By Jeff Siniawsky
Groucho Marx was the greatest comedian ever! Yes, there were Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Prior, who each belong on the Mount Rushmore of comedians and without whom there would not be modern comedy. But, Groucho completely changed the nature of comedy. The quickness of his wit, the intelligence of his humor and his ability to toss off lines remain unparalleled.
You Bet Your Life was Groucho’s career transition after the Marx Brothers had run their course in movies. The show began on radio in the 1940s, born of an improvised skit Groucho did with Jack Benny. By the time You Bet Your Life came to television in 1950, the format was well established.
You Bet Your Life was ostensibly a quiz show. It really was mostly a format for Groucho’s ad-libs and one liners. Pairs of guests were brought out to be interviewed by Groucho prior to playing the quiz game. This is what the show was really about. The interview format, as well as the quiz game, formed a perfect platform for Groucho’s wit, using his questions of the contestants to set up his lines. The contestants played the unwitting straight men to Groucho’s seemingly endless stream of his trademark puns and double-entendres. Sometimes Groucho would ask questions intended to make his guests uncomfortable, such as asking them to comment on the other’s appearance. Mostly, it was a display of Groucho’s unmatched wit and humor. There’s a wonderful urban legend about Groucho’s wit on the show. We’ll tell that story below.
Yes, You Bet Your Life was done 50-60 years ago. It’s ancient history. That doesn’t mean it’s not still worthwhile to check out, and maybe even learn yourself something. You Bet Your Life offers us a glimpse into what America was like in the very early days of television.
It’s interesting to note how certain things remain the same after 60 years. You Bet Your Life’s producer was very important. The guests/contestants on You Bet You Life were not selected at random. They weren’t picked because they were smart quiz show contestants. The contestants/guests were picked by the producers because they were quirky or interesting or could provide fodder for Groucho’s gentle mocking. This is still the basis for reality tv, no one wants to watch boring smart people, except on Jeopardy.
You Bet Your Life shows that the use of branding is not something new. Although it has been brilliantly re-applied to online entertainment by Wilson Cleveland and others, branded entertainment has been around since radio days. For several seasons You Bet Your Life was sponsored by DeSoto, a now defunct car company. The show would begin in a branded manner with Groucho seen driving a DeSoto on the open road, integrating the car into the show.
Looking back at an America from 50-60 years ago we do see some things that are a bit cringe worthy. While Groucho wasn’t afraid to pair people of different races together on stage at a time when segregation was still institutional, there was a disproportionate lack of people of color, as there was on most of television and radio at the time. More bothersome is the sexism that was displayed. While it wasn’t unusual for Groucho to comment on physical attributes of male and female contestants, pretty women were objectified. What was fascinating was the women’s reactions; modest in an age of modesty. The times were so modest that if you watch a clip of out takes deemed too racy to be aired you won’t even take notice. One particular exchange though with a female contestant is really a WTF moment, something you knew was true but still can’t quite believe. The contestant was a young woman in college at USC. She was studying finance and economics so she could, wait – get this- so she could manage the household finances when she got married. Drop head into hands and slowly shake it in disbelief.
We’ve talked about Groucho’s wit being the basis for You Bet Your Life. One particular exchange with a contestant has achieved the status of urban legend. Groucho both confirmed and denied it in separate interviews. It goes like this. A woman contestant told Groucho she had 11 children (or 12 or 17 or 19 depending upon the version of the story).
“Eleven children?” Groucho exclaimed. “Why do you have so many kids?”
“I love my husband,” the woman replied.
“I love my cigar, too,” said Groucho, “but I take it out once in a while.”