I’ve read over the years.

And arguing about whether or not ‘Amos and Andy’ was racist or not might take forever…

I would hesitate to equate blackface to racism. Racism is negative action against another based on the person’s ethnicity. Blackface is simply imitation without malice. It’s the same thing with Hollywood using white actors with heavy makeup as American Indians. Not racism, just a film portrayal.

Now, that’s not to say that there weren’t stereotypes included, which may not be appropriate. The difference wholly lies with intent.

Consider too the period in which the blackface was performed. In 2009 it would be considered extremely insulting and degrading to do blackface. 70+ years ago, it wasn’t at all, nor was the intent. It’s all too easy to apply current standards and thinking to the mindset & society of yesteryear.

I decided against posting it, Greg, because, well, it was blackface and I didn’t feel like posting blackface, donchaknow, but there WAS blackface involved in ads, promos, etc.

On page 130 in his autobiography, HARPO SPEAKS, Harpo claims that Zeppo was originally “Zippo” because of his athleticism (as “Zippy the chimp” did in a noted act of the day). It was eventually altered to “Zeppo”.

And, yes, Gummo was based on the “gumshoes” he wore–rubber-soled shoe and/or galoshes.

Gummo was one of the original three performing brothers and was in the Vaudeville act, but he quit the stage after being drafted during World War I. After the war he did not return to the act because he claimed he did not enjoy being on the stage (their mother initially forced the boys into performing so that they could follow in her brother’s footsteps on Vaudeville).

Gummo’s grandson was one of the kids in the Bad News Bears. He looks like Harpo though.

Some of the family’s stories are altered though. In one TV interview, Chico said Zeppo got his nickname because as a child he was fascinated by zeppelins (much younger, Zeppo was still a pre-teen when the brothers were starting in vaudeville). I don’t know if Chico’s memory was faulty however.

I had no intention of hijacking the thread, so forgive me if I started it. If they were in blackface for ads and such, that’s fine. If we can call the style of performance where white men pretend to be black men, even if they’re on the radio, “blackface,” that’s fine too. Sorry I was so harsh by calling it racist. I certainly think we can judge people in the past with our standards, as we do it all the time (and future generations will do it to us), but “racist” was probably a bit harsh.

Andy (or Amos?) looks like Dwight Eisenhower…

You might be interested that there were two Amos ‘N Andy cartoons in the 1930s, I picked them up on a public domain VHS in the early 90s. Wild!

All I do is pick on Jeph Loeb.

Never apologize for picking on Jeph Loeb.

Also, blackface IS racist. The goal is to make the black person as pitch black in skin tone as possibe with a HUGE white mouth. It would be the equivelant of putting on a giant hook nose each time someone playing a Jew. Even actual black performers who were lighter skinned had to put on black face on the vaudeville circuit for not being sufficiently stereotypically black enough. I’m not overly sensitive to it and understand it wthin the context of its time but I won’t go so far as to say it wasn’t racist.

Michael Mayket

March 27, 2009 at 9:46 am

I’d probably be more impressed by Bringing Up Father’s “remarkably run for a comic” if you gave a start date to contrast the end date provided. (Yes, I know I could just go to Google to find out… I’m just sayin’).

So, why do all DC villains end with O, like the Marx Brothers? Homage to a homage?

I’ll step in and say that blackface was racist. It definitely wasn’t generally done to make African Americans look good, or to portray people fairly, at all. The point was to show the “stupid black people” and laugh at them, and this was done for public audiences. That’s pretty clearly racism, IMO.

If you want to say that the people who did blackface acts weren’t necessarily racists, but were affected by societal racism, that’s fine, but let’s not pretend that current standards are just subjective rules. Making fun of other races, particularly races that have been systematically oppressed for centuries and then fought at every turn through fear and violence when they want such things as the ability to walk into a store, has always been wrong. It’s not wrong because society says so, but because the people who are being mocked are still people, and as such have inherent dignity as people. It was just as wrong in 1920 as it is today… thankfully society has taken a few steps forward since then, and of course people who took place in it at the time may have been going with the flow instead of intentionally malicious, but the indecency of the act hasn’t changed at all.

The other Mike is correct. Of course blackface is racist because the entire point is, “Ha ha black people are stupid!”

