Here's one of my all-time favorite Marx Bros. moments—maybe one of my favorite comedy moments, period:
Joke sort of ruined by the image and the title, but whatevs.
My erst' girlfriend was in comedy and had no experience with the Marx Bros.—as with many people of my generation, the general sense she had was that they were sort of lame and not funny. The reason I bring this up is that something I've learned is that if you want to convince somebody that the Marx Bros. are funny, you basically have to show them Harpo.
Groucho at his best is probably the best of the bunch—I think that's probably true. But the big liability of Groucho is that he's so verbal, which means that a lot of what he says has a shelf-life. One thing I liked in the first season of True Blood was when Sookie raised an eyebrow at the name "Fangtasia" and Bill said something like, "You have to understand that vampires are very old. At one time, puns were considered the height of humor." The sad truth is that any verbal humor has a high risk of losing its bite as time goes by. I don't mean comedy writing in general: I mean verbal wit. Anything verbally hilarious to us today will probably seem unbearably corny to our grandchildren. (Is that true? I think it might be true.) At any rate, Groucho represents a highly concentrated dose of 1930s comedy writing, and I feel like 75% of what he says in these movies is therefore "groaner" material. Take a look at this:
The funniest stuff, I'd argue, is Groucho's delivery. So, for example, one minute in, it's the second "You were close, though" that tickles me. Do you understand what I'm saying? In terms of verbal humor, like content, the part about "You certainly know a question when you see one" (1:04–1:16) is reasonably funny, but so much of it is Groucho standing up and shaking the guy's hand. My very favorite part of this clip—the reason I sought it out on YouTube—is from 1:40–1:48:
GROUCHO: Art. Well, I don't know how we drifted around to that, but what is your opinion of art?
CHANDLER: I am very glad you asked me! I—
GROUCHO: I withdraw the question!
That I think is hilarious, but it's a rare example of Marxist repartee that doesn't strike me as the least bit stale ("Well, you go Uruguay and I'll go mine"?). To be clear, I really like Groucho, but at this point he's essentially an acquired taste, and to a large extent more something you appreciate than viscerally love, a few key moments aside.
But Harpo—well, first of all, of course Harpo doesn't speak, so there aren't any puns or dated jokes we have to groan at,* but most important is that Harpo's comedy comes from this kind of pure anarchic insanity. If Groucho's the ego, then Harpo's the id. Harpo's the one who's continually chasing women (literally†), jumping on people's backs, and for some reason (this being one of my favorite things, when I was a kid) trying to get people to hold up his leg. As such, Harpo's the only one of the bunch who doesn't seem to me to require "translation" (like a currency calculator) to be appreciated today.
Here's an interesting example/counter-example. The clip below begins with some of the unfortunate this-used-to-be-a-stage-show unfunniness, a useless Harpo's-horn moment (Harpo's horn is the least funny part about Harpo), and an unfunny smoke-blowing gag. Then, at 0:55, his coat comes off, and the world splits open.‡ You can stop watching after 1:15—those few moments of chaos capture almost all of what I'll always love about the Marx Bros., long after their expiration date.
[Oh, P.S.—it hit me that part of the secret to understanding It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is that although it registers first as being sort of a Seinfeld joint, or Seinfeld meets Married with Children or something, I think that really it has a lot more to do with the Marx Bros. than is immediately evident. (I haven't thought this through at all. But I think maybe Charlie is Groucho, Chico, and Harpo all rolled into one.)]
* They do sometimes give him visual puns ("Not washboard. Passport!"), but way he pulls those off are so fundamentally unhinged that the jokes themselves are still secondary.
† This may itself be a cheesy "visual pun" (see above footnote), but, again, it doesn't matter.
‡ We also get one of my favorite Groucho moments: see, he wasn't all about the corny wordplay.