You Bet Your Life
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|You Bet Your Life|
1955–1960 title card
|Created by||John Guedel|
|Directed by||Robert Dwan
|Presented by||Groucho Marx|
|Narrated by||George Fenneman|
|Composer(s)||Jerry Fielding (1947–1952)
Jack Meakin (1952–1961)
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||16|
|No. of episodes||528 (1947–1961)|
|Running time||22–24 minutes|
|Production company(s)||John Guedel Productions, in association with NBC|
|Original channel||ABC Radio (1947–1949)
CBS Radio (1949–1950)
NBC Radio (1950–1960)
|Original airing||Radio series:
October 13, 1947 - June 10, 1960
Television series: October 5, 1950 - September 21, 1961
You Bet Your Life is an American quiz show that aired on both radio and television. The original and best-known 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 September 1949 before making the transition to NBC-TV in October 1950. Because of its simple format, it was possible to broadcast the show simultaneously on the radio and on television. In 1960, the show was renamed The Groucho Show and ran a further year. Most episodes are in the public domain.
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 mid-1940s was a lull in Groucho Marx's career. His radio show Blue Ribbon Town, sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, had begun in March 1943 and had failed to catch on. Groucho left the program in June 1944, replaced by vocalist Kenny Baker until the show's end two months later. He also reluctantly appeared in two movies with brothers Chico and Harpo Marx, A Night in Casablanca and the lackluster Love Happy.
During a radio appearance with Bob Hope in March 1947, Marx ad-libbed most of his performance after being forced to stand by in a waiting room for 40 minutes before going live on the air. John Guedel, the Hope program's producer, formed an idea for a quiz show and approached Marx about the subject.
After initial reluctance by Marx, Guedel was able to convince him to host the program after Marx realized the quiz would be only a backdrop for his contestant interviews and the storm of ad-libbing that they would elicit. Guedel also convinced Marx to invest in 50% of the show, in part by saying that he was "untouchable" at ad-libbing, but not at following a script.
As Marx and the contestants were ad-libbing, he insisted that each show be filmed and edited before release to remove the risque or less interesting material. The show for the studio audience ran longer than the broadcast version. The president of Film Craft Productions, which did the filming, cited it as the first TV show filmed before a live audience as part of a lengthy essay about production procedures.
Contestant teams usually consisted of one male and one female, most selected from the studio audience. Occasionally, famous or otherwise interesting figures were invited to play (e.g., a Korean-American contestant who was a veteran and had been a prisoner of war during the Korean War).
After his signature introduction of "Here he is: the one, the only..." by Fenneman and finished by a thunderous "GROUCHO!" from the audience, Marx would be introduced to the music of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", his signature song. After which, Groucho would be introduced to the contestants and engage in humorous conversation for a lengthy period of time where Groucho both improvised his responses and employed prepared lines written by the show's writers using preshow interviews.
Some show tension revolved around whether a contestant would say the "secret word", a 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 the 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 sometimes slyly directed conversation to encourage the secret word to come up. The duck was also occasionally replaced with a wooden Indian figure.
After the contestants' introduction and interview, the actual game began. Couples chose from a list of 20 available categories before the show, then tried to answer a series of questions within that category. From 1947–1956, couples were asked four questions.
- 1947–1953 – Each couple began with $20, wagering part or all of their bankroll for each question.
- 1953–1954 – Each couple now began with $0, but selected values from $10 to $100 (in $10 increments). A correct answer added the value of the question to their bankroll, while an incorrect answer did nothing. According to co-director Robert Dwan in his book As Long As They're Laughing, Guedel changed the scoring format because too many couples were betting, and losing, most or all of their money.
- 1954–1956 – The format was slightly altered to start each couple with $100. Incorrect answers now cut their bankroll to that point in half.
- 1956–1959 – Two couples (reduced from three) answered questions until they either gave two consecutive incorrect responses or answered four consecutive questions correctly for a prize of $1,000.
- 1959–1961 – For the last two seasons, couples picked four questions worth $100, $200, or $300 each, potentially winning up to $1,200. Winning at least $500 qualified the team to go for the jackpot question.
From 1947–1956, if the couple ended with $25 or less, Marx asked an elementary consolation question for a total of $25 (later $100) which did not count toward the scores. The questions were made easy in hopes that nobody would answer incorrectly, and included such examples as "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?", "When did the War of 1812 start?", "How long do you cook a three-minute egg?", and "What color is an orange?" The question about Grant's Tomb became such a staple of the show that both Marx and Fenneman were shocked when one man got the question "wrong" by answering "No one". As the contestant then pointed out, Grant's Tomb is an above ground mausoleum.
In all formats, one of the two players on the team could keep their half of the winnings while the other risked their half. In this case, all amounts being played for were divided in half.