Also, while understanding historical perspectives is certainly useful, of course, we can, and should, judge despicable acts as despicable regardless of societal mores of the period in question. The Inquisition, lynch mobs, Salem Witch Trails, McCarthyism… all these things are terrible, and should be judged as terrible irrespective of the prevailing culture of the time.

This thread is never going to recover from this… bring on Part 2!

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

March 27, 2009 at 10:22 am

Zeppo’s shtick was that he was a parody of he stock leading man in the musicals and so forth that the earlier Marx Bros. films spoofed. He’s meant to be sort of stiff and shallow; in the context of other films of the 1930s, the parody was a bit more obvious. Post-”New Hollywood,” though, we don’t think so much about the lingering declamatory tradition — think of the stereotype of hamming it up in Shakespeare — as an influence on lead actors in those olden days.

Congrats on the giant-sized 200TH issue anniversary!

Oh yeah. Now I feel like a jerk.

Congrats Brian on 200 weeks!

This is the feature that first brought me to Comics Should Be Good and has kept me coming back for like the 191 or so weeks since (I’ve found other things to do here as well). I, also, cannot wait (but will) until Amazon ships my book version.

Tom Fitzpatrick

March 27, 2009 at 10:42 am

Just to think: I’ve lived long enough to see the 200th installment of Com-bo legends Revealed.

Let’s hope for another 2000, 200-ish. ;-)

Congrats.

Some of the family’s stories are altered though. In one TV interview, Chico said Zeppo got his nickname because as a child he was fascinated by zeppelins (much younger, Zeppo was still a pre-teen when the brothers were starting in vaudeville). I don’t know if Chico’s memory was faulty however.

Oh, yeah, that’s why I am so amazed that the initial story was verified by so many people the exact same way, because when it came to LATER stuff, like why Zeppo was called Zeppo (or even why Gummo or Groucho were specifically called Gummo and Groucho), people are all over the place – but on the whole “Fisher named them based on Knocko the Monk,” everyone is in agreement,

“Just to think: I’ve lived long enough to see the 200th installment of Com-bo legends Revealed.”

Combo? There’s a Marx Brother that’s new to me…

I’d probably be more impressed by Bringing Up Father’s “remarkably run for a comic” if you gave a start date to contrast the end date provided. (Yes, I know I could just go to Google to find out… I’m just sayin’).

Fair enough! I thought putting it in the 1910s category would be enough for the context, but it’s fair to say I should have been more specific!

Ha Ha. I iz dum!

I read the part at the top about one legend per decade, but then I promptly forgot all about it even with 1910s in bold and stuff.

Wow. I was never here and if you claim I was I will deny it!

To give a little bit of history on blackface. During the beginning of the 1800′s a stock (stereotypical) character began appearing in newspapers based on the influx of foreigners. I believe the characters name was Hans Bratwurst or Hans Wurst. He was kind of loveable from what i understand, but always into trouble. Kind of like a stupid/clumsy dennis the mennis. This character appeared in theatre skits (vaudeville) and as comic relief in more major theatre shows. Sometimes his name was hans and sometimes the character’s name or nationality was changed to reflect the latest trend.

Eventually this changing of nationality eventually ended in blackface with white actors portraying stock black characters. General story lines involved:
Black characters being lazy and not wanting to work
Black characters stealing from white people
Black characters love for watermelon and chicken
And their love of music — especially ragtime which at the time was considered a scandalous style

clearly racist.

200th issue? Where’s the BOLD. NEW. DIRECTION.? Where’s the foil cover? Where’s the variants drawn by Ed Benes, John Romita Jr, and Tony Daniel?

Come on man, get with it!!

I’ve read (I don’t recall whether it was in Harpo’s autobiography or one of Groucho’s) that Gummo was often in poor health, and at his mother’s urging always wore rubbers over his shoes. Hence the name. Gummo left the act to serve in WWI and never returned. It was Zeppo, rather than Gummo, who became a theater and movie agent after leaving the act.

The picture above depicts (left to right) Harpo, Groucho and Gummo. Chicko (original spelling) was working as an itinerant piano player at the time, and joined the act shortly after. Groucho, interestingly, is shown wearing his false mustache, while Harpo is not wearing his red wig.

…And since nobody else is saying it:

Congrats on 200 Legends!

