October 2 is Groucho Marx’s birthday. I’ve written around 100 posts about Groucho and his funny brothers, but have not yet posted on one of the better known Marxian by-products. Believe it or not, younger movie and vaudeville buffs, many folks of my parents generation as well as Baby Boomers, know Groucho first and foremost as the host of the game show You Bet Your Life, which ran on radio (1947-60) and television (1950-60, and syndicated afterwords). Most living folks remember the TV version best.
The show is largely the source, I think, of the widespread idea that Groucho was primarily an “insult comic”, though anyone familiar with his earlier work would call that inaccurate and simplistic — he was one of the greatest surrealist humorists of his day. But Groucho altered his famous persona somewhat for You Bet Your Life, which was a hilariously lame premise for a game show, bolstered by Groucho’s aggressive raking of contestants over the coals. His ad libs weren’t always the wittiest, but his delivery would always carry the day, in any case.
The premise was that Groucho would ask the contestants quiz questions for modest prizes. If they accidentally uttered the day’s “secret woid”, a stuffed duck would be lowered from the ceiling announcing the fact, and they would win a bigger prize. Among the hundreds of contestants were people who were once or future celebrities, people like Tor Johnson, Colonel Sanders or Phyllis Diller. And the announcer of the program, good natured George Fenneman, was Groucho’s straight man.
Later the show was broadcast in reruns, allowing younger generations to partake. Uncle Floyd used to do a funny parody of the show, called, naturally, You Shouldn’t Bet Your Life.
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