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You Bet Your Life
Ybylife.jpg
1955-60 title card
Format Quiz show
Created by John Guedel
Directed by Robert Dwan, Bernie Smith
Presented by Groucho Marx
Narrated by George Fenneman
Composer(s) Jerry Fielding (1950-52)
Jack Meakin (1952-61)
Country of origin  United States
No. of episodes 429
Production
Producer(s) John Guedel
Running time 30 minutes
Production company(s) John Guedel Productions, in association with NBC
Broadcast
Original channel ABC Radio
CBS Radio
NBC Radio and NBC-TV
Original run October 1947 (radio)
October 5, 1950 (television) – 1959 (radio), September 21, 1961 (television)

You Bet Your Life was an American radio and television quiz show. The primary version was hosted by Groucho Marx of the Marx Brothers, with announcer and assistant George Fenneman. The show debuted on ABC Radio in October 1947, then moved to CBS Radio in 1949 before making the transition to the NBC Radio and NBC-TV networks in October 1950. Because of its simple format, it was possible to broadcast the show simultaneously on the radio and on television. In 1960, it was renamed The Groucho Show and ran a further year. Most episodes are in the public domain.

John Guedel developed the show and found sponsorship. At that time Groucho was not making movies, and had not been successful on the radio. Guedel happened to see a special with Groucho and Bob Hope, where they ad-libbed very well. He convinced the skeptical Groucho to take the lead, and invest in 50% of the show, in part by saying that he was "untouchable" at ad-libbing, but not at following a script.[1] Since Groucho and the contestants were ad-libbing, Groucho insisted that each show be recorded and edited before release.

Contents

Show format

Contestants were usually a male and a female, chosen by a complicated process with the goals of finding interesting, talkative people. Most were selected from the studio audience, and interviewed by Fenneman; then two were shown in a "test" to the studio audience, who picked the one they preferred. (Habitual game show attendees were excluded.) Sometimes famous or otherwise interesting figures were invited. For example, an episode soon after the Korean War featured a Korean-American contestant who had been a prisoner of war. By the time of the performance Groucho had a general idea of what topics might arise, but mainly resorted to scripted jokes only as necessary to avoid situations where a contestant was not talkative. The show for the studio audience ran longer than the broadcast versions, so that less interesting or risque material could be removed.[2]

Groucho would be introduced to the music of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", his signature song, introduced in the 1928 Broadway musical Animal Crackers and the 1930 film version. Fenneman would say, "Here he is: the one, the ONLY..." and the audience would finish with a thunderous "GROUCHO!" In the early years Groucho would feign surprise: "Oh, that's ME, Groucho Marx!"

The secret word

Some show tension revolved around whether a contestant would say the "secret word", some common word revealed to the audience at the show's outset. If a contestant said the word, a toy duck resembling Groucho with a mustache and eyeglasses, and with a cigar in its bill, descended from the ceiling to bring a $100 bill. A cartoon of a duck with a cigar was also used in opening title sequence. In one episode, Groucho's brother, Harpo, came down instead of the duck, and in another, a model came down in a birdcage with the money. Marx would sometimes slyly direct conversation to encourage the secret word to come up.

In the contest itself, contestants would choose among available categories and then try to answer a series of questions dealing with the chosen category. One popular category involved attempting to name a U.S. state after being given a number of cities and towns within the state.

At first, each couple started with $20. They were asked four questions in their category. For each, they bet up to all of their money. According to co-director Robert Dwan in his book, As Long As They're Laughing, producer John Guedel changed this because too many couples were betting—and losing—all their money. He changed the format to having couples start with $100, then pick four questions worth from $10 to $100. A correct answer added the value of the question; an incorrect answer cut the previous grand total in half, so that a couple that answered the $70, $80, $90, and $100 questions would end up with $440; missing all four questions would reduce their total to $6.25 (augmented to $25 with a question such as "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?").

