You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes

This essay was first published in the 2004 Shout! Factory DVD release, You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes.

Thirty years before David Letterman brought the concept of stupid human tricks into the public consciousness a man went on national television, put the valve of an automobile tire inner tube to his lips and blew into it until it exploded. This might have seemed like something out of the ordinary for most television shows but on You Bet Your Life Groucho Marx talked to people like that every week for 14 years. But where did a guest like this come from? He didn’t just happen to be in the studio audience with his inner tube. The truth is that – all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding – You Bet Your Life was quite well planned.

As early as 1952, after only two seasons of You Bet Your Life on television, TV Guide ran an article called, Does Groucho Marx Really Ad Lib? It stated that, “Because of the uproarious dialogue and rapid-fire gags, some have the idea that prepared comedy material is used by the star of You Bet Your Life.” Producer John Guedel was interviewed for the article, which shed a bit of light on the show’s creative process. “All the contestants are chosen before show time by the studio audience. But Guedel’s scouts round up beforehand the types of contestant they are looking for. Here’s the way it works. The brain trust decides they want some undertakers on the show. Two scouts round up six undertakers in town. They are called on stage by announcer George Fenneman. He puts them through some ad lib paces. He then asks the studio audience to indicate by their applause the two undertakers they want to appear on the show. Marx never sees the contestants until airtime. The show’s writers and idea men have previously prepared for Groucho an outline with leading questions relative to the contestants’ backgrounds. No gags, just questions. On the air Marx slips the contestants the leads and he’s off.”

It was a simplistic explanation that certainly omitted some key aspects of the show’s preparation but Guedel was truthful in admitting that Groucho didn’t simply stroll on stage with no idea of what was to happen. It was acknowledged that the show had “writers and idea men” and that Groucho had some preparation. It was also well known that the show was pre-recorded and edited down to broadcast length from a longer performance. But apparently TV Guide was convinced that there was more to the story. Two years later they ran another article called, The Truth About Groucho’s Ad Libs, saying, “Despite the fact that Marx is considered the deadliest ad libber currently active, You Bet Your Life is nevertheless carefully planned, rehearsed and written. It is to the credit of the producer, the director, the writers and Marx himself that the show seemingly has more genuine spontaneity than any other major show on the air – and it’s done on film, at that.” 

Actually the fact that the show was filmed should not have been considered a hindrance to the spontaneity. It enabled Groucho to ad lib more. Whatever didn’t work could be edited out of the show. The filming became such an important aspect of the show’s production that new technology was developed to make it easier. A month before You Bet Your Life made its television debut, Variety reported, “A new 35mm film magazine which holds 2,000 feet of negative has been developed for use on the Groucho Marx show. A larger spool enables producers to shoot from 20 to 22 minutes of film without interruption. Standard 35mm mag now holds 1,000 feet. With the Marx show requiring continued shooting to catch the gagster’s ad lib antics, new larger spool used on seven cameras will enable filmers to make 30,000 feet of negative for each show. Final print, however, will run 2,700 feet.”

The seven camera set up was certainly a new and unusual approach. Three pairs of cameras were positioned as they would be for a normal three camera shoot. The seventh was a spare that was used to cover any action that might have been missed. By putting two cameras at each position the filming could remain continuous for the full hour of the You Bet Your Life performance. As the first set of cameras were about to run out of film the second set would start rolling. This gave the crew about twenty minutes to reload the first set. Eventually an eighth camera was added and the setup consisted of four pairs of cameras. In Groucho’s 1976 book, The Secret Word Is Groucho, director Bob Dwan discussed the process. “We’ve never taken any particular credit for this, but we really invented the multicamera system. We wanted to be able to edit and to have Groucho talk to people and not have to stop. Videotape wasn’t invented at this point.”

But what about those people Groucho was talking to? Some of them might have come from the studio audience but they didn’t get there without going through a lengthy process first. Marion Pollack, a member of the You Bet Your Life staff for eleven years said, “I was assigned to dig up people who would be interesting. My principal job in recruiting contestants was to read the papers and look for human interest stories.” The entire staff was always on the lookout for potential contestants. And sometimes they had very specific requirements. In a famous exchange from the show’s early days Groucho asked a tree surgeon if he’d ever fallen out of a patient. Bob Dwan recalls that they might have come up with the line first and then sent their scouts out to find a tree surgeon.

In As Long As They’re Laughing!, Dwan’s recent book about the show, he discussed the preparation of the contestants and the writing process. “The procedure was for the writers to conduct extensive interviews with the [contestants], usually two to three hours, and then write a complete script. The scripts from the writers went to Bernie Smith who did a re-write and passed it along to John Guedel for his perusal and contributions. Finally we took it to Groucho. Every Tuesday morning for 14 years, Bernie and I made the trek up the hill to Groucho’s Beverly Hills home bearing the script for the following week’s performance. He went through it line by line, changing words and phrases, adding jokes, throwing some out. The conclusion from all this would seem to be that the entire show was scripted. Not so. Going into performance we did have a full script with jokes and routines and many open questions. During the performance, both Groucho and the guests made their contributions. Some of those additions were retained in the final broadcast. Some were rejected. Some of the original script was retained in the final broadcast. Some was rejected.”

