Friday, July 18, 2008

You Bet Your Life: Part 1

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You Bet Your Life is an American radio and television quiz show. The first and most famous version was hosted by Groucho Marx, of Marx Brothers fame, with the unflappable announcer and assistant George Fenneman. The show debuted on radio in 1947, then made the transition to the NBC television network in 1950. The television version was changed very little from the radio version. It was filmed before a studio audience, then slightly edited for television broadcast. In 1960 it was renamed The Groucho Show and ran a further year. Reruns most recently aired on America One Television weekly; many of its episodes are in the public domain. Groucho would be introduced to the music of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", his signature song introduced in the 1928 Broadway musical Animal Crackers. Fenneman would say, "Here he is, the one, the ONLY..." and the audience would finish with a thunderous "GROUCHO!" In the early years Groucho would feign surprise: "Oh that's ME, Groucho Marx!"
Much of the tension of the show revolved around whether any of the contestants, in pre-contest conversation with Groucho, would say the "secret word", a common word seemingly selected at random and revealed to the audience at the show's outset. If a contestant uttered the word, a toy duck made to resemble Groucho with a mustache, eyeglasses and with a cigar in its bill, would descend from the ceiling to bring the contestant-pair $100. A cartoon of a duck with a cigar was also used in the show's opening title sequence. In one special episode, Groucho's brother, Harpo came down instead of the duck. Marx would sometimes slyly direct their conversation in such a way as to encourage the secret word to come up.
The contestants were paired individuals, usually of the opposite sex. Sometimes celebrities would be paired with "ordinary" people, and it was not uncommon for the contestants to have some sort of newsworthiness about them. For example, one episode aired soon after the end of the Korean War featured Janet Wang, a Korean-American contestant who had been a prisoner of war.
In the contest itself, contestants would choose among available categories and then try to answer a series of questions dealing with the chosen category. One popular category involved attempting to name a U.S. state after being given a number of cities and towns within the state.
At first, each couple started with $20. They were asked four questions in their given category. For each question, they bet up to all of their money. According to co-director Robert Dwan in his book, As Long As They're Laughing, producer John Guedel changed this because too many couples were betting--and losing--all their money. He changed the format to having couples start with $100, then pick four questions worth from $10 to $100. A correct answer added the value of the question; an incorrect answer cut the previous grand total in half, so that a couple that answered the $70, $80, $90, and $100 questions would end up with $440; missing all four questions would reduce their total to $6.25 (augmented to $25 with a question such as 'Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?').
Later, this was changed to couples answering questions either until they got 2 consecutive questions wrong or answered 4 consecutive questions correctly for a prize of $1,000. Toward the end (1959-61), contestants picked four questions worth $100, $200, or $300; they could win up to $1,200 but needed only $500 to qualify for the jackpot question. The two contestants worked together ("Remember, only one answer between you."). If the couple bet all of their money at any point and lost (or if they ended up below $25), they were asked a consolation question for $25. Consolation questions were made easy, in hopes that no one would miss them, although some people did. The questions were in the style of "Who was buried in Grant's tomb?" "When did the War of 1812 start?" "How long do you cook a three-minute egg?" and "What color is an orange?" although it should be noted that the Grant's tomb question was sometimes answered incorrectly (the correct answer is no one, but Grant was accepted even though people are not buried in tombs). In addition to the quiz prizes was the famous secret-word duck. Eventually, the prize was $100 for saying the secret word. The famous "secret-word duck" was replaced from time to time with a wooden Indian figure.
In all formats, a final question was asked for a jackpot amount for the couple who had gotten the highest total amount during the game.
In the early years (1947-56), the prize for the jackpot question started at $1,000, with $500 added each week until someone correctly answered the question.
With the coming of the big-money quizzes, contestants faced a wheel with numbers from one to ten; one contestant picked a number for $10,000; later on, they picked another number for $5,000. The wheel was spun; if either number came up, a correct answer to the question augmented the couple's total to that amount of money, otherwise the question was worth a total of $2,000. From 1956-59, contestants risked half their $1,000 won in the quiz on a shot at the wheel, one of the two players in a couple could keep their half of the money while the other risked their half; from 1959-61 they risked nothing. Groucho always reminded contestants that "I'll give you fifteen seconds to decide on a single answer. Think carefully and please, no help from the audience." Then a bit of "Captain Spaulding" was used as "think" music.
By 1959, as quiz shows fell out of popularity due to the quiz show scandals, You Bet Your Life (despite being clean) fell out of the top 30 TV shows, to be replaced by non-quiz games such as The Price is Right, which also aired on NBC. NBC hung onto You Bet Your Life despite this through 1960, and in a last-ditch effort, renamed the show The Groucho Show for what would be its last season. Still unable to save the show, NBC cancelled the show in 1961.
The play of the game, however, was secondary to the interplay between Groucho, the contestants, and occasionally Fenneman. The program was hugely successful and was rerun into the 1970s, and later in syndication as The Best of Groucho. As such, it was the first game show to have its reruns syndicated.
The radio program was sponsored by Elgin American watches and compacts. Early seasons of the television show were sponsored by Chrysler, with advertisements for DeSoto automobiles incorporated into the opening credits and the show itself. Each show would end with Groucho sticking his head through a hole in the DeSoto logo and saying, "Friends…go in to see your DeSoto Plymouth dealer tomorrow. And when you do, tell them Groucho sent you." Since most of the series was filmed (as well as aired weekly in prime time, thus saving it from wiping), many episodes have survived and have been available in television syndication for years; reruns continue to this day. A number of episodes have also been released to DVD as "dollar DVDs" of public domain episodes. The pilot episode for the TV version which was originally by CBS is also intact.Seven months after You Bet Your Life ended its 11-season run at NBC, Groucho had another game show in prime-time. It was titled Tell It to Groucho which aired on CBS during the winter and spring months of 1962.There was a parody of this show on the Jack Benny Show, in which Jack pretends to be someone else to get on Groucho's show, and continually blabs in an effort to say the secret word ("telephone"). He gets it by accident when he says he can "tell a phony". However, he is unable to answer the final question, which ironically is about Jack Benny, simply because it asks his real age, which Jack would never give voluntarily. This episode, after its original screening, could only be watched at Groucho's home on film, and even then only if you were invited to see it. After Groucho's death the film eventually appeared in the Unknown Marx Brothers documentary on DVD.

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