- You Bet Your Life
show_name = You Bet Your Life
runtime = 30 minutes
creator = John Guedel
Groucho Marx George Fenneman
country = USA
network = NBC
October 5, 1950
September 21, 1961
num_episodes = 429
"You Bet Your Life" is an American
radioand television quiz show. The first and most famous version was hosted by Groucho Marx, of Marx Brothersfame, with the unflappable announcer and assistant George Fenneman. The show debuted on radio in 1947, then made the transition to the NBC television networkin 1950. The television version was changed very little from the radio version. It was filmed before a studio audience, then slightly edited for television broadcast. In 1960 it was renamed "The Groucho Show" and ran a further year.
Reruns most recently aired on
America OneTelevision weekly; many of its episodes are in the public domain.
Groucho would be introduced to the music of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", his signature song introduced in the 1928
Broadway musical"Animal Crackers". 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
Much of the tension of the show revolved around whether any of the contestants, in pre-contest conversation with Groucho, would say the "secret word", a common word seemingly selected at random and revealed to the audience at the show's outset. If a contestant uttered the word, a toy
duckmade to resemble Groucho with a mustache, eyeglassesand with a cigarin its bill, would descend from the ceiling to bring the contestant-pair $100. A cartoon of a duck with a cigar was also used in the show's opening title sequence. In one special episode, Groucho's brother, Harpo came down instead of the duck. Marx would sometimes slyly direct their conversation in such a way as to encourage the secret word to come up.
The contestants were paired individuals, usually of the opposite sex. Sometimes celebrities would be paired with "ordinary" people, and it was not uncommon for the contestants to have some sort of newsworthiness about them. For example, one episode aired soon after the end of the
Korean Warfeatured Janet Wang, a Korean-Americancontestant who had been a prisoner of war.
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. stateafter 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 given category. For each question, 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's buried in Grant's Tomb?').
Later, this was changed to couples answering questions either until they got 2 consecutive questions wrong or answered 4 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. Consolation questions were made easy, in hopes that no one would miss them, although some people did. The questions were in the style of "Who was 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?" although it should be noted that the Grant's tomb question was sometimes answered incorrectly (the correct answer is no one, but Grant was accepted even though people are not buried in tombs). In addition to the quiz prizes was the famous secret-word duck. Eventually, the prize was $100 for saying the secret word. The famous "secret-word duck" was replaced from time to time with a
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 a bit of "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 such as "The Price is Right", which also aired on NBC. NBC hung onto "You Bet Your Life" despite this through 1960, and in a last-ditch effort, renamed the show "The Groucho Show" for what would be its last season. Still unable to save the show, NBC cancelled the show in 1961.
The play of the game, however, was secondary to the interplay between Groucho, the contestants, and occasionally Fenneman. The program was hugely successful and 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 sponsored by Elgin American watches and compacts. Early seasons of the television show 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 them Groucho sent you."
Since most of the series was filmed (as well as aired weekly in
prime time, thus saving it from wiping), many episodes have survived and have been available in television syndicationfor years; reruns continue to this day. A number of episodes have also been released to DVDas "dollar DVDs" of public domainepisodes. The pilot episode for the TV version which was originally by CBSis also intact.
Seven months after "You Bet Your Life" ended its 11-season run at NBC, Groucho had another game show in prime-time. It was titled Tell It to Groucho which aired on
CBSduring the winter and spring months of 1962.
There was a parody of this show on the
Jack BennyShow, in which Jack 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". However, he is unable to answer the final question, which ironically is about Jack Benny, simply because it asks his real age, which Jack would never give voluntarily. This episode, after its original screening, could only be watched at Groucho's home on film, and even then only if you were invited to see it. After Groucho's death the film eventually appeared in the Unknown Marx Brothers documentary on DVD.
The program staff was always on the lookout for contestants with unusual occupations or lifestyles. These usually gave Groucho enough material for a lively, funny interview session. The interviews were sometimes so memorable that the contestants became celebrities: "nature boy" health advocate
Robert Bootzin; hapless Mexican laborer Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalezand 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 Schellappeared 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 very successful " Kentucky Fried Chicken" chain of restaurants. An exotic guest purporting to be a wealthy nobleman was really a young writer named Bill Blatty; Groucho saw through the disguise ("You're no more a prince than I am"). William Peter Blattywon $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 Butlerwas 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. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his 11-year-old daughter Candice Bergenteamed up with Groucho and his daughter Melinda Marxto win $1,000 for the Girl Scouts. George Fenneman got to play quizmaster for this segment. General Omar Bradleywas teamed with an army private, and Groucho goaded the private into telling Bradley everything that was wrong with the army. Professional wrestler Wild Red Berryadmitted that the outcomes of matches were determined in advance, but that the injuries were real; he revealed a long list of injuries he'd sustained in his career.
