Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Tell it to Groucho

Groucho’s always been my favourite of the Marx Brothers (sorry, Zeppo) and he had the longest career, thanks to hooking up with producer John Guedel and starring in one of the funniest radio/TV game shows ever. “You Bet Your Life” had a perfect (and necessary) mesh of components—Groucho’s one-liners, a duck falling from the ceiling, a “secret woid,” smooth and friendly George Fenneman to lend a bit of sanity, and contestants who were either uncomfortable or unintentionally funny, but always real people the audience couldn’t help but like.

Death comes, as it does to all television shows, and so it came to “You Bet Your Life.” Guedel shrewdly repackaged the old shows as “The Best of Groucho” and successfully launched them in the syndication market. In the meantime, the original show was dismantled and put back together again. But the perfect mesh was no longer there, so viewers watched something else.

But, as you can tell in this article by the Associated Press in 1962, there were high hopes for it. And as Groucho used a quiz show as a springboard for his comedy, so the AP’s entertainment writer used a quiz show to get Groucho’s feelings about television comedy, which makes for a better story.

He's Bringing Back Some Chuckles to Sensitive TV
NEW YORK, Jan. 21 (AP)—After one of the shortest retirements from weekly television on record, mustached Groucho Marx has come back with a new show, “Tell It to Groucho.”
Well, it’s sort of a new show. Its name is new, it’s on another network — CBS — after 11 years on NBC, and as Groucho explains, “We’ve discarded some of the things associated with the old shows — the duck, the secret word and George Fenneman, our announcer — but it’s recognizable.”
It’s still a game show with nominal amounts of “money” at stake, but Groucho’s game has always been a flimsy, unimportant framework to support his humor, and the contestants have always been human walls off which the comedian bounces his irreverent, sometimes fierce and always distinctive shafts.
“I never intended to stay away,” remarked Groucho during a recent visit to New York. “I’ve saved my money, sure, but you must have a dominant force if yon want to be happy and not get bored. And with me, it is working.
“I read a lot, but you can’t spend all your time reading. I don’t have any flair for wood carpentry and there are no power tools in my cellar—to be truthful, I don’t even have a cellar. I never play cards, and although I like golf, I couldn’t make a career out of it. So—I work.”
Marx is a thoughtful, pleasant man of 66 who, like most top comedians, does not feel the compulsion to perform off-camera as well as on. A performer for more than 50 years (He started as a soprano in a boy’s choir and graduated at 11 to a vaudeville troupe), Groucho believes that no comedian should do a show on his own every week—about once a month at the very outside.
“It’s entirely different in my case,” he added, lighting a fresh cigar. “Because I’m working with the help of the format of the show—the contestants coming in with ridiculous problems and we can discuss them facetiously.”
Groucho, like all the other performers with sharp wit and opinions of their own, is concerned about the steadily shrinking freedom in TV for the play and flash of humor and satire.
“There’s so little left that you can satirize in television,” he mourned. “The theater is the only place left where it can really be done—it’s the only place left where they aren’t scared, where they don’t care if some toes get stepped on.
“Way back in the 1920s when Franklin P. Adams was writing his column he complained that the only thing you could attack without fear of protest was the man-eating shark. Today, I imagine, there’s a society to protect the reputation of man-eating sharks.
“I doubt very much whether Fred Allen could get away with his characters in ‘Allen's Alley’ today—he’d surely hear from the South about Sen. Claghorn. And I remember I had some words with Fred once about Mrs. Nussbaum—I didn’t like it because I thought he was portraying a Jewish woman as a caricature.
“On one of my shows I had a plumber, and, of course, I made some jokes about forgetting his tools. I immediately got all sorts of angry letters, including one from the head of the plumber’s union. I even got angry letters after mother-in-law jokes.
“But now I feel that comedy is losing a great deal because of these restrictions. They are confining the whole field. I think, perhaps, that I can get away with it—perhaps a little better than most. I’ve been around for a long time, people are accustomed to laughing at outrageous things I say so—once in a while I can sneak a truth or a bit of real satire in.
“One of the things is that people don’t remember the bad things you do for any length of time—they remember the good things. That’s what permits us to survive.”
The show staff scouts for people with light-hearted problems—a woman so tiny she fits only into children’s clothes, including underwear; a woman with a husband who snores; a widow who lives alone and has no one to pull up back zippers.
Filming the show occupies Groucho one evening a week at the studio from 7:30 to 10:30 firing questions and wisecracks. Before that he works over his material. Although he does not meet the contestants ahead of show time, he knows something about them, and anticipates what they’ll be saying.
The show, in its final half-hour form, represents a heavily-edited version of the interviews—the good material is left, the lesser stuff deftly excised. Thus, out of every five minutes worth of dialogue, the home audience sees perhaps two or less.

“Leave it to Groucho” debuted on Thursday, January 11 (9-9:30). By May, The New York Daily News had announced its cancellation and the last show was scheduled May 30 (some stations delayed it and ran it on weekends). One critic of the day summed up the problem: the first show featured a mother and daughter who were both looking for husbands, ones who had to cope with their 13 cats. There were only so many of those kinds of people around. The critic avoided mentioning the fact that the amateurish young lady who was now performing Fenneman’s old role was little more than decoration for the male audience, something evident whenever she opened her mouth.

Groucho was replaced by “Brenner,” which had already failed on the network twice. And his AP interview proved to be amazingly psychic. People don’t remember the bad TV show Groucho did. “Tell it to Groucho” is long-forgotten. Instead, they remember his wit in those brilliant movies of the ‘30s and an 11-year quiz show. It’s why Groucho is still loved today. You can bet your life on that.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that Groucho's complaints of 50 years ago sound the same as some comedians' complaints today, over the restrictions on what you can say/make fun of due to the fear of offending someone.

    Fenneman really did fulfill the Zeppo/Margaret Dumont role on "You Bet Your Life" of the affable straight man Groucho could bounce lines off of. Replacing him with a woman probably ran into the same problem Groucho had when he was bouncing lines off Thelma Todd in "Monkey Business" -- still funny, but you've still got to take something off your fastball compared to the lines you can use in the other situations.