Morrie Ryskind was a major behind-the-scenes literary figure in American pop culture for at least four decades. He was never widely acknowledged as a longtime associate of George S. Kaufman, but he was a success both on Broadway and in Hollywood. He was associated with the Marx Brothersfor a duration of his career. He was also very visible in the political world at different times in his life, working for the two extremes -- the pacifist left in the '30s, and the far right in the '50s and '60s. Ryskind was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Russian immigrant family, and, in keeping with this background, he was drawn to socialist politics. He attended Columbia University's School of Journalism, but was dismissed because of his outspoken political views.
Politics played a significant role in Ryskind's work from the very beginning. In Garrick Gaieties (1925), Ryskind got strong reviews for a sketch that burlesqued the home life of then President Calvin Coolidge. (This august show was where Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart first achieved notice, and the show also featured a gifted young player named Sterling Holloway.) This gave the public its first taste of the wit that would later inform Of Thee I Sing, a much more topical and celebrated political work that had fun at Coolidge's expense. Ryskind began collaborating with George S. Kaufman in the mid-'20s. The two had a huge hit in 1925 with The Cocoanuts, a wildly paced play (inspired by the early '20s Florida land rush) starring the Marx Brothers. This was followed at the end of the decade with another hit, Animal Crackers, which introduced Groucho Marx's most famous characterization of Captain Spaulding, the African explorer, and his signature theme.