1 9 5 0 – 1 9 6 1 (USA)
They called it a game show, but nobody really watched You Bet Your Life to see people win fabulous prizes. There were bigger quiz shows for that.
No, the real reason people tuned in to NBC on Thursday nights was a glasses-wearing, cigar-smoking, sharp-tongued man called Groucho.
The fast-talking Marx Brother was the man asking the questions, but more importantly, he was the one grilling the contestants before the quiz began, delivering his famed one-liners and keeping the audience in stitches.
Before the quiz itself, Groucho had a little chat with the pairs of contestants (everyone played as part of a twosome) there to compete for the prize money.
The host asked them about their hometowns, their occupations, their most embarrassing moments – anything that might set up a good barb or double entendre.
The show’s staff tried to find oddballs, but no matter how ‘normal’ the contestants seemed, Groucho always managed to get off a few zingers.
After an extended interview segment, Groucho started the pair on the path to fortune and glory. The contestants were allowed to pick the subject of the questions themselves, and they decided how much of their initial money to bet.
As questions were answered correctly, the players could increase their bets, trying to outdo the other contestant pairs. No team knew how much the others had earned, and only the team with the highest total went on to the final round, a single question worth at least $1000 (the actual amount increased over the show’s run).
Even for the losing contestants, there was still cash to be had. At the start of the show, announcer George Fenneman delivered the secret word of the day, held by a toy duck. If the lucky contestants said the word at any point, the duck dropped, everyone cheered, and the contestants split an extra $100.
In the show’s final season (during which it was re-titled The Groucho Show), the duck was replaced by novelty acts, including frequent ‘secret word girl’ Marilyn Burtis and one unforgettable surprise appearance by Groucho’s brother Harpo.
Regular folk were the usual (or unusual) contestants, but Groucho also invited the occasional celebrity- Jack Benny, Liberace, Edgar Bergen (with young daughter Candice) and Ray Bradbury among them.
A then-unknown author William Peter Blatty won a nice cash prize as a contestant, using the proceeds to focus on writing The Exorcist. But no matter who stepped on the stage, the star was unquestionably Groucho.
You Bet Your Life began its run as a radio programme in 1947, recorded live as an hour-long programme but edited down to half an hour for radio broadcast – a technique used to cut out both the dull parts and the most off-colour Groucho lines.
The same technique was used for the television broadcasts, which ran simultaneously with the radio programme for several years.
The televised You Bet Your Life went the way of most prime time game shows in 1961, the victim of quiz scandals and dwindling audience interest in the game show format.
But since every episode of You Bet Your Life was filmed, the show has survived in syndication and in packaged video compilations.
Two brief revivals were mounted in 1980 and 1992 – starring Buddy Hackett and Bill Cosby respectively – but the show still belongs to Groucho.
More than 100 ‘lost’ episodes were discovered in July 2000, ready to introduce a new generation of fans to the quick-witted comedy of the funniest game show (and game show host) of television’s golden age.
Secret Word Girl