Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The One, The Only, You Bet Your Life

The quiz show scandals claimed the lives of plenty of shows rife with phoniness. But one game show with an element of fakeness was untouched because no one cared.

That show was “You Bet Your Life.” The actual quiz part wasn’t fake, but the contestant interviews that took up a good portion of the programme were at least semi-scripted.

Critic John Crosby explained why no one cared in this 1950 column. It’s the same reason you wouldn’t care today. The show is just plain funny.

Groucho on Television Just as Funny As Radio—Only More Moustache, Cigar
NEW YORK, Nov. 21.— The Groucho Marx television show, “You Bet Your Life,” is identical with the Groucho Marx radio show except that television adds the moustache, the cigar, the eye-glasses, the wildly rolling eyes, the ferocious eyebrows and the rest of Marx’ disheveled countenance.
Groucho is an expert at the use of all these personal props and they contribute a great deal to the humor of the program. There is a certain loss, though. The Marx show originally acquired fame as the quickest and best ad lib operation in the business. It became less and less of a quiz show, which is all right with me, and more and more a gag show. However, the ad libs began to sound too round, too firm, too fully packed to be quite ad libs.
Television has taken this process even farther. “So you’re a photographer,” Groucho asks a pretty lady contestant. “If you were covering a murder, what would you do first?”
“I’d shoot the corpse.”
“That’s redundant. What’s the next thing you’d do?”
“I’d shoot the witnesses.”
“You’ve shot everyone in sight. Who do you work for, Tripod—a magazine or Murder, Inc.?”
As you can see, it sounds a little too practiced, a little too forced, to be quite real. Still, Groucho, an expert at milking lines till they’re dry as sunbeams, gets more out of that material than you’d believe possible.
“I had a hobby hooking rugs?” one girl told him.
She got a long, eloquent look.
“You had a hobby hooking rugs?” inquired Groucho. “Where from—department stores?”
“I got so good at it, I started to teach.”
This time Groucho put the cigar in operation, twirling it, puffing it, all but swallowing it. “A Fagin—teaching little children to hook rugs.”
And so on. Groucho can belt a pun around for minutes at a time without it ever touching ground. I’m prepared to believe he can do this extemporaneously but I somehow can’t quite believe the contestants can handle their straight lines without prior warning.
Of course, the Marx TV show, like the radio show, is a rather special operation. It is film recording, which is to say it isn’t kinescope. That means it is filmed in front of a studio audience and the filming can go on as long as possible. Then the editors get to work, cutting out the dull spots, and making both Groucho and the contestants appear at-their best. They still sound as if they'd been rehearsing. TV has imposed its curious requirements on Marx and his producers, the main requirement being that the contestants be reasonably fetching to look at. (Groucho has a lot of assets but good looks are not among them.)
Parading in front of the cameras you'll find a lot of pretty babes, who are not over-burdened with information. You never needed an awful lot of information to run up a pretty good score on the Marx show. However, the current crop of pretties, especially selected for television, I presume, don’t seem to have any information at all tucked away in their handsome noodles.
The other night the contestants had no idea where Gettysburg was or the names of the capitals of Austria or Cuba. Two pairs of contestants wound up broke, whereas the old radio contestants used to average a hundred bucks or so apiece. Fortunately, the quiz angle doesn't intrude much.
“You Bet Your Life” is fundamentally a tour de force for Groucho—his moustache, his sliding walk, and his puns—and it’s a very funny show—even if they do rehearse those ad-libs. Ultimately, I expect, the ad-lib show will end up with four high-priced writers and a full two weeks’ rehearsal. They might even teach those pretty blondes where Gettysburg is.

In some ways, television isn’t all that different than 60 years ago. Today, if someone tries something new and it’s a success, imitation versions choke the broadcast air. So it was with “You Bet Your Life.” Fred Allen had a quip show with contestants. So did Herb Shriner. And Edgar Bergen. And Johnny Carson. Carson’s lasted awhile but none had the success of the one, the only Groucho.

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