Sunday, January 5, 2014

Onwards ... to 2014 ...

Every company that I've ever worked for has operated a closedown period over Christmas to New Year, and my current company is no exception.  It's always nice to have a good solid break.

Coming over to New Zealand, this break now coincides with summer here - which usually is a lot of fun.  I usually make a list of things I want to do with the family - walks in the Rimutuka forest park, bodyboarding off the Kapiti coast, cycling, beach trips, fishing.  This year alas the weather has been foul, and I'm not seeing a single tick on my list of things to do.

As always the day before going back is an odd and reflective day.  Slightly melancholy as you realise your break is winding down (although resolve to take a long weekend if the weather improves), together with some excitement about what the year ahead will bring to work.

If this break has been a failure as an activity holiday, it's been a huge success as a reading one.  This is hardly a surprise - even as a teenager my parents would take us on holiday to Spain, and I'd often be found with my head in a science fiction book of some description.  Often I would be too fixated on the Isaac Asimov robot tale I was reading to even notice I was on a beach full of topless women sunning themselves.  I guess you could say I was a late developer in that regard.

These days of course, Google is my friend, and the internet fascinates me as I can follow whatever interests me.  I've been watching a couple of documentaries with my son, and often am to be found entering key names into my Kindle, and searching out back histories on various events and characters.  It's a very learning rich environment, although of course anything you read on the internet can be fallible  Thankfully though there are a host of resources on the internet, and you develop a sense for those pages which are just a cut-and-paste job from a Wikipedia article.  (Navigating bias in online sources of information is always a challenge, but then in this age, where isn't?)

I also got to introduce my son to the Marx Brothers.  When I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, the Marx Brothers movies were never off the screen - they were a comedy act who moved from the stage to produce a number of "talkie" films in the 30s and 40s.  Sadly their movies have fallen out of favour simply for being in black and white, and many TV stations just don't show their films any more - least not in New Zealand.

This is one of their most famous comedy sketches - the mirror scene in Duck Soup.  I still remember watching it for the first time with my dad after he was recovering from a bout of hepatitis C.  We almost had to take him to hospital, he was laughing (and consequently not breathing) so much.  Every time he'd regain his composure, something else would happen to set him off again ...

For back story, several characters have dressed up as Groucho Marx to steal some vital war plans.  How can you hide in plain sight?

After watching, I did indeed read up about the lives of relative members of the Marx brothers on Wikipedia. It  fascinated me though, and I ended up buying the book Harpo Speaks on my Kindle about the silent Marx brother, and it's really had me musing on the upcoming year ever since.

The Marx Brothers didn't start as a comedy act.  They were a singing act - mainly a vehicle to help one of the brothers, Groucho, get into vaudeville.  They were semi-successful, being just about able to pay the bills.  They were all young teens, and found doing the same routine day-in, day-out got a bit of a bore.  So they started horsing around on stage - and people loved it.  Bit by bit the act evolved and changed, with more and more comedy, and less singing.

The problem for Harpo was this - his brothers were both very strong characters on stage.  Chico was the "charming but dim-witted" Italian con-man, whilst Groucho was the fast talking king of the put-down.  Against this, Harpo struggled to make an impact, or even be heard.  His solution?  To go silent.

Harpo played on stage and on screen as the silent pantomime, only communicating through expression and the liberal use of whistling and honks on the horn he always kept in his belt.  But he stole the show with his physical comedy and clowning around.  Whenever he found something out, there would be a running gag of a ridiculous charades game to communicate it all.

What fascinates me most about reading Harpo's book isn't how successful he became, but all the things he tried and was unsuccessful at.  But the thing is, like with all the Marx brothers, he gave himself room to experiment.  If something worked, they kept with it, and kept it in the act.

An inspirational quote I found from the book came after Harpo reflected on his first time on stage, where dressed in a white suit, he was so struck by stage fright that he wet himself on stage ...

"Every turning point in my life seems to have been a low point, a time of terrible disappointment or disaster.  I never planned any changes in the course of my career.  The changes just happened.  The only ambitions I ever nourished were to be a left fielder for the New York Giants, a full-time tin-can swinger for an umbrella mender, or a piano-player on an excursion boat.  I never achieved any of these ambitions.  What I actually became was what I was driven to be in a time of disaster."

In the end the Marx Brothers became known for ad-libbing on stage.  Rather than play the same routine, copy-and-paste, for 2 years straight as they toured, they admit that they got bored.  And so they would enjoy mixing it up a bit, and would try out new pieces and routines.  If the audience laughed, it stayed in - such as the night Harpo disrupted one of Groucho's scenes by chasing a chorus girl across stage, honking his horn.  Not to be out-done, Groucho ad-libbed the retort "First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger".

I found this all reiterating itself as 2014 came around.  I'm signed up to receive Johanna Rothman's  Pragmatic Manager Newsletter, which offered some thoughts for the upcoming year.  She sums her advice for the year in three stages - experiment, observe, invite.

  • Experiment and try out new things in what you're doing, over repeating last year's script.
  • Observe whether or not it works.
  • Invite others to get involved with the changes, and contribute.  Try not to mandate and force (because people always kick back when they don't feel involved).

It's superb advice - and really echoes my thoughts on the Marx Brothers.  We look back on the Marx Brothers as being a great success story.  But that depends.  If you mean "were the Marx Brothers, the vaudeville singers a success?", the answer is no, and that's the act they started at.  They experimented within their singing - they had music lessons, they tried different songs which played to their strength.  But ultimately it was the freedom to experiment and try comedy which led to their success, not as singers, but as comedians.

Success is always a matter of experimentation and context.  If you keep copying the past, hoping for a breakthrough for success, you'll always find yourself dissatisfied with what you achieve.  Give yourself the freedom to experiment and to try, and where possible to redefine your role.

Harpo's son keeps a website dedicated to his father's memory, which you can view here.


  1. fun stuff, entertaining ... and ... as always, you leave me with some thought provoking ideas.

  2. If you are looking for inspiration then Ken Robinson's work would take you to the next level. Watch out for new edition of his book, Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life