George Fenneman 1949, 1950-1961
|FilmCraft Productions (1947-1961)|
The Hill-Eubanks Group (1980-1981)
Carsey-Werner Company/Bill Cosby (1988-1993)
|MCA Television (1980-1981)|
Carsey-Werner Company (1992-1993)
One of the many classics of game shows where your knowledge is tested in order to win cash and prizes.
Contestants were usually a male and a female, chosen by a complicated process with the goals of finding interesting, talkative people. Most were selected from the studio audience, and interviewed by Fenneman; then two were shown in a "test" to the studio audience, who picked the one they preferred. (Habitual game show attendees were excluded.) Sometimes famous or otherwise interesting figures were invited. For example, an episode soon after the Korean War featured a Korean-American contestant who had been a prisoner of war. By the time of the performance Groucho had a general idea of what topics might arise, but mainly resorted to scripted jokes only as necessary to avoid situations where a contestant was not talkative. The show for the studio audience ran longer than the broadcast versions, so that less interesting or risque material could be removed.
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!"
The Secret WordEdit
Some show tension revolved around whether a contestant would say the "secret word", some common word revealed to the audience at the show's outset. If a contestant said the word, a toy duck resembling Groucho with a mustache, eyeglasses and with a cigar in its bill, descended from the ceiling to bring a $100 bill. A cartoon of a duck with a cigar was also used in opening title sequence. In one episode, Groucho's brother, Harpo, came down instead of the duck, and in another, a model came down in a birdcage with the money. Marx would sometimes slyly direct conversation to encourage the secret word to come up.
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.
1947-1956: At first, each couple started with $20. They were asked four questions in their category. For each, 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 is buried in Grant's Tomb?").
1956-1959: Later, this was changed to couples answering questions either until they got 2 consecutive questions wrong or answered four consecutive questions correctly for a prize of $1,000.
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 [in later years, it became $100—as Groucho occasionally reminded his contestants, "Nobody leaves here broke"]. Consolation questions were made easy, in hopes that no one would miss them, although some people did. The questions were in the style of "When did the War of 1812 start?" "How long do you cook a three-minute egg?" and "What color is an orange?".
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.
1947-56: The jackpot question started at $1,000, with $500 added each week until someone correctly answered the question, the highest was $6,000 in 1952.
1956-1961: While for the 1956-1957 season, the final question mearly doubled the money to $2,000, with the coming of the big-money quizzes, a new element was added: contestants faced a wheel with numbers from one to ten; one contestant picked a number for $10,000; from 1959-1961, 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 the $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 "Captain Spaulding" was used as "think" music.
In the event of a tie in the main game, the tied couples played the endgame, with a correct answer splitting the jackpot amongst them.
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. Unable to save the show with renaming, NBC canceled it in 1961.
The play of the game, however, was secondary to the interplay between Groucho, the contestants, and occasionally Fenneman. The program 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 first sponsored by Elgin American watches and compacts during its first two and a half seasons. Later seasons of the television show (as well as the radio show, after January 1950) 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 'em Groucho sent you." Still later sponsors included The Toni Company (Prom Home Permanent, White Rain Shampoo), Lever Brothers (Lux Liquid, Wisk Detergent), Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Geritol), and Lorillard Tobacco Co. (Old Gold cigarettes).
Many episodes survive and have been in television syndication for years [The Best Of Groucho, originally syndicated by NBC from 1961 through 1968, consisted of episodes from the 1954-61 period]; reruns continue to this day. A number of episodes have also been released to DVD as "dollar DVDs" of public domain episodes. The unaired pilot episode for the TV version which was originally produced for CBS in December 1949 is intact.
Seven months after You Bet Your Life ended its 11-season run at NBC, Groucho had another game show in prime-time, Tell It to Groucho, which aired on CBS during the winter and spring months of 1962. The game involved three pictures being flashed for three quarters of a second. The couple won $500 for each picture they identified. If the couple could not identify any of the three pictures, they were shown one picture and won $100 for a correct guess. As in You Bet Your Life, the focus of the show was on Groucho's interviews with the contestants before "playing the game".
There was a parody of You Bet Your Life on a live April 1955 episode of The Jack Benny Program, in which Benny 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" [later, Groucho says knowingly, "I can tell a phony, too"]. However, he is unable to answer the final question, which ironically is about Benny, simply because it asks his real age, which Benny would never give voluntarily (incidentally, his real age at that time was 61). This episode, after its original airing, could only be watched at Groucho's home on film (he asked for and received a personal kinescope copy), and even then, only if one was invited to see it. After Groucho's death the film appeared in the Unknown Marx Brothers documentary on DVD. A brief clip of this appeared in the 2009 PBS special Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America.
The interviews were sometimes so memorable that the contestants became celebrities: "nature boy" health advocate Robert Bootzin; hapless Mexican laborer Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez and his offhandedly comic remarks; a witty housewife named Phyllis Diller; author Ray Bradbury; blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley; strongman Paul Anderson. John Barbour, and Ronnie Schell appeared as contestants while working on the fringes of the entertainment industry.
