Wednesday, June 19, 2013


When Melinda Marx was only three years old (1949) Groucho arrived in a recording studio to sing "The Funniest Song in the World." The six-minute tune was parted in the middle for two sides of a 45 rpm and 78 rpm single via Young People's Records. This was an ambitious record label often offering classical music and literature narrations aimed at educating brats on matters of both culture and morality.

Groucho's very first recording, it seems to be the exact opposite of his comic persona. He's actually concerned that comical insults may hurt somebody's feelings?? How he came to make this kiddie single seems to be an unsolved mystery. I had a copy of this when I was a kid, and assumed so did anyone who'd want to write a bio of him. Yet none of those biographers seem to have heard this or heard of it to the point of doing any research when the trail was still warm. By the time I got onto the trail, it was pretty icy. I remember visiting the record label's small office hoping to score a fresh copy to replace my original 45 rpm. Yes, they did happen to have ONE 78 rpm left in a file cabinet, and sold to me at list price at the time (I think, $1.29). But nobody had any recollection of what went on in February of 1949 when it was recorded. It was officially released March 15th.

A Marx fan might figure the hook here would have to be Harry Ruby, Groucho's favorite song lyricist. No. The lyrics were written by Raymond Abrashkin, and the music by Peter Gordon (not Peter & Gordon!). Abrashkin, who wrote a kiddie comic strip called "Timmy" and a series of young adult sci-fi books with "Danny Dunn" the main character, would score a major success scripting the Oscar-nominated film "Little Fugitive." His "Danny Dunn" series slowed as Lou Gherig's Disease took control of his body and mind, and he died at the age of 49 on August 24, 1960.

The head of Young People's Records, Horace Grenell, catalogued the song as a "pre-school-age tolerance record," which certainly would've been a nice gift for pre-age Melinda Marx. Maybe she even owned his "Young People's Records Folk Song Book," also published in 1949.

In his inimitable New York accent, Groucho has a monkey trying to write the funniest song "in the woild." He makes fun of a giraffe, who isn't amused, offends a bear, and bounces gags off a kangaroo, who has a "kanga-rooish face." (It was always easy to tell in the animal world which ones were roo-ish). Typical of human nature more than animal nature, each annoyed beast points a finger and suggests…making fun of someone else!

Is it possible to be funny without being hurtful? Yes, but it ain't easy. Most every comedian I've ever known from the hacks to the greats, believes the laughs come from hostility, from tragedy, from some kind of puncture or fracture or violent surprise. Mel Brooks said that comedy is like a rubber ball, and it's liveliest when it smacks against something hard and unyielding, like the brick wall of authority. Joey Adams told me comedy must "devastate," which was why he was famous (at one time) as an insult comic.

Groucho, along with Edward Lear, Spike Milligan and some others, did dabble in "nonsense" once in a while…bullets flying up in the air instead of at a target. And so the lesson kiddies, is in the last verses of the song where Groucho goes off on a wonderful ride not too far removed from something out of W.S. Gilbert's lyric book. And let's not forget the last lines which, unlike today's passive entertainment, promote exploration and creativity.

I wasn't around in 1949. But by the time I was a precocious child listening to what I thought were kiddie records (like "Heartaches" by The Marcels and "Gypsy Cried" by Lou Christie as well as "The Chipmunk Song") "The Funniest Song in the World" was part of my treasured collection. Despite "Lydia" and even the wonderfully cynical and accurate "Dr. Hackenbush" (recorded for Decca years after this kiddie disc), this remains my sentimental and favorite "funniest song" from THE ONE, THE ONLY…Groucho.

Is this the Funniest Song in the WOILD? Rat Rat Tea!


Mitchell Pilot (djwx8qtw67 -at- said...

I was five years old when my mother bought this record for me in 1949. As an avid record collector I thought I still owned it when the Giraffe song started playing in my head one day in the 80s. No...lost. Visits to many record collectors' shows proved to be fruitless and not until eBay did it become possible for me to hear that song again.

Your research is much deeper than mine, but I did come across a tidbit on a Marx Brothers site that said that Groucho agreed to the project because of the subject matter. Tolerance for diversity was not a popular topic in 1949 but was important to Groucho.

Thank you for sharing your insight into this all-but-forgotten piece of history. This song is still one of my most cherished childhood memories.

dwb said...

Thanks for posting this!

About what year was it that you visited the record label's office? Do you remember any other details about it?

I wrote a book on Young People's Records, and it contains the answer to the question of how the this record came to be made: Raymond Abrashkin sent the lyrics to Groucho and asked him if he'd like to record the songs. That's what the president of Young People's Records told me, anyway. (This was Horace Grenell's successor, Lester Troob, and he was about 90 when he told me that, but his mind was still good, and based on what is known about Abrashkin, it rings true.)

Ill Folks said...

Hi dwb,

I was probably there about 20 years ago. I remember speaking to the secretary...well, she was the only one in the office, sitting at a desk.

She told me the master for Groucho's record had been destroyed: "It was our property...who cares about Groucho Marx anymore?" So I was lucky that she happened to have a mint new 78rpm in a file cabinet after all these years. I also asked her for one that Mary Martin did. I think it was Mary Martin...a guy who owned a record shop asked me to try and get it as long as I was going to be over there. He was ecstatic that, yes, there was a spare of that one, too. Which he either treasures to this day, or sold for about 100 times the $1 I paid.