Since most comedy in America is adolescent, this is surely an example of cognitive dissonance. Groucho and Bugs smelled rats when authority appeared. Moreover, they introduced chaos and impertinence to any situation that imposed adulthood’s norms.
Elmer Fudd was everyone’s downtrodden dad. (If you have a leftist political bent he was a running dog of the bourgeoisie, an abused worker trying to kill wildlife on the weekends.) Poor Mr. Fudd! The rascally rabbit refused to play by the rules—Bugs is many things, but mostly he’s the Id of adolescence, at least at first.
Don’t give up on me! The Id is filled with wild forces of nature, the ones we’re gifted with at birth, our libidos, our instincts for self-preservation, our will to fight are all contained in Freud’s Id and the bunny has them, Fudd does not. But poor Fudd, it gets worse! The silly man with the mail-order shotgun and ridiculous hat is nearly pure ego. He follows etiquette and all rules, plods along, believes pleasure comes with fidelity to what is deemed normal.
One may say the same for Groucho. He’s Bugs in a swallow-tailed coat. His Fudds are legion: with the exception of his anarchic brothers, the men and women in Groucho’s movies are all straight-laced and conventional. They’re self-important and officious. They get tipped on their heads by a man who turns reason and rational discourse inside out. He says famously to a fatuous foe: “A child of five could understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
If this was all there was to Groucho and Bugs they’d have been helpful to a depressed, blind teen who was finding it hard to live in the public square. However, the pubescent Id offers no guarantees and won’t assure you’ll become a successful adult.
I said most comedy in America is adolescent. This means old people are held up to ridicule and often deservedly. The adults in J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (the canonical novel of teen angst) are invariably tedious, dishonest and unreliable. But Salinger never transcends this view. Bugs and Groucho were different.
Why? Here are some of my favorite Bugs and Groucho-isms:
“Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive!” (Bugs)
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself.” (Groucho)
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” (Groucho)
“Gee, ain’t I a stinker?” (Bugs)
“My, I’ll bet you monsters lead innnnteresting lives.” (Bugs)
“I have nothing but respect for you — and not much of that.” (Groucho)
“Whatever it is, I’m against it.” (Groucho)
“I know this defies the law of gravity, but I never studied law!” (Bugs)
What I’ve come to see is that Bugs and Groucho had the tonic of comic irony, the most important quality behind what we now call emotional intelligence.
Comic irony is more than wordplay. It’s a self-awareness that says, yes, I’m among people, and I’m both like them and unlike them, for better AND worse.
“Gee, ain’t I a stinker?” Bugs looks at the presumptive audience and winks.
“Whatever it is, I’m against it,” says Groucho in a memorable song and dance number.
Both are instances of refusal. Bugs refuses to fully endorse his own character; Groucho knows that bureaucracies can be crooked and it’s good to know when to be your own man.
No one wants to be fully his or her Id. No one should pretend that willful refusals are always smart. Certainly, no healthy grown adult should be poor Elmer Fudd, desperate, in lockstep, desiring small goals, witless. Surely no one should pretend to adulthood without knowing as Groucho did that the mistakes of others are the ones you might not live long enough to make yourself. That’s emotional intelligence in a nutshell.
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