- 1947–1956 – The highest-scoring couple was given one final question for the jackpot, which began at $1,000 and increased by $500 each week until won (reaching $6,000 at least once, in 1952). In the event of a tie, the tied couples wrote their answers on paper and all couples who answered correctly split the jackpot.
- 1956–1957 – For a brief period following the format change, couples who won the front game could wager half on another question worth $2,000.
- 1957–1959 – Winning couples now faced a wheel with numbers from 1–10, selecting one number for $10,000. If the number selected was spun, a correct answer to the jackpot question augmented the team's total winnings to that amount; otherwise, the question was worth a total of $2,000.
- 1959–1961 – For the last two seasons, the format was slightly altered to eliminate the risk and add a second number for $5,000.
Seasonal Nielsen ratings covered the period between October and April of the following year. The rating number represents the percentage of homes tuned into that program.
|1958–59||N/A||Below the top r30|
Nielsen also measured the radio version at tenth among radio shows in 1955.
Despite not being involved with the quiz show scandals, the show's popularity waned and You Bet Your Life fell out of the top 25. NBC ended the show in 1961.
The radio program was sponsored by Allen Gellman, president of Elgin American, maker of watch cases 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) with commercials featuring Harpo and Chico, Lever Brothers (Lux Liquid, Wisk Detergent), Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Geritol), and Lorillard Tobacco Co. (Old Gold cigarettes).
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; virtuoso cellist Ennio Bolognini; blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley; strongmen Jack LaLanne and Paul Anderson; actors John Barbour and Ronnie Schell all appeared as contestants while working on the fringes of the entertainment industry.
Harland Sanders, who talked about his "finger-lickin'" recipe for fried chicken which he parlayed into the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants, once appeared as a contestant. A guest purporting to be a wealthy Arabian prince was really writer William Peter Blatty; Groucho saw through the disguise, stating "You're no more a prince than I am because I have an Arabian horse and I know what they look like". 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. General Omar Bradley was teamed with an army private, and Marx 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.
Other celebrities, already famous, occasionally teamed with their relatives to win money for charity. Arthur Godfrey's mother Kathryn was a contestant and held her own with Marx. Edgar Bergen and his then 11-year-old daughter Candice teamed up with Marx and his daughter Melinda to win $1,000 for the Girl Scouts of the USA; Fenneman played quizmaster for this segment. Irwin Allen, Frankie Avalon, Lord Buckley, Sammy Cahn, Ray Corrigan, Sam Coslow, Don Drysdale, Hoot Gibson, Tor Johnson, Ernie Kovacs, Liberace, Joe Louis, Bob Mathias, Harry Ruby, Max Shulman, Fay Spain, John Charles Thomas, and Johnny Weissmuller also appeared on the program, among others. Harpo Marx appeared in 1961 to promote his just-published autobiography, Harpo Speaks.
A much-recounted moment centers around a female contestant named Charlotte Story who had borne eleven children. Supposedly, when Marx asked why she had chosen to raise a large family, the contestant replied, "I love my husband", to which Marx responded with, "I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while!" According to the anecdote, the remark was judged too risqué to be aired, and was edited out before broadcast, but the audio of the audience's explosive laughter was used by NBC for years whenever a wild reception was called for in laugh tracks.
No recorded outtake of the exchange exists, and both Marx and Fenneman denied the incident took place. Interviewed for Esquire in 1972, Marx flatly stated "I never said that." However, Hector Arce, Marx's ghost writer for his 1976 autobiography The Secret Word Is Groucho recounted the claim as fact, but Arce compiled the 1976 book from many other sources in addition to Marx himself, who was ailing then.
Seven months after You Bet Your Life ended its 11-season run at NBC, Marx 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 each of three celebrity pictures being flashed on a screen, each for a quarter 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 Marx's interviews with the contestants before they played the game.
You Bet Your Life was parodied on a live April 1955 episode of The Jack Benny Program, in which Benny pretended to be someone else to get on the quiz show (competing with a female contestant played by Irene Tedrow), and continually blabbed in an effort to say the secret word. In the skit, Benny is unable to answer the final question, which ironically is about himself, simply because it asks his real age, which Benny would never give voluntarily.
After Marx's death, the film appeared in the Unknown Marx Brothers documentary on DVD. A brief clip of this episode also appeared in the 2009 PBS special Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America.
A Bugs Bunny cartoon entitled "Wideo Wabbit" had a scene where Bugs Bunny impersonated Groucho to Elmer Fudd for the game show You Beat Your Wife, a takeoff on the name You Bet Your Life.