It’s ludicrous to think that a top-rated hit television comedy show did not have writers, but this idea was promoted by the show itself. Each week the credits rolled on You Bet Your Life and there were no writers credited. They were listed under the mysterious description of “program staff.” “Co-director” Bernie Smith was actually the head writer. In The Secret Word Is Groucho, Howard Harris, who was a You Bet Your Life writer for seven years said, “… during the time I was on the show there was always the fantasy that no writers are connected with it. Most people think the show was one hundred percent ad lib. It was nevertheless the most spontaneous show on the air, but the contestants had to know what to feed Groucho. … Overall he had a high average of ad-libs.”

Producer John Guedel and Groucho, himself gave numerous interviews outlining the production process, even mentioning the fact that there were indeed writers. But they did selectively omit some details, like the existence of scripts and Groucho’s use of a teleprompter. Bob Dwan discussed the teleprompter in The Secret Word Is Groucho. “We had a device directly behind the contestants which worked like an overhead projection at a bowling alley. Only Groucho saw it.”

But Groucho could never really be sure of what a contestant might say, so he could never completely rely on anything scripted. The contestants, with occasional exceptions, were not professional actors. Even with prepared dialogue there was never any guarantee that they would deliver it properly. The script merely gave him a framework and the relevant information about the contestants. According to Bernie Smith, “Groucho didn’t want to get that closely involved in the preparation. He wanted to be fresh when he went out there. We had a pretty good idea, but time after time Groucho would come out there, and be wild, and we had no idea what was happening. That’s when we had the great shows. When he was at his peak you could never write for this man. He was much better than any writer could ever be.”

And of course Groucho could never know in advance whether or not a contestant would be good. Howard Harris pointed out the obvious. “If the guests were disappointing, Groucho didn’t give them as long. He’d drop the interview and get to the game. There was only one fail-safe line: ‘Now it’s time to play You Bet Your Life.’”

According to Bob Dwan, the challenge of needing to “shift verbal gears at any moment” was one of Groucho’s main pleasures in doing You Bet Your Life. In 1955 Groucho told New York Post columnist Earl Wilson, “The show is a breeze. I meet with the director every Tuesday for two hours – and that’s it. Other than that I go to the [Brown] Derby on Wednesday night at 7, enter the theater at 8, get pancake slapped on my kisser by a makeup man, warm up the audience with a firebrand and some elderly jokes, do the show, discard the pancake and – unless I pick up a dame on Sunset Boulevard – am back home at 10.”

Occasionally an article would tell exactly how the show was put together, acknowledging that the preparation was all geared toward giving Groucho an environment in which he could be spontaneous and ad lib with the guests. These articles just weren’t as sensational as the ones that suggested something fishy was going on. And if the existence of a script and a teleprompter could be considered fishy, then the scandal mongers were on to something.  And some secrets were just impossible to keep. A small item in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1957 stated, “You’d never know it from watching that master quizzer Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life, but every week a 40 page script is prepared for the show. Proves again that the best ad libs are those which are rehearsed.”

In a 1954 Los Angeles Mirror column Hal Humphrey wrote, “A few of his jealous colleagues and those people who take great pride in being ‘in on the know’ will tell you that anyone could do the show if he had all of the help Groucho has. They point to the fact that many contestants are hand picked, that the show is filmed and taped (for radio) for 50 minutes and edited down to just the cream, and that there are writers hovering in the background. Groucho is even accused of rehearsing some of his contestants, a canard with no basis in fact. He has a capsule dossier on his subjects – their hobbies, background, etc. – as do all quiz and panel emcees, but has met none of them prior to the show. But to a legion of fans it doesn’t matter what the mechanical procedure is, or how Groucho does it. All they know or care about is that he comes up each week with a brand of entertainment which tops most of the stuff on TV or radio, and apparently defies imitation because there is only one Groucho Marx.”

In 14 years on radio and television You Bet Your Life remained fundamentally unchanged. They tried a few different variations on the quiz format and moved the artificial potted plants around the set a few times. When the other quiz shows started to give away huge sums of money, Groucho even increased the prize for saying the secret word from $100 to $101.  But it was always about Groucho. A 1956 NBC advertisement said it best: “One man on a chair has drawn more viewers over the last six years than any other attraction on television.” And what about those 2500 interesting and unusual characters that he talked to? Groucho would simply say, “Well, it’s been very interesting chatting with you but now it’s time to play You Bet Your Life.”

© 2004 Robert S. Bader