“Those are my principles; if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”

 Groucho Marx.

GrouchoGroucho Marx began entertaining audiences in 1905 and continued nonstop for 56 years before fading from the public eye—and then he staged a comeback. The duration of his career and the fact that the Marx Brothers continue to entertain audiences today says something about the constancy of our collective sense of humor.

Groucho had deep roots in the entertainment business. His mother, Minnie, was the daughter of vaudevillians and his uncle was a headliner. Given this background, it’s no wonder that Minnie pushed Groucho and his two older brothers—Chico and Harpoonto the stage. They started out as a musical act but quickly added the comic routines that would propel them to stardom. When vaudeville began to wane, they developed a hit Broadway show, The Cocoanuts, and later moved on to pictures. As a solo act Groucho did radio and, of course, his 11-year TV show, You Bet Your Life.

From turn of the century vaudeville to 1960’s TV is a long road. But Groucho succeeded in spanning generations and medium by tapping into our common comedic vein. For example, when asked to explain his chemistry with Margaret Dumont, who as a stuffy dowager was always on the receiving end of his barbs, he explained, it was because she never understood what he was saying. The line is classic Groucho, but it’s exactly the opposite of what made him funny for so long. You see, everyone always catches the joke with Groucho. The humor is always right in out in front of you. It’s funny because you get it the first time. And that means there’s something fundamental about the laughs.

There’s something fundamental about principles, too. Groucho’s one-liner is funny because we all recognize that principles are basic—they’re the foundation of our character. They define who we are. We all know that you can’t change your principles just because they aren’t popular at the moment. Or do we? The truth is that most folks make their way through life with only a vague appreciation of what they believe or what they stand for. Sure they have a hunch, but most of the time they behave situationally. Their beliefs and their actions tend to conform to whatever the group is doing at that time. If it sounds right and feels right it must be right—right? Not necessarily.

Corporate or public scandals are never the result of thousands of average workers conspiring with evil leaders to do wrong. The scandal is almost always the result of a series of small missteps—tiny compromises—by folks who are simply trying to get the job done. But once even a small misstep is accepted, it is easier to misstep again. That’s the danger of not really knowing where you stand or what you believe. Unless you’re certain about where to draw your personal line, you won’t know when you’ve crossed it—until it’s too late.

Think about something you strongly believe. Then ask some questions. How would you explain your belief to someone else? How would you respond if that belief was tested? To what extent could you compromise? Can you work in a place that doesn’t share your fundamental beliefs? What would it cost you?  What price are you willing to pay?  The answers are no laughing matter; are they?   —Ebert

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