Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Warming to Groucho

What’s the easiest way to fill a radio column? Fill it with dialogue with one of your favourite shows.

You Bet Your Life debuted on radio on October 27, 1947. It starred the irreverent Groucho Marx going through the motions of a game show so he fill the air time with one-liners, generally at the expense of the confused contestant. You’d think such a concept would appeal to Herald-Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby, no fan of game shows or the people who appeared on them. It didn’t at first. He panned it, though did he zero on what made the show so appealing.

It’s hard to believe Crosby actually thought “You Bet Your Life” was inferior to Jack Paar’s comedy/variety show which, frankly, was neither bright nor witty. Before his debut, Paar got a huge build-up as a new type of sardonic comedian and then never delivered on it on radio (blaming his failures on everyone but himself). Television helped both Marx and Paar. The latter finally was put into a late-night interview format that fit him. Groucho remained being Groucho. But on television, you could see him. His expressions were the one element that the radio version of “You Bet Your Life” didn’t have and may have been the one addition that pushed the show to popularity (it had bounced around among three networks on radio in 2½ years).

So we have a bunch of Crosby columns about the radio “You Bet Your Life.” You can read a TV review from November 21, 1950 HERE (the show first aired on TV the previous October 4th). This column was published December 9, 1947.
Something certainly ought to be done about Groucho Marx, one of the great men of this century, but the quiz program in which he is now entangled isn’t it. In fact, all of Groucho’s recent enterprises have been somewhat unhappy. He returned to active duty in the movies not long ago in something called “Copacabana.” The critics took a dim view of this venture. Then he reappeared on the air on this quiz show, which is called “You Bet Your Life,” and the radio critics—an ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-clothed group who are not accepted socially in the higher echelons of criticism—again expressed disdain.
“You Bet Your Life” has many of the old wrinkles of quiz shows—people from Brooklyn who know everything, people from Brooklyn who don’t know anything, offstage voices telling you things the contestants don’t know, secret words and, of course, lots and lots of cash. However, there is one new wrinkle. They gamble on this program. Heaven knows what the church groups or the societies for the suppression of all enjoyable activities are going to say when they get wind of this lamentable undertaking, but that’s what they do. They bet money. It must be, the way I figure it, somehow unlawful. It sounds too pleasant to be quite legal.
A contestant is endowed by the sponsors with 30 clams, any part of which he can bet that he knows the answer to the question Groucho is about to ask him. The odds in this gambling hell run from even money to 3 to 1, and there are four questions, any one of which could be answered by Clifton Finnegan in his sleep. This part of the program, I guess, is designed shamefully to arouse the kibitzer that lurks in all of us, and in my case is succeeded in an unexpected way. I was just exasperated by the timidity of these amateurs, and I imagine all the real gamblers were completely alienated. If my arithmetic is in any sort of condition, a bettor could run his 30 fish into 1,440 slugs, provided he plunged his whole wad all along the line. The best anyone did the other night was slightly over 200 bucks. What a bunch of tinhorns.
Groucho is obviously on the wrong end of the betting table here. During his whole career in show business he has earnestly attempted to relieve suckers of the tedium of carrying too much money around. Here he is passing the stuff out in handfuls to the same sort of people he once took it away from. He does it gracefully but his heart clearly isn’t in it. If I had anything to do with this program, things would be changed around completely. The contestants would have to bring their own dough and Marx would see how much he could get away from them by hook or by crook, preferably the latter.
This would be the revolution in quiz programs that everyone has been seeking since “Information, Please” started all the quiz nonsense. After all, if 10 or 20 million radio listeners can get aroused about Mrs. Sadie Glotz winning a four-motored bomber, think how much more excited they'd get if she lost something equally valuable — her life savings, her home, her husband’s business, her husband.
This program would have all the excitement of a quiz contest with the agony of soap opera.
Well, let's get back to “You Bet Your Life” Groucho, an expert at insult, is seriously inhibited by the necessity of being polite to the amateurs, though once in awhile he applies a touch of acid where it’s most needed. To one precocious urchin, whom, I’m sure, he loathed, he remarked: “You’re 10 years old, eh? Have you always been 10 years old?”
I also rather liked a passage of arms between Groucho and a young man who was explaining how he met his wife.
“You see, I drive a truck,” said this young man.
“You ran over her?” inquired Groucho.
"No. No, you see, she works in a restaurant.”
“I don’t understand. You drove the truck into the restaurant?”
Here the young man started all over again and explained that he was driving his truck out to the country to pick up some turkeys at a farm. “The farmer told me I’d find some turkeys out in the barn.”
"And your wife was among them?" asked Groucho.
This is not all characteristic of most of the program, which on the whole is not a satisfactory answer to the problem of what to do with Groucho Marx. I regret to hear that on Dec. 24 "You Bet Your Life" will replace the Jack Paar show on ABC, 930 p m., Wednesdays, which means that a routine quiz is taking the place of one of the brightest and wittiest new voices to be heard on the air for some time.
Crosby warmed up to the show. This review was published January 14, 1949.
Groucho Marx who is considered here periodically for no special reason except that he’s a very funny fellow, is on the agenda again. The excuse this time is that he was selected by the nation’s radio editors as the best quiz master on the air, an infinitely dubious honor which Groucho nevertheless accepted graciously.