Later, this was changed to couples answering questions either until they got 2 consecutive questions wrong or answered four consecutive questions correctly for a prize of $1,000. Toward the end (1959-61), contestants picked four questions worth $100, $200, or $300; they could win up to $1,200 but needed only $500 to qualify for the jackpot question. The two contestants worked together ("Remember, only one answer between you"). If the couple bet all of their money at any point and lost (or if they ended up below $25), they were asked a consolation question for $25 [in later years, it became $100—as Groucho occasionally reminded his contestants, "Nobody leaves here broke"]. Consolation questions were made easy, in hopes that no one would miss them, although some people did. The questions were in the style of "When did the War of 1812 start?" "How long do you cook a three-minute egg?" and "What color is an orange?". In addition to the quiz prizes was the secret-word duck. Eventually, the prize was $100 for saying the secret word. The "secret-word duck" was occasionally replaced with a wooden Indian figure.

In all formats, a final question was asked for a jackpot amount for the couple who had gotten the highest total amount during the game.

In the early years (1947-56), the prize for the jackpot question started at $1,000, with $500 added each week until someone correctly answered the question.

With the coming of the big-money quizzes, contestants faced a wheel with numbers from one to ten; one contestant picked a number for $10,000; later on, they picked another number for $5,000. The wheel was spun; if either number came up, a correct answer to the question augmented the couple's total to that amount of money, otherwise the question was worth a total of $2,000. From 1956-59, contestants risked half their $1,000 won in the quiz on a shot at the wheel, one of the two players in a couple could keep their half of the money while the other risked their half; from 1959-61 they risked nothing. Groucho always reminded contestants that "I'll give you fifteen seconds to decide on a single answer. Think carefully and please, no help from the audience." Then "Captain Spaulding" was used as "think" music.

By 1959, as quiz shows fell out of popularity due to the quiz show scandals, You Bet Your Life (despite being clean) fell out of the top 30 TV shows, to be replaced by non-quiz games. Unable to save the show with renaming, NBC canceled it in 1961.

The play of the game, however, was secondary to the interplay between Groucho, the contestants, and occasionally Fenneman. The program was rerun into the 1970s, and later in syndication as The Best of Groucho. As such, it was the first game show to have its reruns syndicated.

The radio program was first sponsored by Elgin American watches and compacts during its first two and a half seasons. Later seasons of the television show (as well as the radio show, after January 1950) were sponsored by Chrysler, with advertisements for DeSoto automobiles incorporated into the opening credits and the show itself. Each show would end with Groucho sticking his head through a hole in the DeSoto logo and saying, "Friends...go in to see your DeSoto-Plymouth dealer tomorrow. And when you do, tell 'em Groucho sent you." Still later sponsors included The Toni Company (Prom Home Permanent, White Rain Shampoo), Lever Brothers (Lux Liquid, Wisk Detergent), Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Geritol), and Lorillard Tobacco Co. (Old Gold cigarettes).

Many episodes survive and have been in television syndication for years. The Best Of Groucho, originally syndicated by NBC from 1961 through 1968, consisted of episodes from the 1954-61 period. Reruns continue to this day. A number of episodes have also been released to DVD as "dollar DVDs" of public domain episodes. The unaired pilot episode for the TV version which was originally produced for CBS-TV in December 1949 exists.

Seven months after You Bet Your Life ended its 11-season run at NBC, Groucho had another game show in prime-time, Tell It to Groucho, which aired on CBS during the winter and spring months of 1962. The game involved three pictures being flashed for three quarters of a second. The couple won $500 for each picture they identified. If the couple could not identify any of the three pictures, they were shown one picture and won $100 for a correct guess. As in You Bet Your Life, the focus of the show was on Groucho's interviews with the contestants before "playing the game".

There was a parody of You Bet Your Life on a live April 1955 episode of The Jack Benny Program, in which Benny pretends to be someone else to get on Groucho's show, and continually blabs in an effort to say the secret word ("telephone"). He gets it by accident when he says he can "tell a phony". (Later, Groucho says knowingly, "I can tell a phony, too".) However, he is unable to answer the final question, which ironically is about Benny, simply because it asks his real age, which Benny would never give voluntarily (incidentally, his real age at that time was 61). This episode, after its original airing, could only be watched at Groucho's home on film (he asked for and received a personal kinescope copy), and even then, only if one was invited to see it. After Groucho's death the film appeared in the Unknown Marx Brothers documentary on DVD. A brief clip of this appeared in the 2009 PBS special Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America.