The show would begin with Buddy doing a brief stand up routine followed by a brief chat with Husmann. Three individual contestants appeared on each episode, one at a time. The contestants were 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 doubled with each subsequent correct answer. After the fifth question, the contestant could opt to try to correctly answer a sixth question to triple their winnings; however, if the contestant was incorrect, their earnings were cut in half. Additionally, the secret word was still worth $100.
The contestant with the most money returned at the end of the show to meet "Leonard", the prize duck. The contestant then stopped a rotating device, causing a plastic egg to drop out which concealed the name of a bonus prize, one of which was a car.
George Fenneman appeared on one episode as a guest, playing for a member of the studio audience.
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 remained, but since it was never guessed, whether the duck was still used is unknown. However, 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, announcer/sidekick Steve Carlson read questions with either true or false answers. The players locked in their answers over 30 seconds. If the players matched on five answers and their matched answer was correct, the team won $5,000. If they didn't reach five, they earned $200 per correct match.
A version hosted by Bill Cosby 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. Cosby was joined on this show by a female announcer and sidekick, Robbi Chong, who was referred to as "Renfield". Organist Shirley Scott contributed the jazzy theme music, and the program was taped in Philadelphia.
Three couples competed, with 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 was staked with $750 and were then asked three questions within a category presented at the start of the game. Before each question, the couple made a wager, which would be added to their winnings if they were correct or subtracted if they were incorrect. The secret word in this version, worth $500, was delivered by a stuffed toy black goose dressed in a sweatshirt from Temple University, Cosby's alma mater.
The couple with the most money advanced to the bonus round, in which they were asked last question in any given subject. A correct answer won a choice of three envelopes, which were all attached to the goose. Two of the envelopes displayed the goose's face and would double the couple's money, while the third awarded an additional $10,000.
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.
Most of the episodes still exist, with 1954–61 episodes syndicated by NBC as The Best Of Groucho. A number of episodes have also been released to DVD. Also existing is the unaired pilot episode (TV version), which was produced for CBS on December 5, 1949.
Unlike most pre-1973 NBC in-house productions, it was not part of the package of series sold to National Telefilm Associates (later 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, but distribution began with NBC Enterprises as a distribution unit from 2001 to 2004. Since September 2004, NBCUniversal Television Distribution handles syndication rights to the Marx (non-public domain) and Hackett versions.
In the United States, public domain and official releases were distributed on home video by the following companies:
- NBC Home Video (1984–85)
- Ambrose Video (1988–98)
- Brentwood Home Video (1998–2001)
- Alpha Video Classics (2001–11)
- Goodtimes DVD (2000–02)
- Passion Productions (2005–present)
- Brentwood Communications (2005–08)
- BCI Navarre (2011–present)
Additionally, two official DVD compilations were released by Shout Factory; the first was You Bet Your Life: The Lost Episodes, released in 2003, which contains 18 episodes not seen since the original broadcasts, as well as numerous bonus features, including outtakes, a behind-the-scenes piece, and rare audio clips. A second release, You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes, followed in 2004 and includes another assortment of 18 episodes, as well as three series pilots featuring Marx among its bonus features.
Carsey-Werner Productions owns the Cosby version, as it produced that revival with Cosby.
- Life with Groucho, Arthur Marx, Popular Library Edition, 1960
- Lindenbaum, Isodore. "You Bet Your Mark." Television, August 1952, 31-32. http://www.americanradiohistory.com/Archive-Television-Magazine/Television-1952-Aug.pdf
- "The Busy Air". Time magazine. February 7, 1955. Retrieved 2009-01-07. "The Nielsen ratings of the top ten radio shows seemed to indicate that not much has changed in radio: 1) Jack Benny Program (CBS), 2) Amos 'n' Andy (CBS), 3) People Are Funny (NBC), 4) Our Miss Brooks (CBS) 5) Lux Radio Theater (NBC), 6) My Little Margie (CBS), 7) Dragnet (NBC), 8) FBI in Peace and War (CBS), 9) Bergen and McCarthy (CBS), 10) Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life (NBC)."
- Charlotte Chandler. Hello, I must be going: Groucho and his friends. Doubleday, 1978, p 190
- Groucho Marx. The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx. Simon & Schuster 2007 p 311
- Adams, Cecil (July 25, 1986). "Did Groucho Marx utter a famous double entendre ad lib on the air?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved April 5, 2007.
- "The Secret Words". Snopes. Snopes.com. January 6, 2007. Retrieved April 5, 2007.[dead link]
- Clips of You Bet Your Life (Marx era)
- You Bet Your Life radio shows on archive.org
- Episodes from the TV show (Public Domain)
- You Bet Your Life (1950) at the Internet Movie Database
- You Bet Your Life (1992) at the Internet Movie Database
- Snopes.com page about the "I love my cigar..." urban legend
- The Day My Grandfather Groucho and I Saved 'You Bet Your Life'