Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rant #362: You Bet Your Life

Today is the anniversary of the debut of one of the most beloved game shows of all time.

On October 27, 1947, "You Bet Your Life" debuted on radio. It later moved over to TV, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Hosted--if that's what you want to call what he did--by Groucho Marx, the show brought the wit and wisdom of Groucho to a whole new audience.

The format was pretty simple. Groucho would ask a question about a wide variety of topics, and the two contestants had to answer. Each time they answered, they moved up a notch in the money area. During the run of the series, the value of the questions ranged from $10 to $100. I think it even got higher than that, but I am not sure.

Anyway, contestants could also get the "Secret Word," which was a pre-picked word that, if said, would net them extra money. A duck came down with a crisp $100 bill. One time, Harpo Marx actually came down with the loot.

But all of this was secondary to the quips Groucho made to the contestants and to the audience. George Fenneman, the announcer on the show who became forever linked with the comedian, would come out and say, "Here he is, the one and only ... GROUCHO!", the audience would clap, and Groucho was on from there.

The comedian would ad lib from there, and much of what he said never made the air. Thus, I believe the show was the first game show to go through an editing process, as what the audience saw was much longer than the half hour show that was aired. Groucho would get into amusing banter with pretty contestants, and heavy editing had to be done on these sequences.

But Groucho was the show, and eventually, that was acknowledged, and during the last year or so of its run, it became known as "The Groucho Show."

One story, which has been taken to task by experts and cannot be proven because not all the shows are intact, had Groucho speaking with a contestant who had 11 children. He said to her, "Why do you have 11 children?" and she responded, "Because I love my husband."

Groucho supposedly responded, "Well, I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while."

The audience supposedly roared, but that repartee was removed from the broadcast and it can't be proven whether it actually happened or not.

The program ran until 1960, but was heavily rerun in the 1970s, and that is when I picked up on it. It was supposedly the first game show ever to be revived in syndication reruns.

Although I always preferred Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges as far as movie comedy groups, this show cemented Groucho, at least with me, as one of the great comedians. I really was never much of a Marx Brothers fan, but the reruns of this show were the backbone of the Marx Brothers revival in the early to mid 1970s, and since Groucho was still alive then, he became a fixture on talk shows, including "The Tonight Show."

And he was witty, and had a keen eye for the ladies, even then.

There have been a few revivals of the show since Groucho's death, one with Buddy Hackett and the other with Bill Cosby, but they both failed dismally. There was also a pilot with Richard Dawson which I don't believe ever aired.

The show was Groucho, and that is why these efforts failed, even though the talent involved was of a very high level.

There will only be one Groucho, and that's what made "You Bet Your Life" one of the most successful TV game shows in history. It's available on DVD and is well worth a look.

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