A courtly Southern gentleman, Harland Sanders, talked about his "finger-lickin'" recipe for fried chicken, which he parlayed into the "Kentucky Fried Chicken" chain of restaurants. A guest purporting to be a wealthy nobleman was really writer William Peter Blatty; Groucho saw through the disguise ("You're no more a prince than I am"). Blatty won $10,000 and used the leave of absence the money afforded him to write The Exorcist. No one in the audience knew who contestant Daws Butler was until he began speaking in Huckleberry Hound's voice; he and his partner went on to win the top prize of $10,000. Cajun politician Dudley J. LeBlanc, a Louisiana state senator, demonstrated his winning style at giving campaign speeches in French.
Arthur Godfrey's mother Kathryn was a contestant and held her own with Groucho. Edgar Bergen and his then 11-year-old daughter Candice teamed up with Groucho and his daughter Melinda Marx to win $1,000 for the Girl Scouts of the USA. Fenneman got to play quizmaster for this segment. General Omar Bradley was teamed with an army private, and Groucho goaded the private into telling Bradley everything that was wrong with the army. Professional wrestler Wild Red Berry admitted that the outcomes of matches were determined in advance, but that the injuries were real; he revealed a long list of injuries he had sustained.
Among contestants were established names from entertainment, literature, and sports: Ernie Kovacs, Hoot Gibson, Ray Corrigan, John Charles Thomas, Max Shulman, Sammy Cahn, Joe Louis, Bob Mathias, Johnny Weissmuller, Sam Coslow, Harry Ruby, Liberace, Don Drysdale, Tor Johnson, and Frankie Avalon. Harpo Marx showed to promote his just-published autobiography, Harpo Speaks.
The cigar incidentEdit
A story recounts the appearance of a female contestant who spoke in broken English. The contestant offered that she had borne eleven children, to which Groucho remarked "Eleven children!" The contestant innocently replied, "I love my husband", to which Groucho responded with, "I love my cigar, but I take it out once in a while!" The audience laughed for minutes. The remark was judged too risqué to be aired, and was edited out before broadcast, but the audio of the audience reaction was used by NBC for years whenever bring-down-the-house laughter was called for in laugh tracks.
Groucho and Fenneman denied the incident took place. Groucho was interviewed for Esquire magazine in 1972 and said "I never said that." Hector Arce, Groucho's ghost writer for his autobiography The Secret Word Is Groucho inserted the claim that it happened, but Arce compiled the 1976 book from many sources, not solely Groucho himself.
Seasonal Nielsen ratings covered the period between October and April of the following year. A rating number represents the percentage of homes tuned into a program.
- October 1950- April 1951: 36.0 (17th overall)
- 1951-52: 42.1 (10th)
- 1952-53: 41.6 (9th)
- 1953-54: 43.6 (3rd)
- 1954-55: 41.0 (4th)
- 1955-56: 35.4 (7th)
- 1956-57: 31.1 (17th)
- 1957-58: 30.6 (10th)
- 1958-59: N/A (below the top 25)
- 1959-60: N/A (below the top 25)
- 1960-61: N/A (below the top 25)
Later incarnations of the showEdit
1980 Buddy Hackett versionEdit
In 1980, Buddy Hackett hosted a similar show with the same title which failed to run a single full season. The show was produced by Hill-Eubanks Productions, and syndicated by MCA.
Three individual contestants appeared on the show, one at a time, to be interviewed by Hackett, and then played a True or False quiz of five questions in a particular category. The first correct answer to a question earned $25, and the amount would double with each subsequent correct answer. After the fifth question, the contestant could opt to try to correctly answer a sixth question. If correct, his/her earnings were tripled; incorrect, the earnings were cut in half. Maximum winnings were $1,200.
The secret word was still worth $100; however, if any of the show's three contestants said it, all three would win. The secret word was only uttered by one contestant during the whole run, moments after Hackett bemoaned the fact that nobody had ever said it. The secret word radio was said by 'Miss Dairy' of California.
The contestant with the most money won, came back on stage at the end of the show, to meet "Leonard," the prize duck, where they would stop a rotating device, causing a plastic egg to drop out, which concealed the name of a nice bonus prize to go with their cash winnings; each day's grand prize was a car. (On one episode, a contestant who owned an amphibious car ended up winning a sailboat.)
Original YBYL announcer George Fenneman appeared one time as a guest, and played the game for a member of the audience. Fenneman's announcer/sidekick role was taken over by nightclub entertainer Ron Husmann.
1988 Richard Dawson PilotEdit
Richard Dawson hosted a pilot for a potential revival in 1988, but NBC declined to pick up the show.
Two teams of two unrelated players came out one team at a time and were asked three questions, either $100, $150 or $200. Later, both teams came out and played four questions each at either $200, $300 or $400. The team with the most money at the end of this round went onto a bonus game. The secret word was around, but since it was never guessed, it's unknown whether the duck survived for this pilot, but Richard told one couple on the pilot "if you say the secret word you'll win $100 each" so based on that it's assumed the secret word was worth $200.
