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'You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes'

Cover for the DVD <i>You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes</i> (Shout Factory 2004)
Cover for the DVD You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes (Shout Factory 2004)

Broadway playwright George S. Kaufmann, who wrote the stage versions of many of the Marx Brothers film comedies, was often annoyed at Groucho Marx's on-stage ad-libbing. "Shhh," Kaufmann would mutter occasionally to the standing-room patrons who were roaring at the star's antics. "I think I just heard one of my jokes."

If Groucho's skill at improvisation was an annoyance to writers -- especially those in the rigorously scripted world of early radio -- producer John Guedel suggested a format that would turn it to advantage in 1947: A quiz show, in which the quiz would be the least important part of the show.

You Bet Your Life went on to become a 14-year smash hit on radio and television. Hugely popular almost from the moment a duck dropped into the picture to reveal the secret word that could earn contestants an extra $100, the shows amount to little more than an excuse for Groucho to chat with his guests. Where other shows offered big prizes, this one kept the payouts piddling, but offered lots of laughs.

You Bet Your Life, which aired from 1950 to 1961 on television and for three years before that on radio, wasn't quite as ad-libbed as it sometimes claimed to be. Though announcer George Fenneman and Groucho engage in some obviously scripted chatter, the show's writers were initially listed only as "program staff" in the credits, and TV Guide occasionally ran "exposes" about how contestants were screened, and how Groucho was prepped for them beforehand.

All of this was standard for quiz shows -- and still is -- but the fact that everything sounds spontaneous made viewers wonder. Watching this collection's 18 episodes, you’d be hard-pressed not to note the occasional set-up to an obvious punch line. But with a host as irrepressible as Groucho, there's also plenty of freestyling.

What’s included: In addition to the 18 full programs -- which include appearances by elderly Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, prize fighter Joe Louis, an organ grinder and his monkey, and a guy who blows up an innertube until it explodes -- there's plenty of bonus material in the three-disk set's nine-plus hours.

Nowhere is the bonus material more impromptu than in the "Stag Reel" collections on each of the three disks. Each episode was recorded in a 50-minute session, and was then edited down to a half hour for the air.

With twice as much material recorded for every show actually being broadcast, there were millions of feet of extra film after a few years. Happily, the producers saved the racy out-takes, so some of the best survived.

Mild bathroom humor, references to the quiz show scandals plaguing other shows and double-entendres that would barely raise eyebrows today prompt huge laughs, much blushing by contestants and Groucho’s frequent quip, "That’s what's known as a waste of film."

Some of the other extras are less interesting. Misbegotten pilot programs centered on Groucho mostly make a case for why they never clicked, and Phyllis Diller, who made her television debut as a contestant, simply mocks her own makeup and fashion sense in a worthless voice-over commentary.

But when Groucho introduces "Candy Bergen and Melinda Marx" on the first show, and an 11-year-old Murphy Brown prances out accompanied by a pint-sized squirt who calls the host "daddy"... Well, television nostalgia doesn't get much sweeter.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.