I love the theme, Brian. Good job, and thank you for 200 weeks of info and entertainment.

Now go wash your face. :D

Haven’t even read this yet, but wanted to say…
200 is a great accomplishment!! Congrats!

My college roommate collected tapes of old radio shows. I had no problem with The Shadow or Fibber McGee & Molly (well, not too big a problem, but he put up with me listening to bands with names like Toxic Narcotic and Scissorfight, so I can’t complain too much), but couldn’t stand Amos & Andy. I can’t see how it wouldn’t come off as racist (and “accepted at the time” does not equal “not racist”).

Congratulations on 200 installments, Brian!

BRINGING UP FATHER began on January 12, 1913 and ended on May 28, 2000.

According to ‘An Evening With Groucho’, which oddly enough I just downloaded and listened to yesterday:

- Zeppo was born when the zeppelin arrived in Lakehurst NJ (“He had nothing to do with the arrival.”)
- Gummo had been given a pair of “rubbers” / gumshoes.

“Also, blackface IS racist. The goal is to make the black person as pitch black in skin tone as possibe with a HUGE white mouth. It would be the equivelant of putting on a giant hook nose each time someone playing a Jew. Even actual black performers who were lighter skinned had to put on black face on the vaudeville circuit for not being sufficiently stereotypically black enough. I’m not overly sensitive to it and understand it wthin the context of its time but I won’t go so far as to say it wasn’t racist.”

…Except that the content of the shows themselves, despite being stereotyped, *never* portrayed black folks as anything other than upstanding, intelligent and contributing members to their community. Even Andy, for all his ignorance and gullibility, was one of the kindest, warmest-hearted characters ever presented in entertainment. The clip of him discussing Chrisnukkah with his daughter is on YouTube, and is a real heartwarmer.

…No, what the big stink regarding Amos & Andy had to do primarily with one character, and one character in particular. One George “Kingfish” Stevens, head of the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge, and professional layabout and scam artist. What civil rights leaders and the NAACP took exception to publically was that it presented a black man in a lead role whose character was totally shiftless and had no redeeming qualities that one could use as a role model. Nevermind the fact that, as art imitates life, there were quite a few people in the world who were just as shifty as Kingfish regardless of their race, creed or color, the standing order for the Civil Rights movement at the time was *never* tolerate a black person being portrayed as anything other than perfect so that they could enforce the myth that stereotypes are based on fiction and not fact.

Here’s a thought excercise: take an episode of Amos & Andy – there’s bootlegs all over the torrents – sit down, and watch it all the way through just once. Now, watch it again, but pretend that all the characters are white folks. Just to make it easy, pretend these are *Southern* white folks. You’ll find that regardless of skin color, the jokes still fit 100%, and were clearly *never* based on racism.

Take it one step further; use the script, totally unchanged, and replace all the characters with The Beaver, Wally, Lumpy and Eddie Haskell. You’ll find they still work.

…One side note I forgot to add is a story I heard Redd Foxx tell in an intervew not too long before his far-too-early passing: As he and other black entertainers of the day who loved the show heard it, Gosden & Corell initially responded to NAACP criticsm over Amos & Andy in the 1950′s by stressing the fact that every scheme Kingfish tried to pull wound up sinking his boat rather than keeping it afloat. He *never* won. The NAACP responded that they had an issue with this because Kingfish was portrayed as a failure, and that he should be shown as a success. Gosden reportedly responded “So, you *want* Kingfish to get away with his scams? How is *that* a positive role model?” The NAACP never addreessed this, only to demand that the show be yanked off the air.

To actually answer Greg Burgas’ question, it probably shouldn’t be referred to as Blackface if they were on the radio, not made up. the more correct phraseology would be “mnstrel show humor” which is what most performers wearing Blackface did.

Of course a lot of the bigger early radio shows were performed in front of a studio audience, complete with costumes, so they may have actually been in blackface.

When I was growing up in the 1960′s the Syracuse Herald-American carried the Bringing Up Father strip. I being a youngling, never really caught on to the strip’s premise, instead thinking of them as Mr. and Mrs. Poodle-Doggie. As in, Mr. Poodle-Doggie is gonna get in trouble for having corned beef and cabbage?
Nevertheless, it was an entertaining strip (Maggie’s hands-out brother Bimmy was kind of a favorite) and all, it’s just that as an Irish kid in an Irish neighborhood (they have a green light over the red – see my website for details) it just seemed like normal carryings on. Not until later did I realize the strip’s premise.

