The Comedy Circus. 72 East 45th St.
Sally Slut left the subway at 42nd and walked the three blocks. Phone rang, theme from the last scene of Gunod’s Faust. « Hi Sweetie ». « Yeah, Mom, what do you want, I’m on my way to work ». « Call that work? » « Enough, Mom ». Jessie Finkelstein pursued her prey. « You find a nice man where you work yet? Class joint. I mean the day job, not … this. You’re 30, Sall! Almost too late … ». « Bye Mom. » Sally had decided on her Slut persona tonight, and had all her costumes and accessories in her backpack (rubber bra, wigs, dildo, and ‘I’m-a-nice-little-girl-pyjamas’ complete with plastic ice cream cone).
Abe The Bear was a big guy. He pushed the door of Comedy Corner, 96 East 3rd St, Lower East Side, squeezed through, and was assailed by the smell of old beer-soaked carpets. A popular, noisy, often rowdy place. High-wire stuff for a stand-up comedian. But tonight is Friday. Big crowd. Good money – unless they booed him off the stage. Which they did when his direct hits at ‘popular’ politicians and respectable TV personalities got too near the bone. « Hey, where’s your respect Abe? Get the fuck outta here!! » Cue boos and tomatoes.
At 35 South 4th St, The Come-Die Laughing (club owners round here thought they had a cool ironic sense of humour) was on the edge of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, just far enough away from the crowds to attract the local population, but near enough to pick up some of the Rough Guide tourists. Most of Brooklyn was in the throes of gentrifiction. But it meant good crowds with money, from millennials to the middle-aged. Ben Bello sipped his beer at the bar. He was opening the second half tonight. A good slot. Doing his serious satirical-political-history-routine on Latin America in a gross Hispanic accent, interspersed with easy, biting gags about this week’s news. The contrast always got good laughs. They wouldn’t change history, the world or America, but might make one or two people think a bit. Or not.
What is now called stand-up comedy has existed since at least the mid-19th century in Music Halls and Variety Shows. But a while back a new breed of ‘stand-ups’ came along, performing in small, worn clubs, the comics only spitting distance from the cramped audience – the unforgiving audience. If they didn’t like you their disapproval was vicious – from boos to rotten tomatoes. The battlefields of humour (handguns had to be checked at the cloakroom). And for some while, evenings at Comedy Clubs with good comics were riotous, hilarious, eye-streaming, shocking fun. The audience came away overflowing with the energy that only true, deep laughter can bring.
But then … but then … gradually, insidiously, the Zeitgeist of PC – Political Correctness – infiltrated society, pointing fingers at those who disrespected the less well-off, oppressed, victimised, discriminated against – at the Real Ones. And this was good. But then they couldn’t stop their momentum and the Political Correctables cycled on down to those, in their PC Wisdom, who they thought incapable of defending themselves against a joke, albeit mild, or a negative comment, albeit fleeting. The Correctables did not have a sense of humour and in the Comedy Clubs, self-censorship fell like a freezing drizzle. The comics didn’t dare make jokes about … well, you name it, from A to Z. And humour fizzled out, tasting like yesterday’s cold pancakes.
During this Dark Age, Sally, Abe and Ben stuck it out, played the PC game, but with subtle undertones of dissent, and relied on their day jobs – consultants in lobby groups or law firms. Until one day in November 2017, when the Dark Age suddenly ended, and was replaced by a new Darker Age, the reign of a President who told and tweeted tales, jokes, lies, and gratuitous attacks on the weak, the disabled, the poor, the sick, women, foreigners … you name it. And in one fell swoop, the comedians were liberated. They were free to do jokes, gags, and sketches about all of these hitherto forbidden subjects – not aimed at the subjects themselves, but at the President and his Men who made them, to a degree of satire rarely seen for 30 years.
Comedy was back!
Sally, Abe and Ben had studied political science, economics, law at universities in the city: Columbia, NYU and Fordham. No dummies, these comics. But they’d never met. There are hundreds of Comedy Clubs in New York, and chance, or synchronicity, or just Life, had never brought them together in one place.
Until the 16th of September 2017.
