The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
At the beginning of the 1940s, the Marx Brothers had announced their retirement as a team. And, okay, they made two more movies to help settle some of Chico’s gambling debts, but for the most part the three of them had moved on. Chico began fronting an orchestra and Harpo was making solo public appearances. It wasn’t long into this lull that Groucho felt the need to strike out on his own and find a new venue for his brand of humor. He found just what he needed in radio, as the host of the quiz show You Bet Your Life. Although, to call it a quiz show seems a little inaccurate. There were contestants, questions and cash prizes, but they all served as the framing device to let Groucho showcase his quick wit.
If you’ve seen or heard You Bet Your Life (first of all, you have no excuse since they’re in the public domain and you can download them for free at archive.org) the game itself was pretty inconsequential. There would be two contestants brought on from the audience, and Groucho would banter with them, making comments and jokes as they went along. As Hector Arce puts it in his biography Groucho, “The contestants were carrying the conversational ball and, to a large degree, Groucho was being cast as the world’s funniest straight man.”
Instead of being the manic mischief-maker he was in the Marx Brothers movies, now he was reacting and thinking on his feet. Many of his jokes were ad-libbed, though some were fed to him through an early form of the teleprompter system. However, Groucho’s comedic chops would never let you think that he wasn’t speaking off the cuff. Other times contestants were guided right into a punchline without realizing it. (Groucho to a psychic: “What is your disposition usually?” The psychic: “I’m generally a happy person.” Groucho: “Oh… It’s not often you find a happy medium.”) The original radio show was also one of the first game shows to be prerecorded, allowing Groucho to talk and ad-lib as much as he wanted, knowing that it would all be cut down to just the best half hour of material.
When the television episodes were syndicated later on, they were severely edited, making complete episodes of the show pretty rare, but The Paley Center has something that’s even rarer: the You Bet Your Life “stag reel.” Or to put it another way, a compilation of too-racey-for-the-1950s outtakes that were never broadcast. In it we see Groucho completely unleashed and in peak form. Sometimes all he has to do to get the audience to laugh is look over at them and raise his eyebrows a few times, but more often than not, it’s a well-placed bit of wordplay that turns a guest’s innocuous statement into the perfect double entendre.
Appearing on the reel are a number of short clips that do a fantastic job of encapsulating what made Groucho great, and it all seems to be in the timing. The pauses before a punchline, the glance at the audience to let them know he’s on the same page, the puff of the cigar before delivering the perfect combination of words. After watching a few of these outtakes, one begins to see that each clip falls into one of three categories of blooper (I don’t know if anyone has ever needed the singular form of “bloopers” before, but I’m going to assume that’s what it should be.). The first category consists of Groucho interviewing a contestant (often a little old lady) who says something they believe innocuous, that the audience interprets as dirty. For example, a woman who tries to explain to Groucho what an electric mixer does, says that "you put your business in there" which then sets the audience off. Groucho sits back and after a beat declares: "Clip, clip, clip! Here we go again!"
The second category is when Groucho is the instigator. For example, in one clip Groucho interviews a woman that the show's announcer, George Fenneman introduces on the stag reel as a "generously endowed housewife." As soon as he begins to address her, the audience begins to giggle, imagining what sort of comment Marx will make. "At ease!" he commands. The woman, not seeming to get the joke, laughs along with the audience before Groucho adds, "I guess in this case it's impossible!"
The third category is less frequent in these clips, but it involves Groucho saying something and not even trying to get away with it. Through all of these episodes he knows he’s being recorded and edited, so why not go for it? One example comes when a stagehand walks on stage to reset the scoreboard behind Groucho then quickly sprints off. “Lotta pep for a guy with six kids,” Groucho says. “It’s terrible, what with the population exploding like it is in this country. Every nine months in his house.” He pauses for just a moment. “Doesn’t even wait until it’s cooled off…”
The most interesting thing for me was to look at the sort of thing that was deemed offensive during this time. For example, one sure-fire laugh-getter during this time seemed to have been any innuendo that a young person was having sex before marriage. For example, when a kindly old lady who ran a boarding house talks about having to use a broom to keep the boys away from the girls, Groucho naively asks what was going on that she needed a broom. She hesitantly responds "Oh…just…different things," and the audience erupts. I know it's kind of ridiculous to write an article about old television and then point out how crazy it is that these people are different from us today, but, look how different these people are from us today! "Just different things," was a phrase that was censored for innuendo! You could probably say that on Yo Gabba Gabba without an issue today.
In 1958 the quiz show scandals rocked Television Land, causing most viewers of these programs to become cynical, and ratings for all of these shows including honest ones like You Bet Your Life began to dwindle. After one clip on the outtakes reel, Groucho quips to the audience, “we may not be crooked but we are certainly obscene.”
From 1958 to 1961 when the show was canceled, You Bet Your Life had fallen completely out of the top 25 shows. At this point Groucho was 71, and though we would continue to work, nothing would ever match the success of his previous career highs. Though many would try to emulate the man, after seeing this collection of him in top form I can safely say that no one was able to match the quick wit and comedic presence of Mr. Groucho Marx.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.