Contestants

The interviews were sometimes so memorable that the contestants became celebrities: "nature boy" health advocate Robert Bootzin; hapless Mexican laborer Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez and his offhandedly comic remarks; a witty housewife named Phyllis Diller; author Ray Bradbury; blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley; strongman Paul Anderson. John Barbour, and Ronnie Schell appeared as contestants while working on the fringes of the entertainment industry.

A courtly Southern gentleman, Harland Sanders, talked about his "finger-lickin'" recipe for fried chicken, which he parlayed into the "Kentucky Fried Chicken" chain of restaurants. A guest purporting to be a wealthy nobleman was really writer William Peter Blatty; Groucho saw through the disguise ("You're no more a prince than I am"). Blatty won $10,000 and used the leave of absence the money afforded him to write The Exorcist. No one in the audience knew who contestant Daws Butler was until he began speaking in Huckleberry Hound's voice; he and his partner went on to win the top prize of $10,000. Cajun politician Dudley J. LeBlanc, a Louisiana state senator, demonstrated his winning style at giving campaign speeches in French.

Arthur Godfrey's mother Kathryn was a contestant and held her own with Groucho. Edgar Bergen and his then 11-year-old daughter Candice teamed up with Groucho and his daughter Melinda Marx to win $1,000 for the Girl Scouts of the USA. Fenneman got to play quizmaster for this segment. General Omar Bradley was teamed with an army private, and Groucho goaded the private into telling Bradley everything that was wrong with the army. Professional wrestler Wild Red Berry admitted that the outcomes of matches were determined in advance, but that the injuries were real; he revealed a long list of injuries he had sustained.

Among contestants were established names from entertainment, literature, and sports: Ernie Kovacs, Hoot Gibson, Ray Corrigan, John Charles Thomas, Max Shulman, Sammy Cahn, Joe Louis, Bob Mathias, Johnny Weissmuller, Sam Coslow, Harry Ruby, Liberace, Don Drysdale, Tor Johnson, and Frankie Avalon. Harpo Marx showed to promote his just-published autobiography, Harpo Speaks.

The cigar incident

A story recounts the appearance of a female contestant who spoke in broken English. The contestant offered that she had borne eleven children, to which Groucho remarked "Eleven children!" The contestant innocently replied, "I love my husband", to which Groucho responded with, "I love my cigar, but I take it out once in a while!" The audience laughed for minutes. The remark was judged too risqué to be aired, and was edited out before broadcast, but the audio of the audience reaction was used by NBC for years whenever bring-down-the-house laughter was called for in laugh tracks.[3]

Groucho and Fenneman denied the incident took place. Groucho was interviewed for Esquire magazine in 1972 and said "I never said that." Hector Arce, Groucho's ghost writer for his autobiography The Secret Word Is Groucho inserted the claim that it happened, but Arce compiled the 1976 book from many sources, not solely Groucho himself.[4]

Nielsen ratings

Seasonal Nielsen ratings covered the period between October and April of the following year. A rating number represents the percentage of homes tuned into a program.

October 1950- April 1951: 36.0 (17th overall)
1951-52: 42.1 (10th)
1952-53: 41.6 (9th)
1953-54: 43.6 (3rd)
1954-55: 41.0 (4th)
1955-56: 35.4 (7th)
1956-57: 31.1 (17th)
1957-58: 30.6 (10th)
1958-59: N/A (below the top 25)
1959-60: N/A (below the top 25)
1960-61: N/A (below the top 25)

Later incarnations of the show

1980 Buddy Hackett version

In 1980, Buddy Hackett hosted a similar show with the same title which failed to run a single full season. The show was produced by Hill-Eubanks Productions, and syndicated by MCA.

Three individual contestants appeared on the show, one at a time, to be interviewed by Hackett, and then played a True or False quiz of five questions in a particular category. The first correct answer to a question earned $25, and the amount would double with each subsequent correct answer. After the fifth question, the contestant could opt to try to correctly answer a sixth question. If correct, his/her earnings were tripled; incorrect, the earnings were cut in half. Maximum winnings were $1,200.

The secret word was still worth $100; however, if any of the show's three contestants said it, all three would win. The secret word was only uttered by one contestant during the whole run, moments after Hackett bemoaned the fact that nobody had ever said it. The secret word radio was said by 'Miss Dairy' of California.