Bryan Grantham

March 27, 2009 at 2:23 pm

RE: Mike Blake:

“Just to think: I’ve lived long enough to see the 200th installment of Com-bo legends Revealed.”

Combo? There’s a Marx Brother that’s new to me…

Mike: Combo was actually the youngest of the Minnie Marx’s kids; she was so named because, although female, she had the remarkable ability to imitate the looks and/or talents of any of her older brothers. However, jealousy on the part of the Marx Bros. caused her to always be in the background, and she went on to an unknown career as an accountant…..

This info can be found on Fabricated Legends Revealed, of which this is the first installment…

What your referring to OM isn’t the only example of “a minstrel show”. There were many and only during the end of the Minstrel shows lifespan did black men and women get to play the characters.

For a large part of the history of it white actors were portraying black men and women as a stereotyped baffoon and were often very biting in their racism. Part of the reason why minstrel shows ended was because of black men and women were achieving social and legal victories in the world of entertainment and life in general.

Sure if the beaver did that sketch it wouldn’t be racist. but if the beaver was black it would be. The reasoning behind it is that the white version of the beaver did not grow up with the racism, ridicule and stereotyping that the black beaver did. So when the white beaver its a watermelon and says something to the effect of “them’s good eats” its no big deal. But when an actor (white or black) is painted in black face and says “them’s good eats” when eating a watermelon then and only then it becomes racist.

because it is.

Michael Mayket

March 27, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Jason –

It’s not worth your time trying to argue, or even just have a reasonable discussion, with OM… especially where race is concerned. He’ll just come back with some straw man like in his above comments where he quotes a post that is clearly about the subject of blackface and doesn’t even mention Amos and Andy, but completely ignores the substance so he can rant about the NAACP.

If you really want to have some fun one day ask him how he feels about the Jason Rusch Firestorm.

From Ricardo:

“So, why do all DC villains end with O, like the Marx Brothers? Homage to a homage?”

Uh, yeah, right. I mena, there’s Luthoro, Jokero, Cheetah-o, Sivan-o, Dr. Polaris-o, Captain Boomerang-o, the Top-o, Mirror Mastero, Weather Wizardo, Two-face-o, Poison Ivy-o, Brainiaco, Zod-o, Riddler-o, Merlyno, Deathstroke-o, Jade-o/Cheshire-o, Lady Shivo, Black Hando, Darkseido, Groddo, Multiplexo, Gentleman Ghosto, Iciclo, Solomon Grundo, Prometheus-o, Killer Crocko, Doctor Cybero, Egg-Fuo, Black Manta-o, Black Adamo, Copperheado, Bolt-o, Vandal Savago, Per Degatono, Parallaxo, Extanto, Wotano….

All right, I could come up with a few: Sinestro, on a technicality Scarecrow, Bizarro, Kanjar Ro, Jericho.

Maybe you meant the Super-Pets? Krypto and Beppo (but not Streaky, Comet, or Proty); there’s Titano as well. That’s a bit higher concentration….

Gosden and Correll did an Amos and Andy movie (“Check and Double Check”) in blackface.

The Amos and Andy radio show sometimes featured some black actors… who occasionally also played white roles on the show.

A&A were, I think, far better role models than the leads in most black comedies, even today. If the show had been created by and starred black actors, but was otherwise the same, I’m sure it would be held up today as a positive example.

Michael Mayket quiffed:

“It’s not worth your time trying to argue, or even just have a reasonable discussion, with OM… especially where race is concerned. He’ll just come back with some straw man like in his above comments where he quotes a post that is clearly about the subject of blackface and doesn’t even mention Amos and Andy, but completely ignores the substance so he can rant about the NAACP.

…I love it. Rather than discuss the facts I raise, you jump in with a personal attack. I suppose “go fuck yourself” is an apropos response in this case, using language more apropos for your lack of intelligenve. After all, you’ve ignored the points made just to jump in and make a personal attack on me. How does that make you “better” than me?

It doesn’t. So again, “go fuck yourself”.

“If you really want to have some fun one day ask him how he feels about the Jason Rusch Firestorm.”

