Series: You Bet Your Life
"Welcome, welcome, welcome from your DeSoto-Plymouth dealer. Say the Secret Word and divide a hundred dollars — it's a common word, something you always have with you. note "
—The most well-known version of Groucho Marx's introductory spiel to contestants.
Comedy Game Show
that ran from 1947-61, hosted by Groucho Marx, who established a career in radio (later television) after the break-up of the Marx Brothers
The idea for the show came from a guest spot Groucho did on Bob Hope
's radio show. While waiting to come on stage, Groucho got so impatient waiting in the cold room that he furiously upstaged Hope with a stream of adlibbed wisecracks that Hope could barely keep up with. The radio show's producer, John Guedel, later asked Groucho if he could do an improv show like that on command. Groucho confidently confirmed it, but initially balked at the idea of hosting a quiz show until the producer assured him that the real action would be conversations with the contestants. As it happened, Groucho just had a radio show cancelled and was concerned that his career was in trouble, so he agreed to try it out and never regretted that choice.
At the start of each show, the audience was informed of the night's Secret Word. If any contestant happened to say it while they were on the air, they won an extra $100. If the word was said, a stuffed duck dropped from the ceiling with the $100 attached.
The quiz consisted of question-and-answer rounds in which contestants bet all or part of an initial purse on their ability to answer the questions in a chosen category. The questions weren't really that difficult, and the two members of a team were allowed to collaborate. The format itself changed over the years, though:
- 1947-53: Couples began with $20 and could risk any part of it on questions. Four were asked, with a maximum payout of $320.
- 1953-54: While the starting value was dropped, couples now answered questions ranging from $10-$100 in $10 increments. The more a question was worth, the harder it was, with no penalty for a wrong answer and a maximum payout of $320 ($100-$90-$80-$70).
- 1954-56: Around March 1954, the starting point returned (now $100) and wrong answers now halved the bankroll; as a result of the starting point, the maximum payout became $440 and the minimum was $6.25. Probably the most recognizable format.
During the above period, teams that won a very negligible amount were asked an obvious-answer question for $25, such as "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?" Amusingly, they got the money even if they were wrong
- 1956-59: The goal was now to give four consecutive right answers for $1,000, as two consecutive wrong answers ended the game. Probably as a result, the show went to using just two couples. (A score display was added to Groucho's podium by April 1957.)
- 1959-61: Returned to the "four questions" structure, but now being chosen from a tray with slots marked "$100", "$200", and "$300" (as before, with appropriate difficulty). While the maximum payout was $1,200, only $500 was needed to win; as was the case from 1953-54, there was no penalty for wrong answers.
But none of this was really the point of the show — it was really about Groucho interacting with interesting people while getting off whatever zingers he could.
starred Buddy Hackett
(1980-81) and Bill Cosby
(1992-93). There were also three unsold pilots with Richard Dawson (of Family Feud
fame) in 1988 for NBC.
- Bonus Round: The jackpot question, which had several payouts depending on the era.
- 1947-56: Played by the highest-scoring couple (in the event of a tie, the couples wrote down their answers and gave them to Groucho, with a correct answer getting a share of the pot). Began at $1,000, increasing by $500 each week until won.
- 1956-57?: Doubled the money to $2,000, although only if a winning couple elected to risk half their $1,000. From this point onward, it was very possible for half of a couple to leave (in which case all amounts were halved), and even for the bonus game to not be used at all.
- 1957?-59: The winning couple picked a number and spun a 10-space wheel. If the number was landed on, they played for an augmentation to $10,000; otherwise, the same $2,000.
- 1959-61: Same as above, except the other half of the couple chose a second number for $5,000.
- 1992-93: The couple that had won the most money was asked one last question. If they answered correctly, they chose one of three envelopes; two of these doubled their winnings, while the third awarded an additional $10,000.
- Bonus Space: The Secret Word, which awarded $100 (briefly increased to $101 during the 1955-56 season) if uttered. When that happened, a toy duck came down on a wire with the money. Once, Harpo Marx came down with the money instead!
- Carried by the Host: It wasn't so much a Game Show as it was Groucho flexing his interviewing skills, which is why he took the job in the first place.
- Game Show Appearance:
- The Jack Benny Program once had Benny appear on You Bet Your Life, but was confronted with the jackpot question of (paraphrasing) "Jack Benny has always claimed to be 39 years old, but what is his real age?"
- In Living Color! did a Cosby-era spoof titled "You Bet Your Career", with has-been stars competing for a walk-on role in current sitcoms.
- Progressive Jackpot: The jackpot question for the first nine years. The highest it ever got was $6,000.
- Think Music
This show provides examples of:
- Abandonware: Most of the radio and TV episodes are in the public domain.
- Animated Credits Opening: Several, but most notably the one with a cartoon Groucho and three others singing the praises of the 1955 "new DeSoto".
Groucho: Oh, drive the new DeSoto at your DeSoto-Plymouth dealers todaaaaaaay!
- Aside Glance: Groucho would do this any time a comment could remotely be considered funny or racy, always triggering laughter. It reached the point of a Pavlovian response, later on he would frequently do one over nothing or a completely innocuous statement, just to "trick" the audience into laughing.
- Audience Participation: The audience always introduced Groucho.
- Expy: Two For The Money, a similar 1950s game which was half host Herb Shriner talking to the contestants, half playing the game.
- Forgotten Theme Tune Lyrics: "Hello, I Must Be Going / Hurray for Captain Spaulding!" from Animal Crackers.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Being a censor in charge of monitoring this show must have been one hell of a challenge, because Groucho would just throw up so many damn targets.
Groucho: <discussing becoming an actress and a mother> That won’t be easy. How do you plan to go about that?
Contestant: Well, if I keep both feet on the ground and stay focused, I think I can.
Groucho: If you keep both feet on the ground you'll never become a mother.
Groucho: <pauses until laughter dies down> That's what you call wasted footage, folks.
- Groucho Says Something Funny: There is less of that than is popularly thought. While Groucho was of course free to think up quips as he could, the contestants were interviewed by the writers beforehand and prepared jokes and comments for Groucho to read on a hidden projection when he felt he couldn't improvise a good line. The beauty is how he still made it look so ad lib.
- Long Runner: The Marx era lasted 14 years, and the television version is one of the few primetime games to last a decade.
- Mascot: The Secret Word Duck, called Julius during the Marx era and Leonard during Hackett's (Leonard was Hackett's real first name and Julius was Marx's).
- Pilot: In The Eighties, a pilot was shot with Richard Dawson as host, but it was not picked up.
- Secret Word: 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. Groucho sometimes slyly directed conversation to encourage the secret word to come up.
- Self-Deprecation: Often used by Groucho in response to his introduction.
Fenneman: And now, here he is — the one, the only...
Groucho: Is that bum still in town? Oh, that's me!
- Sound to Screen Adaptation: Attempted in December 1949, began in October 1950. Notably, the TV pilot was the last episode with original sponsor Elgin-American; DeSoto took over on the next episode (the first of 1950) and remained for most of the decade.
- Straight Man: Announcer/sidekick George Fenneman.
- That Came Out Wrong: Groucho never ever let a unintentional double entendre by a contestant slip by without comment. Because of this, the audience developed an almost Pavlovian response, and would begin laughing whenever Groucho paused, often interpreting something racy he himself hadn't spotted.
... And when you're there, tell 'em Groucho set ya!