Groucho Marx vs. Abbott & Costello

Fiction Writer Seeks Your Valuable Opinion

Here’s a short snippet from a story I’m working on.

“I have the perfect prescription for hunger.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s called reservations.”

She grinned, said, “I had reservations, but I came anyway.”

“Hey, I get to be Groucho Marx,” he said. “You don’t look right in a mustache.”

An editor told me to remove this section because Groucho Marx is a dated reference who most readers won’t recognize. The comment made sense to me, so I deleted it. Out of curiosity, I started asking random people about their familiarity with Groucho. In total, I asked 16 people in their 20s and early 30s. Only three had ever heard the name. Only one knew who he was. One person who recognized the name thought he might be a member of the Beatles. I still have the bump on my head from when I fell to the floor.

Fast forward two weeks later, and my wife and I are watching the 2016 sci-fi flick Arrival. (Spoiler alert: You’ll spent 115 minutes to learn that you should live life to its fullest even though you’ll suffer some bruises along the way. Your welcome for giving you a couple hours of your life back.) The movie centers around Amy Adams trying to communicate with two aliens. Amy’s co-star, whose name escapes me, decides to call these two aliens Abbott and Costello.

I won’t debate about who’s funnier. Groucho was a hilarious ad-libbing comedian, while Abbott & Costello had superlative skits. (I did a rendition of “Who’s on First” and won second place, so hey!) Both acts were big in the 40s and 50s.┬áSo my question is this, and feel free to weigh in down yonder in the comments.

If you use a dated reference that many people in your audience won’t recognize, what happens? Do members of your audience:

A) Ask someone nearby about the person?

B) Skip it and move on?

C) Look up the name from their favorite source?

In other words, do you lose people for a moment or are they so fascinated that they go to the trouble to find out what you’re talking about? I’m deleting the Groucho Marx reference in my story. I’m curious what you think about the writer’s decision to leave Abbott & Costello in the script for Arrival. Thanks for playing!

13 thoughts on “Groucho Marx vs. Abbott & Costello

  1. Ok, now I feel old. I want you to leave in the Groucho Marx reference. Kids these days. The younger folks at my work (20s-early 30s) all knew both references. I would ask the students but they are on summer break.

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    1. Are you serious? I’m talking to reasonable people. Citizens who hold down jobs, some of whom I know who are intelligent and young. And they don’t know these former greats. But you’re finding 100% of people who do? I’m wondering about your line of questioning, Elise?!! I think maybe you’re too polite and you’re leading the witness. This is too great a discrepancy. Hmm.

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  2. Depends on your audience. I think most readers [and movie watchers] will skim over a name they don’t know, and just accept their impression from the context. Some will know who the person is, which will be one added piece of enjoyment that those people will experience that others won’t. Kind of like the adult references in children’s movies, so the parents have something to enjoy too.

    And my very unscientific survey indicates that more younger people know Abbott & Costello [because of Who’s on First] than Groucho.

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    1. I like that answer, Dena. That’s how I’d react too, I think. If I read that a person wore Buddy Holly glasses and I didn’t know who Buddy Holly was, I’d just move on. Unless, later, those glasses played a key role. Then I’d go figure out the deal with the glasses. Otherwise, it’s just a piece of description that some people get better than me.

      I didn’t ask anyone about Abbott & Costello because I just saw the movie, which is what prompted my question. Your unscientific survey surprises me. I woulda thought Groucho was better known that A & C. I keep getting surprised, but it’s kind of enjoyable. I’ve never had so much fun being repeatedly wrong!

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  3. A, B, and C, depending upon the intelligence, the awareness, the curiosity, and the willingness to learn expressed by your readers. With my private eye, I’m screwed from the get-go–hard to reference a cell phone when the story takes place in the 1950s (they didn’t have phones in prison confinements, so the term wouldn’t work there either). Just curious of your editor’s age bracket, and whether he/she recommended to cut the quip because it was over his/her head and he/she didn’t want to take the time to research.
    One other thing: what are your characters’ ages in the story? Would they also be too young to know?

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    1. Good question. both of them. I didn’t ask for the editor’s license, but I’d say early to mid 50s. He knew who Groucho Marx was, but questioned it as a dated reference.

      My characters are early 40s, so they’d certainly have chances to be aware of Groucho, although they wouldn’t have been at any Marx Brothers premieres.

      What do you call your mobile when you sneak it into your cousin as contraband behind bars? A cell cell phone?

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  4. I think it depends on the frame of reference. It it’s couched in interesting subject matter pertinent to the story, I will usually look it up or ask someone. If it’s not, I’ll read over the top of it. If the story reads just as effectively without it, then maybe you don’t need it. But save it till the final cut. You never know when you might want to stick it back in! JMO…

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    1. I do pretty much the same thing. I’ll ask someone sitting nearby, but if they don’t know the answer, I’m moving on without checking the reference. Until the information is necessary for me to understand the story — then I’ll look it up — but that usually isn’t the case.

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  5. John…I used to quote Victor Borge in my Marketing class (regarding family, he would say, “I have three children – one of each”) and watching the faces of students who didn’t get the joke – much less know who the famous Dane was – I just stopped the allusion. When young folks don’t get it, I don’t believe they take the time to even look it up on their phones!

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  6. To my mind, Groucho Marx is more famous than Abbott & Costello, but it’s all subjective I guess. And I’m in my late 30s. I would argue to leave it in – maybe it’ll detract from the story, but people might look it up if they’re curious. It’s called learning, eh?

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  7. Coming in a bit late – as is my habit – I’d say leave it in. For those of us who know him, just reading his name conjures up his image and raises a smile, thereby making us warm to the story. Those who don’t know who he is won’t care, or if they’re curious obsessives like me they’ll type it in to Google.
    It’s no wonder I get so little work done.

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