…You mean Thugstorm? I didn’t like and still don’t like the character because it took a drug thug and shoehorned him into Ronnie Raymond’s role. Note that if it were such a ‘good” deal, then why isn’t that particular book being published?

Jason, on the other hand, was a quite a bit more intelligent with his reply:

“What your referring to OM isn’t the only example of “a minstrel show”. There were many and only during the end of the Minstrel shows lifespan did black men and women get to play the characters.

For a large part of the history of it white actors were portraying black men and women as a stereotyped baffoon and were often very biting in their racism. Part of the reason why minstrel shows ended was because of black men and women were achieving social and legal victories in the world of entertainment and life in general.

Sure if the beaver did that sketch it wouldn’t be racist. but if the beaver was black it would be. The reasoning behind it is that the white version of the beaver did not grow up with the racism, ridicule and stereotyping that the black beaver did. So when the white beaver its a watermelon and says something to the effect of “them’s good eats” its no big deal. But when an actor (white or black) is painted in black face and says “them’s good eats” when eating a watermelon then and only then it becomes racist.

…In order:

1) Correct.

2) Correct again. However, by the time Amos & Andy hit TV, much of what little racism could be argued had been weeded out. If any

3) And therein lies the problem. What you describe is a double-standard that is racist no matter which side of the “color barrier”you’re on. By saying it’s *not* racist for a white guy to eat a watermelon you’re automatically claiming that it’s racist *for* a black guy to be seen digging into one. Same thing goes for fried chicken, hamhocks and black eyed rice. Sorry, but I’ve got quite a few black friends – and a late relative – who’d have a few choice words to say to someone that they couldn’t enjoy those consumables on the grounds that they were black and the foods were racist.

Bottom Line: Kids, think before you knee-jerk on this topic. Especially if you’ve never seen one episode of Amos & Andy on TV. Do a bit of research before you decide you’re going to stand up and cry “RACIST!”, just so you’ll save yourself from sticking your foot in your mouth.

I’ve never bought the “Grouch bag” argument in regards to Groucho’s moniker.
I’ve always heard Groucho lived up to his name in regards to his grouchiness and the “Grouch bag” story has always been an excuse to save face.

I don’t buy it.
I love the idea that Julius Marx’s itinerant nature gave him one of the most famous names in show business.

Lets kill the trolling here. Whether it is intentional or not.
I for one am looking forward to Part 2 and 3.

“I’ve never bought the “Grouch bag” argument in regards to Groucho’s moniker.”

…Nor have I ever heard the term before today. In fact, I called one of my Jewish friends who I know actually carries one of these around his neck, and he’d never heard of the term. He always called it what his grandfather – a Rabbi – called it: a geltbag.

Happy 200-versary!

And don’t forget the youngest of the Marx brothers, who wore black face. His name was Sambo.

I’ve seen a publicity shot of the Marx brothers sitting in folding chairs on the set of one of their movies. Each chair had the brother’s name and a symbol on the back. Harpo had a harp, Chico had a chick and Zeppo had a zeppelin so the nickname was certainly linked to zeppelins by the time they were making movies, even if that wasn’t were it came from originally.

[...] theme week is a walk through comic history, with legends from every decade from 1900 to 2009! Part one is up already, Part two is up now and Part three will be up Friday [...]

Congrats on 200 legends! I’m one of many people who originally found this site thanks to this column, and have been a daily visitor ever since. And I’ve got the book on pre-order. Keep up the great work.

Zeppo Marx got his name because he was a huge racist that hated Dinty Moore stew. At least that’s what I heard.

Citizen Scribbler

March 28, 2009 at 8:02 am

Despero, Amazo and Bizzaro were three of the less sucessful Marx Brothers.

Happy 200th! I’ve been loving these.

And remember that, regardless of one’s beliefs about racial issues in entertainment, everyone here agrees that no one is inherently inferior to another person by virtue of the color of their skin or racial identity. The fact of this genuine equality amongst us is a very positive testament in itself.

-Citizen Scribbler

A similar urban legend I heard is that DEADWOOD used a term from THE BUNGLE FAMILY — decades before it was actually coined!

DEADWOOD had a running thing where Al Swearengen referred to the townsfolk as “Hoople-Heads.” Creator David Milch said he just used “Hoople” as an all-purpose term to describe a stupid person.