So it came to pass that after studying in the same town and years of stand-up, Sally, Abe and Ben met for the first time at the Comedy Corner on the 16th of September 2017 – and it was pure magic. They laughed, joked, wept, took the piss out of the audience, joined each other’s acts, bounced off each other, and launched unbelievably hilarious satirical gags on politics, history, social issues, economics … and The President! They gelled like nobody before had ever done at the Comedy Corner and blew the audience away. Standing ovations and a half hour of encores.
The next morning Sally called her mother to say she’d had a great gig – one of her best – and met two very funny, bright, and politically conscious guys. « Are they married already? » said Jessie. « Mom, please, give it a break. » « So who are they? They Jewish? Give me their names. They might fit somewhere in my genealogical forest. » « Abe The Bear and Ben Bello. »
« You gotta be kidding. That’s not their real names. It’s like Sally Slut. » « OK, OK … Abraham Baer and Benjamin Borrero ». « Sweetie, you’re adorable ».
Jessie Finkelstein was an amateur genealogist, and spent much of her time tracing her family – and all its offshoots – back to 19th century Europe. Not an easy task. But she was determined, was our Jessie, and had persevered for years. Gradually she’d started doing this for friends, and over a couple of decades she had built up around her a highly talented and skilled group of fellow genealogists – all tested and vetted before being allowed to join. It was a formidable group, ‘The Genies’, as they called themselves, and were considered by both amateurs and professionals to be amongst the most accurate and successful researchers in the field – not only in New York, but in the USA.
One of the great qualities of The Genies was that they combined old established research methods with modern technology. Yes, the occasional long tube with the 5ft by 5ft paper sheet torn at the edges and written in black ink with a 1950s square-nibbed fountain pen would make its appearance at special events. But most of the presentations of family trees were on computer screens, with all the tools of image enhancement – changing perspectives, zooms, 3D, colours for emphasis and contrast, click buttons to bring up descriptive or explanatory notes, and even images of the people themselves – either scanned in from photos, or animated mock-ups based on the dress and customs of the day.
And for grander presentations, the computers would be linked to projection consoles, throwing these people and their past onto screens the size of a small cinema in the greatest of detail.
Sally, Abe and Ben continued to work together. They honed and perfected their act, and threw in a good dose of improvisation. The political satire got sharper, till it hurt sometimes. They played a packed house at the Comedy Club again on September 30th, to rapturous applause and encore after encore.
The next morning the phone rang. Sally ignored it, twice. But finally answered after the third call. « Yes Mom, what is it? It’s 7:30am! » Fast breathing and a high-pitched voice blew down the phone. « I’ve found them, Sall. You won’t believe it ». « Who, Mom? » « Abe and Ben!!! » « That’s it? At this time. » « No, it’s amazing! Can I come over with the chart? Now? » « Now? » « Yes, now! You busy? » « Well, it’s Saturday, I’ve had three hours’ sleep and I’m hungover, but I guess I can give you 15 minutes. » Jessie was not great at detecting irony. « I’m there in 10. Stay where you are! »
Ten minutes later on the dot the bell rang and Jessie almost tripped over the mat as she rushed in, carefully carrying the large metal tube she used to hold her genealogy trees. Without asking, she cleared the table and unrolled her document, beautifully and clearly printed on robust plastic 5 feet by 5. The rapid interest in genealogy had spawned specialised software, printing techniques and shops to cater for the aficianados.
« Look! » Sally couldn’t understand a thing among the lines, names, cross references and notes. « What? »
« You’re all in direct lines, Sall! Direct lines! Look.
In 1920 Julius Henry Marx had a son, Aaron, who married Esther Liebovitz in 1923 and they had a son, Samuel in 1925 ». Sally’s eyes were glazing over trying to follow the names and the lines. « Now Sam died in 2005 – of a heart attack, poor man – but he’d had a son in 1955, Julius – named for his grandfather but most people called him Jules. »
Jessie paused. Sally yawned, and poured herself another coffee. »And Jules married Jessie Stiller in 1985 and they had a daughter in 1988 … ».