The contestant with the most money won, came back on stage at the end of the show, to meet "Leonard," the prize duck, where they would stop a rotating device, causing a plastic egg to drop out, which concealed the name of a nice bonus prize to go with their cash winnings; each day's grand prize was a car. (On one episode, a contestant who owned an amphibious car ended up winning a sailboat.)

Original YBYL announcer George Fenneman appeared one time as a guest, and played the game for a member of the audience. Fenneman's announcer/sidekick role was taken over by nightclub entertainer Ron Husmann.

1988 Richard Dawson Pilot

Richard Dawson hosted a pilot for a potential revival in 1988, but NBC declined to pick up the show.

Two teams of two unrelated players came out one team at a time and were asked three questions, either $100, $150 or $200. Later, both teams came out and played four questions each at either $200, $300 or $400. The team with the most money at the end of this round went onto a bonus game. The secret word was around, but since it was never guessed, it's unknown whether the duck survived for this pilot, but Richard told one couple on the pilot "if you say the secret word you'll win $100 each" so based on that it's assumed the secret word was worth $200.

In the bonus game, sidekick Steve Carlson read questions with either true or false answers. The players locked in their answers over 30 seconds. If the players match on five answers and their matched answer is correct, the team won $5,000. If they don't reach five, they earn $200 per correct match.

1992 Bill Cosby version

Marx had suggested to Bill Cosby that he could do the show, when Cosby was still a struggling young comic. Marx died in 1977, but it was not until 1992 that Cosby pursued his suggestion. This version aired from September 7, 1992 to June 4, 1993 (with repeats airing until September 3 of that year) in syndication. Carsey-Werner syndicated the series, the first show they distributed themselves (all product at that point went through what is now CBS Television Distribution). Cosby was joined on this show by a female announcer and sidekick, Robbi Chong, who was referred to as "Renfield".

Main game

In this version three couples competed, each couple playing the game individually. After the couple was introduced, they spent time talking with Cosby. When the interview was done, the game began. Each couple started at $750, and host Cosby gave a category, then asked three questions within that category. Before each question, the couple made a wager. A correct answer added the wager, but an incorrect answer deducted the wager.

The Secret Word in this version was worth $500 and was represented by a black goose wearing a sweatshirt from Temple University, Cosby's alma mater. Maximum winnings, therefore, were $6,500 (including the Secret Word).

The $10,000 bonus game

The couple with the most money played for an additional $10,000. In this game, the winning couple was asked one last question in any given subject. A correct answer won a choice of three envelopes, which were all attached to the blackbird. Two of the envelopes had the bird's head in it, and choosing either of them doubled the couple's money (for a possible maximum of $13,000). The other envelope hid $10,000, for a possible grand total of $16,500.

Low ratings prompted the cancellation of the series after one season; however, Bill Cosby won a Kid's Choice Award while he was hosting the show.

Episode status

Most of the episodes of the Groucho Marx version still exist. Unlike most pre-1973 NBC in-house productions, it was not part of the package of TV series sold to National Telefilm Associates (which later became Republic Pictures Television, Worldvision Enterprises, Paramount Domestic Television, CBS Paramount Domestic Television, and finally CBS Television Distribution).

The reason for NBC holding on to ancillary rights of this version remains unknown to this day, but distribution began with NBC Enterprises as a distribution unit from 2001 until 2004. Since September 2004, NBC Universal Television Distribution handles syndication rights to the Marx version (non-public domain episodes) and the Buddy Hackett version.

Carsey-Werner Productions is the owner of the Bill Cosby version.

References

  1. ^ Life with Groucho, Arthur Marx, Popular Library Edition, 1960
  2. ^ Life with Groucho, Arthur Marx, Popular Library Edition, 1960
  3. ^ Adams, Cecil (1986-07-25). "Did Groucho Marx utter a famous double entendre ad lib on the air?". The Straight Dope. http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_024.html. Retrieved 2007-04-05. 
  4. ^ "The Secret Words". Snopes. Snopes.com. 2007-01-06. http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/grouchocigar.asp. Retrieved 2007-04-05. 

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