“It just goes to show that a man with a moustache can get elected,” he said when informed of his peculiar distinction.
I’m not sure what the requirements for good quizmasting are exactly. (Possession of an encyclopedia is one, I suppose.) Whatever they are, Groucho, I’m sure, hasn’t them but he is certainly the funniest quiz master around and easily the most sardonic, generally acting as if he loathed the profession.
At insulting the contestants, if that’s one of the necessary characteristics of quiz masters, he has no peer. “That’s as shifty an answer as I’ve ever heard,” he complains to the stumblebums. If there’s any hesitancy, Groucho asks solicitously: “You’re still alive, I presume.”
As he did in the movies and on the stage, Groucho manages to inject a leer into the most innocent references. When a woman complains that her husband didn’t buy her clothes, he remarked smoothly: “Doesn’t he ever wonder where they come from?”
“Which are the best customers,” he asked a salesman, “men or women?”
“There isn’t any difference.”
“No difference between men and women? You stick to your business and I’ll stick to mine.”
Groucho is also an expert at rapping his clients by indirection. He blithely told a second-hand car dealer and auctioneer, “Regardless of what I think, you’re probably both honest men.” The puns are outrageous (Is it true that Rexall is a drug on the market?”) and many of the jokes are, too, but Groucho utters them with such insouciant determination that they’re funnier than they ought to be.
Groucho’s greatest contribution to the art of quizzing people is his extraordinary talent for avoiding it.
Ha usually consumes the first 11 minutes of a half-hour show without asking any questions at all. Or at least, any questions that require answers. He may ask a stockbroker what functions he performs “besides giving people bum advice.”
Naturally, he can’t keep this up forever though he tries, with conspicuous gallantry. The quiz malarkey, when it finally comes, is as silly as most and maybe a little sillier. If there are any questions in there that your 11-year-old daughter can't answer, I’d send her back to second grade.
There is, of course, a jackpot question and this, I admit, your daughter may have some trouble with. The contestants rarely get their mits on the $1,500 dangled in front of them for this baby.
The Groucho Marx program, officially known as “Bet Your Life” (ABC 9:30 p. m. Wednesdays), has one unusual gimmick in it. The contestants are endowed by the sponsor with $20, any part of which they can bet with Marx on their ability to answer his questions. If they’re smart, they’ll shoot the works all along the line. A college professor ran his stake up to $420. Following that, Groucho muttered that no one who got past the sixth grade would ever be allowed on the program again. Come to think of it I don’t think any one has, either.
And, finally, this review from February 15, 1950. Crosby’s phoning it in. He basically lets Groucho and the contestants write his column for him.
The Groucho Marx show, formally titled "This Is Your Life" (CBS 9 p.m. Wednesday), still provides the saltiest humor anywhere on the air. If there are any others in the house in addition to myself who collect Marxisms, here are a few for your files.
Some time ago, Marx teamed up Admiral Frederick C. Sherman (retired), former commander of the battleship Missouri, with Apprentice Seaman John Stafford as a pair of quiz contestants. The sailor was pretty nervous and Marx asked him:
"What's the matter--is this the first time you've been close to a microphone?"
"No," said the seaman. "It's the first time I've been this close to an admiral."
Marx glanced up at the admiral and remarked: "You look nervous too. Is this the first time you've been this close to a sailor?"
Then there was the time he asked a mother how much her child ate a day.
"Besides baby food—four bottles a day," she said.
"He eats four bottles a day?" said Groucho. "When you burp him, isn't there danger of flying glass?"
A couple of weeks ago he had a long exchange with a public school official which went approximately like this:
GROUCHO: How old are you?
OFFICIAL: I'm 30, Groucho.
GROUCHO: Judging from my experience, you'd be about in seventh grade. What exactly do you do?
OFFICIAL: I'm the liaison man between the home and the school. I'm the one they send out when they try to find out why a child is not in school.
GROUCHO: You know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were a truant officer.
OFFICIAL: We don't call it that any more.
GROUCHO: When I was a kid we had other names for them too.
OFFICIAL: I remember a time when I visited a home and asked for the mother of a boy . . .
GROUCHO: I've done that too.
OFFICIAL: Before I knew what was happening I was helping the delivery of a child.
GROUCHO: And you were expecting that child in school. You certainly grab them young, I tell you what. Let's have a demonstration. You pretend I'm a high achool boy. I'm not in school and you run into me at Sam's poolroom.
OFFICIAL: Its only fifth period, Groucho. You should be in geometry class.
GROUCHO: I'll play the six ball in the side pocket.
There was a lot more but that's enough of that.
Some weeks back Groucho dredged up a female square dance caller. "Isn't that a rather peculiar occupation for a woman?" he asked.
"Well, it might be," the woman said. "But I think women can do anything men can."
"You think so?" said Groucho. "I'd like to see you get into the steam room at the Elks Club." And later, after she'd described a bit more of her odd profession, Groucho sighed: "Well, I've learned a lot about America tonight. It won't be long before we are investigated."
The closest anyone has come to stopping Groucho recently was a Mrs. Marion Story, of Bakersfield, Cal., who said she had 20 children. Groucho turned to Mr. Story and gasped "Is this true?" The husband confessed that it was.
There was a stunned silence and then Groucho whispered into the microphone to his unseen audience. "Apparently nothing has happened in the last few seconds, anyway."
“You Bet Your Life” carried on until 1961. Fortunately, the show had been shot on film and, even more fortunately, reels upon reels of film were rescued from certain death in the 1970s, repackaged (the editing left a lot to be desired at times), and a whole new generation got to enjoy Groucho’s wit.

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