Sally was thinking. Jessie paused. Then Sally paused. « So I’m the great grand-daughter of Julius Henry Marx? » « Yes you are, Sall! And be proud! » Sally took a big gulp of coffee and her famous temper got the better of her. « What the fuck, mother, has the fact that I’m the great grand-daughter of some Jewish guy at the beginning of the 20th century called Julius Henry Marx got to do with anything? There were thousands of us then mother! You’re wasting my time here. I’m going back to bed! »
Jessie gave one of her sly Jewish mom smiles. « Because Julius had a name he was better known by. » Long pause and longer smile. « What, mother ? Put me out of my fucking misery … . The name! »
« Groucho. Groucho Marx was your great-grandfather. Not bad DNA for a comedian, eh Sall? » And there’s more … .
Jessie showed Sally, detail by detail, name by name, note by note, that Abe was the great-grandson of Chico Marx, carefully noting that an African-American had married into the line in the 1950s, which explained why Abe was black. And that Ben’s line from Harpo had been enhanced by a marriage to a Cuban in the early 1920s. Hence Ben Berrero.
Surprise became disbelief became shock. Sally flopped onto the sofa and although it was only 9am, poured herself a large whiskey, and drank it down in one go. And then had another.
‘The Marx Brothers … and Sister!’ as they were now known continued performing the same type of show. Their approach was similar to the line traced so brilliantly by the hosts of the more and more popular late shows – Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Bill Maher, Michelle Wolff, John Oliver … .
Their show was fast, non-stop and mixed: straight – often shocking – not funny facts and stories; biting hilarious satire and sarcasm – where things often went beyond humour to that point where it hurt; they played the characters of their great-grandfathers with minimalist masks or costumes and Groucho or Harpo would roast the President or one of his aides, or some celebrity, politician, actor, or rock star – no-one was spared; Abe, the big African American, led the gags on police violence and corruption; Ben, the Hispanic, ld all the pieces on Mexicans and deportations and immigration control and ‘terrorism’ in his own unique accent; Sally was the Firebrand Feminist in the gender and sexual harassment sketches; and not only did they do single, duo and trio stand-up but they brought a whole new post-modern meaning to the genre, by rolling around the stage, and into the audience, fighting and yelling. And all of this to the absolute delight of the audience.
They went from single spots in the Comedy Clubs to the whole second half; their venues got bigger; they moved out of the clubs and into theatres – although they made it a point never to leave the clubs behind, and did at least four Comedy Clubs per month. Reviews of their shows were great, and well-known celebrities and comedians began to be seen; they were on their way.
They were happy.
Their political, social and economic beliefs, learned and matured at university, had fused with their natural sense of humour and satire, and all this at a time when performances like theirs were actually telling the truth – the real truth – not the wimpish versions reported in the mainstream media, on TV and in newspapers. They were reaching people, a lot of people, all over the country, even in the States which voted for the President.
And they had to admit that their success was an amalgam – their show, their talent, and their satire, which appealed mainly to the East and West Coast audiences – and a nostalgia and respect for perhaps the funniest and best-loved comedy act in American history, which spanned the whole country. Because even Fox TV were showing extracts of their shows nationally – not a lot, but enough for the people in Utah, Ohio and Arkansas to be tickled by these ‘New Marx Brothers’ and to get them thinking – maybe – about what these guys were saying about their President and his Men. Who knows?
But Jessie Finkelstein was not happy.
Everybody thought that the idea of the three of them being descendants of the Marx Brothers was just a brilliant hook for their show. Of course they insisted it was true, but the more they insisted, the more nobody believed them.
But Jessie knew it was true, as did The Genies, and she was going to make sure everybody else did.
The talk shows and the late shows followed.
On the 5th of March 2018 they were invited onto Stephen Colbert’s ‘The Late Show’, a man they much admired for his intelligence, laser analysis of politics, and supreme satire. Halfway through the chat, banter and jokes, there was some kind of disturbance in the audience … « Get your hands off me, you dinosaur! Let me through ». « Hey lady sit the fuck down! » « Where you think you’re going’ granny? Grab her arm, Aldo! Get her outta here ». The musicians were improvising some kind of Reevolution Riffs, the Marxies and Colbert had stopped talking and were peering into the lights to see what was going on. Then Sally, with a face like she’d seen the President at kissing distance, yelled « Stop! Please. Let her go! It’s my mother! »
The panic and anti-terrorism unit calmed down, and Jessie was led to the stage to great hoots of laughter and much applause. Colbert was delighted. Real live TV.
