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Stowaway Speakers: The Diasporic Politics of Funny English in A Night at the Opera

Keywords: Literacy , illiteracy , immigration , class , humour , Jewishness , Marx Brothers

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The comedy of the Marx Brothers frequently represents vexed relationships between recent immigrants and hegemonic language communities. Literacy becomes a social ability bartered in humour, while verbal comedy opens critiques of dominant socio-linguistic systems. This paper investigates the Marx Brothers’ deployment of “outsider” voices operating within a hegemonic society through an examination of A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935). Later Jewish comics including Woody Allen also take up this mode of humour, but the appeal of these famously Jewish comics may derive less from “Jewish” talking than from “smart” talking with an outsider perspective. This comic stance is a form of self-defense for socially marginalized subjects, and has a history that connects to early twentieth-century experiences of immigration to New York City. A Night at the Opera represents this migration even as its humour references the exclusions experienced by non-English speaking or bilingual immigrants to North America.


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