Other contestants were established names from entertainment, literature, and sports:
Ernie Kovacs, Hoot Gibson, Ray Corrigan, John Charles Thomas, Max Shulman, Joe Louis, Bob Mathias, Johnny Weissmuller, Sam Coslow, Harry Ruby, Liberace, Don Drysdale, Tor Johnsonand Frankie Avalon, among many others. Even Groucho's brother Harpo Marxshowed up to promote his just-published autobiography.
The "Grant's Tomb" question
The "easy" consolation prize question "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" actually is quite tricky. First, since
Grant's Tombis above ground, no one is technically "buried" in it at all. Secondly, it contains the sarcophagi of both President Grant and his wife, who presumably would both have to be mentioned for an accurate answer.
This question was later referred to on the TV series "
The Golden Girls", where two of the characters have to answer the question not on "YBYL", but as the final "question" on " Jeopardy!".
The cigar incident
One often-told story recounts the appearance of a male contestant who spoke in broken English, and who was clearly an easy mark for the quick thinking Marx. In the course of the usual pre-game interview, Groucho was putting the man at ease by asking questions about his life. The contestant offered that he had eleven children, to which Grouch remarked "Eleven children!". The contestant innocently offered "I love my wife", to which Groucho responded with the now famous "I love my cigar, but I take it out once in a while!" The audience laughed for minutes. The story goes that the remark was judged too risqué to be aired at the time, and was edited out before the radio broadcast, but the audio of the audience reaction was used by NBC for many years whenever bring-down-the house laughter was called for in
laugh tracks. No copy is thought to survive. [Cite web | last = Adams | first = Cecil | author-link = Cecil Adams | title = Did Groucho Marx utter a famous double entendre ad lib on the air? | work = The Straight Dope | date = 1986-07-25 | year = 1986 | url = http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_024.html | accessdate = 2007-04-05]
The story has taken on the trappings of an
urban legendover the years. Both Groucho and Fenneman denied the incident ever took place. Groucho was interviewed for "Esquire" magazine in 1972 and said "I never said that." Hector Arce, Groucho's ghost writerfor 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. He probably was unaware Groucho had gone on record denying the claim a few years previously. [cite web | title = The Secret Words | work = Snopes | publisher = Snopes.com | date = 2007-01-06 | year = 2007 | url = http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/grouchocigar.asp | accessdate = 2007-04-05 ]
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
Buddy Hacketthosted 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.
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.
Original YBYL announcer George Fenneman appeared one time as a guest, and played the game for a member of the audience.
1988 Richard Dawson Pilot
Richard Dawsonhosted 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 one 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 a 30 second period. If the players match on 5 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 Cosbythat 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 and taped a season of the program for the syndication market. Carsey-Wernersyndicated the series, the first show they distributed themselves (all product at that point went through what is now CBS Television Distribution).
In this version three couples competed, each one played the game individually. When each one came out, they usually spend some time talking with Cosby. When the interview was done, the game began. Each couple started at $750, and host Cosby gave a category & asked three questions under that category. Before each question, the couple in play made a bet based on how much they know about the category. A correct answer adds the wager, but an incorrect answer deducts the wager. The Secret Word in this version was worth $500. Maximum winnings, therefore, were $6,500 (including the Secret Word).
The $10,000 bonus game
The couple with the most money goes on to play for $10,000 in cash. In this game, the winning couple got to answer one last question on any given subject. An incorrect answer ends the game, but a correct answer won a choice of three envelopes (which are all attached to the blackbird, this version's duck who wore a
Temple University[Cosby's alma mater] sweater). Two of the envelopes had the bird's head on it, choosing one of them doubles the couple's money (up to $12,000); while only one adds $10,000 to the winning couple's total, for a possible grand total of $16,500.
The show's results were so unsatisfactory that most of the stations who initially bought it soon either stopped showing it entirely or moved it to a time slot in the middle of the night, and it was canceled after one season. Bill Cosby won a Kid's Choice Award while he was doing the show.
* [http://www.tv4u.com Clips of "You Bet Your Life", Groucho's TV version]
* [http://www.archive.org/details/YouBetYourLifeKIBM Groucho's "You Bet Your Life" radio shows on archive.org]
* [http://www.pdcomedy.com/ClassicTV/GrouchoMarx/YouBetYourLife.htm Clips from the TV show in Windows and Real Media formats] (
*imdb title|id=0042171|title=You Bet Your Life (1950)
*imdb title|id=0103585|title=You Bet Your Life (1992)
* [http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/grouchocigar.asp Snopes.com page about the "I love my cigar..." urban legend]
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