Friday, October 20, 2006

Say the secret woid...

Continuing this week's Groucho theme, last night I ran across a huge cache of You Bet Your Life radio episodes on It's quite a nice selection, really, including both the 1947 audition show and a nearly one-hour uncut episode from 1949. After listening to about two hours of YBYL, I was reminded of why, funny as it can be, I'm not that much of a YBYL fan. Don't get me wrong; I love Groucho, but there's an underlying cruelty to the show that both fascinates me and gives me a slight case of the creeps. Unleashed from the world of scenarios and carefully (or not so carefully) crafted lines, Groucho acts as comic in an endless string of double-acts with the general public acting as collective straightman. One by one, hapless non-performers volunteer to be verbally dissected by one of the sharpest wits in show business. Sure, they walk away with some cash (often good cash) and once in a long, long while a guest gets the upper hand (usually another celebrity), but, for what it's worth, the patent truth is that the deck is stacked against your dignity as an average guest of YBYL. Two things prevent Groucho from coming across as a bully. First, several decades of performing as a sarcastic eccentric had rendered him publicly toothless, a sad state of affairs that Groucho lamented in his later years. Secondly, he's brilliantly funny. So funny, in fact, that it becomes extremely easy to forget that some guest was often made to look a bit of a dolt in front of a national audience. In a way, it's a perverse reversal of the classical role of comedian as advocate for the underdog, but a highly successful one that pointed the way towards the dog-eat-dog comedy that has prevailed in America ever since. I don't believe that Groucho had any intention whatsoever to really hurt people's feelings on YBYL; his sarcastic wit was a force of nature, totally indiscriminate.. but it's hard for me not to see the series as an extension of that ultimately crippling emotional barrier he had built between himself and the rest of the planet. The public at large as one of Groucho's wives at a cocktail party.

Interestingly, the two revivals of You Bet Your Life pulled in opposite directions from Groucho's original and failed as a result. I've heard horror stories of Buddy Hackett's 1980 syndicated version, specifically about Buddy's mean-spiritedness, and while Bill Cosby was reportedly Groucho's own pick for his replacement on YBYL, by 1992 the Cos was simply too benign a host for this type of format. Only Groucho Marx could have ever made it work, which was more or less admitted by the change of title for the final season to The Groucho Show.

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Blogger East Side said...

Fortunately, there were more than enough contestants ready & willing to be Groucho's verbal (emotional?) punching bag. He always claimed it was all in fun, although I remember one of his associates claiming that Groucho was contemptuous of them all.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Certainly some more than others.. As Groucho apparently learned over many years, the insults only hurt people who knew him well (like wives). Otherwise, an insult from Groucho Marx was never taken as intended, which left Groucho in a sad state when he really wanted to lash out. But it also allowed him to tear into people without feeling that he was causing any kind of pain (hence his general belief that it was "all in fun").

9:36 AM  

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