Walter Kerr? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Comedies rarely win prestigious awards. Critics are unaccountably hostile to works that make them guffaw. Groucho Marx once described a critic who laughed heartily and repeatedly during the performance of a play, yet crafted and published an excoriating newspaper review the next day using the barbed phrases “tasteless and tatterdemalion” and “very bad play”. Do you know the critic’s name?
Quote Investigator: Walter Kerr was an influential theater critic for the “New York Herald Tribune” in the 1950s and 1960s. After that newspaper closed he continued his efforts at “The New York Times”. In 1958 Kerr evaluated a comedy from Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore: 1
This is not so much a review as a confession. I spent a good part of an evening laughing at a very bad play—”Make A Million.”
. . . tawdry, tasteless, and tatterdemalion as the evening is, “Make A Million” is—as often as not—stubbornly funny.
. . . “Make A Million” isn’t respectable by any standards I can think of; but it does have an unexpected, and just about inexplicable funnybone.
Below are two additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1959 Groucho Marx published the memoir “Groucho and Me”, and he expressed irritation with Kerr’s acerbic analysis without naming the critic: 2
One prominent reviewer (there’s no point in mentioning his name) recently wrote about a play called Make A Million, starring Sam Levene. This is what he wrote: “This is not so much a review as a confession. I spent a good part of last evening laughing at a very bad play.”
There you have it. This critic laughed all evening, but finally decided it was “a very bad play.” All it was supposed to do was make people laugh, and it succeeded.
They didn’t announce that they were bringing in King Lear or Death of a Salesman. All they promised to deliver was a funny comedy—but that wasn’t good enough for this critic.
In 2007 a columnist in a New Brunswick, New Jersey newspaper recalled the approximate words of Kerr and Groucho: 3
It was Groucho . . . who complained about the critic who wrote about a Broadway show, “I spent two hours last night laughing at a very bad play.”
It was a comedy. How could it be bad, Groucho wondered, if it made the critic laugh?
In conclusion, the critic Walter Kerr felt that his own laughter was not a reliable guide to quality humor. He employed the label “very bad play” for a work that elicited his guffaws.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1958 October 30, The Cincinnati Enquirer, This Is No Review; It’s a Confession by Walter Kerr, Quote Page 9B, Column 1 to 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1959 Copyright, Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx, Chapter 14: Rich Is Better, Quote Page 175 and 176, Published by Bernard Geis Associates, Distributed by Random House, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 2007 August 24, Home News Tribune (The Central New Jersey Home News), Journalists feast on readers’ feedback even when it’s in bad taste by Charles Paolino, Quote Page B1, Column 4, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