However, some Googling I did a whlie back turned up that the word “Hoople” came from THE BUNGLE FAMILY, which had an idiotic character named “Major Hoople.” “Hoople” became associated with stupidity, and Milch picked this up for DEADWOOD…though THE BUNGLE FAMILY would not have been around in those days.

Curious as to whether this rumor is real. Any chance you’ll cover it?

Congrats, Brian! Like many other folks, this feature was how I found the blog.

“And don’t forget the youngest of the Marx brothers, who wore black face. His name was Sambo.”

…Careful. Michael Mayket will brand you a racist and a bigot for a statement like that.

:-P

Chapelle said it best in his skit the N* word family, “This racism is killin me”

SImply put Racism is a prejudiced attitude that would not be acted upon inside the company of said group being prejudiced, lampooned or stereotyped.

Let’s Say someone loves blackface, if they are so sure this form of entertainment *COFF* was not racist they would evoke this performance before a crowd of minorities without guards or police escort.

I submit that more than likely such a person would not perform said act. This to me indicates racist intent.

Using Segregated norms of the past is not a justification. In the past Minorities could not eat, drink or sleep where they chose..and somehow..there are those that believe entertainment was untainted by biases.

Thats funnier than any Amos or Andy skit.

“Michael Mayket will brand you a racist and a bigot for a statement like that.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but the joke was clearly in poor taste. As was your using profanity in a public forum twice.

Oh please, as if a few ‘dirty’ words are going to hurt your virgin eyes.

How about sticking to the topic and not attacking grammar, syntax or choice of phrase?

ParanoidObsessive

March 29, 2009 at 10:55 am

“If you want to say that the people who did blackface acts weren’t necessarily racists, but were affected by societal racism, that’s fine”

Honestly, I’d say this is probably the most important point made in this conversation, and the main point that the “that’s so racist”/”that’s not racist at all” dichotomy hinges on.

Like it or not, people are the product of their times and experiences, and their responses, statements, and actions are by necessity going to be shaped by the time period they live in. It’s worth noting that some of the most radical abolitionists from 200 years ago would likely come across as quite racist from a modern perspective – though for their time, they were incredibly progressive. It’s unfair to expect people to live up to OUR standards, when they had already far surpassed the standards of their own time in ways most of us TODAY will never manage to do with our own standards.

In that sense, Amos and Andy could easily be both racist AND not racist – attempting to present a more positive view (for the time) of the subject matter, while also being shaped by the negative views implicitly accepted by society (at the time).

“Also, while understanding historical perspectives is certainly useful, of course, we can, and should, judge despicable acts as despicable regardless of societal mores of the period in question. The Inquisition, lynch mobs, Salem Witch Trails, McCarthyism… all these things are terrible, and should be judged as terrible irrespective of the prevailing culture of the time.”

The problem begins when you judge the individual for the acts of the culture, though. Unless you’ve lived through it, it’s hard to understand the prevailing mentality and culture of the age, to know just what sort of situational ethics and responses were in play. To grab one of your examples, it’s difficult for people who weren’t raised under the shadow of “the Communist threat” or the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation to understand the thought processes of people during that time period. Sure, we can say McCarthyism is wrong – but to condemn individuals for the phenomenon is too simplistic.

To extend the metaphor (at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law), the Holocaust was terrible. It would be terrible even if the mentality of the time in WWII Germany didn’t see it as terrible. The various social factors and cultural elements that made it possible aren’t really justifications for it. But at the same time, it would be somewhat facile to simply assume that every German citizen in the 30′s and 40′s was a callous monster who are directly responsible for everything that happened, and should be judged as such.

It’s easy for people who’ve never really had to deal with massive societal change, and who were likely raised in more progressive times, to sit behind the security of a computer monitor and render judgment onto every aspect of the past. It’s incredibly egotistical, ethnocentric, and pompous to do so, though. Especially if one isn’t considering the actual socio-political factors involved and trying to understand based on the time period rather than simply assuming that all of human history should be judged against the ethics of the 21st century.