« Mom, what are you doing here? How did you get in? » « Well, Sall, let’s just say that The Genies have among their members certain persons with a variety of unusual talents. One of them forged a ticket for me. » « But why? You haven’t stopped calling to tell me how much you’re against all my show biz nonsense! » « I just wanted to protect you a little, baby. »
« Well, a very good evening, Mrs …? » Colbert with a cat that got the cream smile. « Finkelstein, Jessie Finkelstein, Sally’s mother ». « And to what do we owe this somewhat unusual entry?
Jessie efficiently and effectively told Colbert about her lifelong interest and talent in genealogy; about the creation of The Genies; about the respect and academic reputation they had built up over the years. And then she produced a USB stick which she held up and asked « I imagine you’ve got some pretty good technicians around here, Stephen? Well, get them to plug this in so the TV audience can see it, and I’ll talk you through it of course. » And in a slightly lower voice, « You know that Sally is one of your biggest fans … are you married by the way? »
And so it was that during the hoots of laughter, Sally’s blushes, a for once speechless Stephen Colbert, and Abe and Ben rolling and writhing around the floor in semi-wrestling, semi-sensual clutches, the whole of the Marx family tree came up using all The Genies’ state-of-the-art technology and showed every marriage, child, cousin, divorce, uncle and aunt, but particularly – and most of all – in three glowing lines of red, blue and white – brought to life the direct lineage from Groucho to Sally, Chico to Abe, and Harpo to Ben.
« So all you out there ». Jessie was on her feet now, upright, proud, imposing, pointing at the audience, then talking straight to camera. « Who think that this Marx Brothers and Sister thing is some kind of joke or trick, well you’d better think again, because it’s true, and you’ve seen it, and you can check it, and you can go to the American Society of Genealogists and mention my name, and they’ll say, ‘You a friend of Jessie? Well, in that case we’ll make you a temporary member for a day’. My family, the Marxes, came from the depths of Central Europe, generations ago, to a new country on the other side of the world which took us in, gave us a place to try to make a new life, and I can tell you this was not easy for a long time, and I have spent a lot of my life making sure that the people in my family on that journey are not forgotten – right up to today, when my daughter Sally has been able to go to Columbia University and study politics and the past and the present and what people do to each other and how they do it. And Abraham and Benjamin have used their education in law and economics to do the same thing, to tell people through humour and satire and sarcasm and downright home truths, some of the things that are wrong in this country and elsewhere in the world – and right now there’s a hell of a lot.
I think Groucho and Harpo and Chico would have been damn proud of ’em! What do you think? »
An almighty roar filled the studio, everybody was on their feet clapping, and people were coming forward and hugging Jessie and Abe and Ben and Sally … . Stephen Colbert had never looked so overwhelmed and happy in his life. And if you’d watched him closely, you’d probably have seen he had a few tears in his eyes, and for the first time in his life, he was lost for words.
The next morning Colbert’s show was headline news on every TV channel and in every newspaper. Even Fox News, a real close friend and ally of the President, had to lead with it and showed large extracts. It would not be an exaggeration to say that confusion and mayhem reigned. Reporters checked Jessie’s work and found it to be perfectly accurate. Members of the American Society of Genealogists were found and all confirmed the quality of Jessie’s work – in fact her name had been put forward several times to be a member, but she had always turned it down, despite the respect she had for them; she preferred to work outside the system, with her own team upon whom she knew she could always rely, under all circumstances. Other members of the Marx family were interviwed. Marx Brothers films were analysed for satire, sarcasm, anti-establishmentism … even communism.
And down in the President’s voters’ homelands, more and more people – who had seen the extracts on Fox News – were moved by what they had seen.
« Look how that woman worked to keep a record of her ancestors and the poverty they’d lived through and how some had made it and got richer, but others had died. Of course they was Jews, and we all know how they look after their own and exploit others. But poverty is poverty, and her family and many more they suffered it, maybe died from it too. We ain’t got no family tree, Billy, but I heard many a tale from my grandaddy and my old uncles about how life was hard. Trouble is, life’s still hard today. Why’s that? It ain’t the Jews makin’ us poor. Didn’t our beloved President say he was gonna make us richer? You see much of that, Billy? Never thought about it till now, but I don’t see none.