In the bonus game, sidekick Steve Carlson read questions with either true or false answers. The players locked in their answers over 30 seconds. If the players match on five answers and their matched answer is correct, the team won $5,000. If they don't reach five, they earn $200 per correct match.
1992 Bill Cosby versionEdit
Marx had suggested to Bill Cosby that he could do the show, when Cosby was still a struggling young comic. Marx died in 1977, but it was not until 1992 that Cosby pursued his suggestion. This version aired from September 7, 1992 to June 4, 1993 (with repeats airing until September 3 of that year) in syndication. Carsey-Werner syndicated the series, the first show they distributed themselves (all product at that point went through what is now CBS Television Distribution). Cosby was joined on this show by a female announcer and sidekick, Robbi Chong, who was referred to as "Renfield".
In this version three couples competed, each couple playing the game individually. After the couple was introduced, they spent time talking with Cosby. When the interview was done, the game began and its usually signified by Bill saying "we're gonna give you some money." Each couple started at $750, and host Cosby gave a category, then asked three questions within that category. Before each question, the couple made a wager. A correct answer added the wager, but an incorrect answer deducted the wager.
The Secret Word in this version was worth $500 and was represented by a black goose smoking a cigar and wearing a sweatshirt from Temple University, Cosby's alma mater. Maximum winnings, therefore, were $6,500 (including the Secret Word).
The $10,000 bonus gameEdit
The couple with the most money played for an additional $10,000. In this game, the winning couple was asked one last question in the same subject as before. A correct answer won a choice of three envelopes numbered 1, 2 & 3, which were all attached to the blackbird. Two of the envelopes had the bird's head in it, and choosing either of them doubled the couple's money (for a possible maximum of $13,000). The other envelope hid $10,000, for a possible grand total of $16,500.
Cosby would end each show with a funny saying, mostly a twist on a familiar saying.
Low ratings prompted the cancellation of the series after one season; however, Bill Cosby won a Kid's Choice Award while he was hosting the show.
Secret Word GirlEdit
Annnouncer (90s Version)Edit
Music (90s Version)Edit
Bill Cosby & Shirley Scott
Board Games based on the 1950-1961 version was manufactured by Pressman in 1954 and Lowell in 1955.
A book called The Secret Word is Groucho was released by Putman in 1976.
A book called As Long As They're Laughing! was released by Midnight Marquee in 2000.
Many episodes of the original 1950-1961 version as well as the 1949 pilot are available on home video through a variety of video distribution companies.
A slot machine based on the original 1950-1961 version was released to american casinos by WMS Gaming in 2006, The Groucho Bonus is triggered when 3 Groucho Symbols land on an active payline. An animated Groucho wheel out a pick board. The board has 16 selectable areas from which the player reveals awards. Starting off with three picks, the possible awards behind each of the areas are credit awards, credit awards +1 extra pick, and an extra pick or a duck. The player continues selecting spaces until there are no more picks left. At that point Groucho throws any ducks that have been collected up to the top screen, on the top screen are a combination of large credit amounts and extra picks. The player wins on of these awards for each duck earned. If the player is awarded extra picks, then after all ducks ahve been used, the player returns to the lower screen, and continues picking, The bonus ends when there are no more picks or collected ducks remaining.
In the duck bonus, three duck symbols on reels 3, 4 and 5 on an active payline trigger the bonus. On the top screen, 13 ducks appear. each worth a credit amount. On the bottom screen, touch [RollDiceButton]. On the top screen, the arrow in the center of the duck circles moves the amount of spaces indicated by the dice and points to a duck. credits are awarded for the duck and the multiplier moves up one level. The dice rolls again to move the arrow to a new duck for more bonus credits. The duck then turns into a bomb whenever they are awarded. When the arrow landws on a bomb, the bonus ends and the multiplier level reached multiplies all bonus credits. (NOTE:Secret duck symbols present on the 3rd reel trigger The Secret Duck Pay, If a symbol with a secret duck is part of a winning combination, additional credits, The Groucho Bonus or The Duck Bonus are awarded.)
The Marx series exists nearly in its entirety due to the fact that unlike most game shows that were recorded on tape that were usually wiped to reuse the media, this show was shot on film.
In Popular CultureEdit
- In an episode of Animaniacs, there was a parody of You Bet Your Life called "You Risk Your Life". Yakko was the host and Dr. Scratchnsniff was the announcer. If the contestant said the secret word, they would be hit in the head with a mallet from Wakko.
- You Bet Your Life was also parodied on Sesame Street. That version was called "Here is Your Life". It was hosted by Guy Smiley.
- The popular 90s sketch-comedy show, In Living Color, also parodied You Bet Your Life (Cosby-era only) as "You Bet Your Career" with Jamie Foxx as Bill Cosby, featuring has-been stars competing for a walk-on role in current sitcoms.
What Do You Want? - Unsold pilot from 1961
Tell it to Groucho - CBS spinoff aired in 1962
- ↑ Life with Groucho, Arthur Marx, Popular Library Edition, 1960
- ↑ Did Groucho Marx utter a famous double entendre ad lib on the air? - Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope April 5, 2007
- ↑ The Secret Word April 5, 2007