To bring it back around to where we started, if you’re going to judge the racist attitudes of someone from an earlier time, it helps to compare their attitude to the prevailing attitude of the time period. Sure, they may seem racist to us NOW – but if they were far less racist than anyone else of their time, then they were doing an admirable job of thinking for themselves and seeking to overcome a societal wrong, and shouldn’t be condemned for it because we think they didn’t come far enough.

no disrespect to Mark Enavier, but i disagree that if he doesn’t know, nobody knows. you see- nobody knows for SURE. i’ve spent time talking to Bill Marx (Harpo’s son) and Irving Brecher (a writer of a few Marx Bros. films and creator of The Life of Reily show), and, along with Jack Benny, i consider myself somewhat of a Marx Bros historian, having read too many books, both in-print, and out of print, about them. And one thing that adds up is even Groucho, in his later days, gives conflicting reports. Zeppo could either be because he was born when the first Zeppelin made a flight (according the Groucho in the 70s), because there was a circus freak called Zippo (according to varied sources), or, according to Chico’s daughter, when the Brothers had a farm during World War I, Zeppo said “hiya Zeke” to Chico, who replied “hiya, Zep!” and thats how it happened.

we will never know the REAL reasons, but thats part of the magic of it. I’ve heard it was the comic strip, a grouch bag, even “because of his disposition”- who knows? But anything Mark Evanier can tell me about the Ritz Brothers, i’d be very grateful.

Yeah, that’s basically my take on it as well, William. There just isn’t enough out there to say definitively for Groucho and Zeppo.

Paranoid: Good post. To sum it up as people in the pysch dodge do::Groups are more powerful than individuals, group conscience almost always trumps individual conscience, and individuals within groups can be made to do things they wouldn’t normally consider “in their character”- especially when a strong authority leads them.. Which is why people like (to name a few) Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oskar Schindler, Irena Gut, and Edward R. Murrow are so honored, and honorable. Non-conformists are rare, and tend to be the only ones whose innate morality enables them to fight against the tide.

As for the Marxes- While we’re agreed that, beyond Chico and Harpo’s obvious names, the origins of the other Marx’s names gets fuzzier, it should be noted that Groucho himself disputed that he was named for a “grouch bag,” in some cases denying he ever even wore one. In one of Groucho’s later statements, he acknowledged he got the nickname because “he was the moody one.” And even Evanier points out that, well-loved as Groucho was, he couldn’t really be considered a “nice” person. As for Zeppo, it’s important to note that he was not named at Art Fisher’s card game- he wasn’t there. Since he joined the act late, the likeliest explanation for his name is just that they needed to come up with something, and it didn’t have to match any particular aspect of his person. It seems likely that Groucho’s zeppelin explanation ISN’T true, though- Groucho claimed he was named after zeppelins because he was born when they ‘started crossing the ocean.” Which would have been remarkable except for the fact that zeppelins weren’t being used to cross oceans until Zeppo was in his twenties.

Oh, and one thing more. Thank you, Om, for “consulting your Jewish friend” about grouch bags. Please feel free to :”check with your Asian friend” next time there’s a math problem that needs to be solved, or with your (far more likely) “redneck friend” the next time another asinine stereotype needs to be casually trotted out.

Sorry to be late to the party, but I’ve only recently discovered this site. This has been a great discussion regarding racism and perceived racism, but a major piece is missing. The Marx Bros. and Bringing Up Father, like Amos ‘n’ Andy, owe their success to racial showbiz shortcuts! Chico character was an Italian. A stereotype Italian dialect character straight out of vaudeville. He did that character for over thirty years. Jiggs, Dinty Moore and co. were Irish shorthand stereotypes of the era. So was Harpo’s character initially. Groucho has described it as a “Patsy Brannigan” character. In the School Days act Groucho did a Dutch or German dialect. This is the context to appreciate what Gosdin and Correll did with Amos ‘n’ Andy. Like Chico Marx, they creates amazingly successful characters using dialect humor. No room to discuss Fr. Guido Sarducci, Borat, or Lucky Charms.

I read somewhere that Frank McManus used his comic strip to illegally dispence stock market tips during its heyday through a cunningly concealed secret code.

Amos and Andy were also inspired by the musical “Shuffling Along” by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
I know I’m late on this one but wearing black face is as racist as the names used for Chico Marx’s character in various shows at the times.
There is no other way around it.

Chris; the Jewish friend is the one who had the bag.

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