And now it really is true that that Jew woman’s daughter and the other two fellas is descended from the Marx Brothers, some of the funniest guys America ever turned out – oh my Lordy did I used to laugh, even if they was Jew folks – and they’s doin’ sketches about poverty today and a whole load of folks – they said many was the President’s friends – was keeping those people – us people – poor while they was gettin’ richer, and it makes me begin to wonder. Don’t it you, Billy? I’m gettin’ kinda confused who’s the good guys and who’s the bad guys. But I do know that somebody who’s great-grandaddy was Groucho Marx, they can’t be that bad, now can they? Pass me that bottle of whiskey Billy. I’m a needin’ it right now. »
In the early evening of this momentous day, Stephen Colbert got a call from Jessie Finkelstein. He began by thanking her, congratulating her, but she shut him up. « Listen Stephen. I’m grateful for all you say, but I want to talk to you about something a bit more serious. » « OK Jessie, tell me ». « Well you know in history – and Life – there are moments when, say, things come together. Carl Jung called it synchronicity. I don’t know what we Jews call it. Probably unpronouncable anyway. Well, anyway, my research into the Marx Brothers family tree was a part of one of those moments. But only a part. In parallel, I’ve been digging around the roots of those trees, and I’d like to tell you what I’ve found. And I can tell you that that moment is now, right now I say, real synchronicity, just when we’ve got ourselves into a real mess here in America. »
« So what do you want from me, Jessie? »
« I’d like to take up 15 minutes of your wonderful show this Thursday to let Sally speak, and to bring my USB stick along again and show you and all the folks out there something really important. »
« Stephen Colbert smiled his best, real smile, and said « How could I refuse? You got it! »
The audience had been warmed up, the musicians were in place and all sound and camera checks had been done. The studio manager did the count down and Stephen Colbert walked on and welcomed everbody to the Late Show. « Tonight’s gong to be a bit special everybody, as some of you may have heard ». Laughter and clapping. ‘May have heard!’ The show had been advertised, trailed, talked about, previewed, and pre-dissected on every TV channel and in every newpaper since the previous Monday. Millions were expected to watch it. Colbert started as usual with his gags, jokes and satirical pieces on events of the previous days, and after a while he said, « Well, I know you’ve all been waiting for what’s coming up next, and I have to tell you – short drum roll and « Yeah, yeah » from the musicians – that I have no clue at all what’s going to happen next. So I’ll just say welcome to the Late Show to The Marx Brothers … and Sister! … and to … Jessie Finkelstein. To an uproarious welcome from the audience, he welcomed the four guests, all dressed and acting more soberly than ever previously, showed them their seats, and sat behind his desk. The enhanced lights of Manhattan by night shone behind them.
Sally Finkelstein stood and took centre stage. Silence fell.
« This is going to be kinda serious for a short while here, and I’m going to be mixing up a bunch of different things, and seriously simplifying others. I apologise in advance, and ask you to please bear with me.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, during the later part the Enlightenment, the Statesman, Founding Father, and fourth President of the United States, James Madison, said this: ‘The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes.’
If there is one word which has most exemplified what Americans hate, reject, fight against, and try to overthrow, it is the word Communism, a political system responsible for two of the most repressive and murderous totalitarian states in the 20th century, the USSR and China. And when idiots look for the source behind these totalitarian states they come up with one name, Karl Marx. And yet the word Marxism is rarely used here and has never taken on the power and weight and hate in America that the word Communism has. Why? Well, mainly because they’re not the same – Soviet and Chinese Communism were created out of some of the ideas and writings of Karl Marx, but were formed and adapted to those countries.
Now back to Madison, who said that we are divided into different classes – the haves and the have-nots, the landed and the landless, the moneyed and the poor, the factory owners and the factory workers, the businessmen and the employees. He did not use these words, but he was saying that those people who have capital are in one class with money and power, and those who don’t are in another class, without money and power. And there is a varying amount of inequality between them – from poverty to extreme wealth. And Madison was American.
Meanwhile, over in Europe some 50 years later, a thinker, philosopher, economist, voluminous and wide-ranging writer, a German exiled from his homeland for his political writings, settled in London. Working with Friedrich Engels, he observed the North of England in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. He studied the economic and power relationship between the factory owners and the factory workers. He scientifically analysed what he observed and wrote widely and deeply. But essentially he was upholding what Madison had said. This man was Karl Marx, and he never imagined there would ever be such a word as Marxism.
He wrote that in Capitalism, there is a conflict between the ruling classes who control the means of production and the working classes who make these means possible by selling their labour power in return for wages. He used a critical, scientific approach – historical materialism – and concluded that capitalism produced internal tensions which would lead to its self-destruction. Class antagonisms under capitalism, owing in part to its instability and its crisis-prone nature (think the Great Depression, think the melt-down and bail-outs of 2008), would lead to the working class’s development of class consciousness, leading to their conquest of political power and eventually the establishment of a classless society made up of a free association of producers.
Over the last few years, there has been a growing interest in Marx’s writings about class differentials, capitalism, economics and power – here and across the world. Just one example: what was Occupy Wall Street other than a contemporary version of Marx’s identification of class differentials? It was, and continues to be, a movement against social and economic inequality and against the greed, corruption and undue influence of corporations (capital) on government – particularly financial services. The OWS slogan was ‘We are the 99%’, referring to income inequality and wealth distribution in the US between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population.
I’m going to stop there », cheers, boos, clapping, whistling from the audience « just to say that Karl Marx, his thinking, his writing, and particularly his theory of the exploitation of workers by the possessors of capital (wealth) and its twin brother, power, are as relevant today, in our unequal society and our underpaid workers, as they were back in the middle of the 19th century.
The mid-term elections are coming up in November. Let’s change things! ‘The Marx Brothers … and Sister!’ will continue satirising the corrupt, the culprits and the criminals, for as long as we can! » Cheers from the audience. « And thank you, Stephen, for putting extra-hard uncomfortable seats in tonight to stop the audience falling asleep! »
« Thank you Sally. We’re going to take a short break, but don’t go away. You won’t believe what’s coming up next. Even I don’t know what it is! »
Jessie Finkelstein walked to the front of the stage.
« There are moments in history when unexpected events happen at the same time. This is called synchronicity. Unplanned, unforeseen, but which can have powerful consequences. Even before my revelations last Monday, I’d decided to dig deeper, so I got The Genies together and we’ve been working night and day for a good couple of weeks now.
« We were looking for a man, and we found him. But with great difficulty, ‘cos we were confronted constantly with false leads, wrong turns, dead-ends, even glaring gaps. But here we are. And here he is. And this time our journey down the family tree will be more like a game – a guessing game perhaps.
She made a sign to a technician and another of her fantastic super-tech family trees zoomed onto the screen.
We shall call our man A. He was born in 1818, married in 1853, and had a son in 1854, whom we shall call B ». Swoops, perspectives, colours and 3D on the screen, but no names, just A, B, C … . « His son, B, had a daughter and three sons between 1885 and 1890. The first child of B, the daughter C, died at birth. The three sons, D, E, and F, lived good, longish lives, dying in 1961, 1964, and 1977 respectively ». A 3D finale of coloured lines, panning shots, and zooms.
The family tree then faded and the four large letters, D, E, F and A came up in a row. Jessie took a pointer, like a magic wand, paused, looked round the audience, then at Abe, Ben, Sally and finally at Stephen. The silence was total.
She touched D and the face of Chico Marx appeared.
She touched E and the face of Harpo Marx appeared.
She touched F and the face of Groucho Marx appeared.
And before the silence broke she touched A and the face of Karl Marx took its place.
« Sally, Abe and Ben are not only direct descendants of the Marx Brothers, they are also directly descended from Karl Marx himself ».
Uproar in the audience … .
« What DNA! Is it not surprising that these three young people have a knowledge of politics, the law and economics; the desire to use these to try to make people more equal – economically, socially and before the law; the gift of humour, comedy and satire to reveal the weaknesses, lies, and arrogance of those with too much money and power; and the magical ability to make people laugh?
Genes talk, and they’re talking to America now. Listen, people, listen! »