Game Shows Wiki
Advertisement
Hosts
Groucho Marx (1947–1961)
Buddy Hackett (1979–1981)
Richard Dawson (1988)
Bill Cosby (1991–1993)
Jay Leno (2021–present)
Co-Hosts/Announcers
Jack Slattery (1947)
George Fenneman (1947–1961)
Ron Husmann (1980–1981)
Robbi "Renfield" Chong (1991–1993)
Kevin Eubanks (2021–present)
Broadcast
Ybyl49.JPG
Radio Pilot: 9/15/1947
ABC Radio (Weekly): 10/27/1947 – 5/25/1949
CBS Radio (Weekly): 10/5/1949 – 6/28/1950
Television Pilot: 12/5/1949
NBC Radio (Weekly): 10/4/1950 – 6/10/1960
Image029.png
Image028.png
Ybyl50.JPG
Image027.png
YOU BET YOUR LIFE 1958.png
You bet your life 1950-show.jpg
NBC Primetime: 10/5/1950 – 6/29/1961 (reruns aired until 9/21/1961)
Ybyl80.jpg
Pilot: 12/2/1979
Syndicated (Daily): 9/8/1980 – 9/1981
You Bet Your Life! with Richard Dawson.jpg
Unsold Pilots for NBC: 8/4/1988
Ybyl92.JPG
Pilots: 8/22-23/1991
Syndication (Daily): 9/7/1992 – 6/4/1993 (reruns aired until 9/3/1993)
You Bet Your Life with Jay Leno Set.png
Syndication (Daily): 9/13/2021 – present[1]
Packagers
FilmCraft Productions (1947–1961)
The Hill-Eubanks Group (1979–1981)
Carsey-Werner Productions (1988–1993; 2021-present)
Distributors
MCA Television (1980–1981)
Carsey-Werner Productions (1991–1993)
Fox First Run (2021–present)

OPENING SPIEL (1991-1993): From all over America, people have come to meet Bill Cosby. So, get ready, it's time for America's funniest game show, You Bet Your Life. And now, here's the man himself, (Mr.) Bill Cosby!

You Bet Your Life (also known as Richard Dawson and You Bet Your Life and You Bet Your Life with Jay Leno) was one of the many classic game shows where your knowledge is tested in order to win cash and prizes.

Format[]

Two contestants were usually a male and a female, chosen by a complicated process with the goals of finding interesting, talkative people. Most of them 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 risqué material could be removed.[2]

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 Word[]

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 ($101 during November and December 1955). 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.

Gameplay[]

In the contest itself, contestants would choose from 20 available categories and then attempt 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.

  • 1947–1953 – 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.
  • 1953–1956 – According to co-director Robert Dwan in his book, As Long As They're Laughing, producer John Guedel changed the previous format because too many couples were betting (and losing) all their money. He changed the format to having couples start with $0 and pick four questions worth anywhere from $10 to $100. A correct answer added the value of the question; an incorrect answer did nothing. This was later changed to the couple starting with $100, with an incorrect answer halving the grand total at that point; thus a couple that answered the $70, $80, $90, and $100 questions would end up with $440, while missing all four questions would reduce their total to $6.25.
  • 1956–1959 – Two couples (reduced from three) answered questions until they either got two consecutive questions wrong or answered four consecutive questions correctly for a prize of $1,000.
  • 1959–1961 – Contestants picked four questions worth either $100, $200, or $300; they could win up to $1,200, but only needed $500 to qualify for the jackpot question.

The two contestants worked together ("Remember, only one answer between you").

From 1947 to 1956, if the couple ended up below $25, they were asked a consolation question for $25 (later $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. Some examples include the following: "Who is 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?" The question about Grant's Tomb became such a staple of the show that both Marx and Fenneman were shocked when one man got the question "wrong" by answering "No one". As the contestant then pointed out, Grant's Tomb is an above-ground mausoleum.

In all formats, a final question was asked for a jackpot amount to the couple who had gotten the highest total amount during the game.

Jackpot Question[]

This round had two formats.

  • 1947–1956 – The jackpot question started at $1,000, with $500 added each week until someone correctly answered the question; the highest jackpot in this format was $6,000 in 1952. In the event of a tie in the main game, the tied couples played the endgame, with a correct answer splitting the jackpot between them.
  • 1956–1961 – While for the 1956–1957 season, the final question simply 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 to 1961, they picked another number for $5,000. The wheel was then 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 to 1959, contestants risked half their $1,000 won in the quiz on a shot at the wheel, as one of the two players in a couple could keep their half of the money while the other risked their half; from 1959 to 1961, 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.

Trivia[]

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 celebrity pictures being flashed on screen, each for ¼ of a second. Contestants won $500 for each picture they identified. If they 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.

Contestants[]

The interviews were sometimes so memorable that the contestants became celebrities: "nature boy" health advocate Robert Bootzin; Mexican-American entertainer Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez; comedians Phyllis Diller and Ronnie Schell; author Ray Bradbury; virtuoso cellist Ennio Bolognini; blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley; strongmen Jack LaLanne and Paul Anderson; and actor John Barbour all appeared as contestants while working on the fringes of the entertainment industry.

Harland Sanders, who talked about his "finger-lickin'" recipe for fried chicken that he parlayed into the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants, once appeared as a contestant. A guest purporting to be a wealthy Arabian prince was really writer William Peter Blatty; Groucho saw through the disguise, stating, "It was pretty obvious to me that you weren't an Arabian prince; I used to have an Arabian horse and I know what they look like." Blatty won $10,000 and used the money, after quitting his job, to support himself while he focused on establishing a career as a writer. He would later go on to write  The Exorcist in 1971. No one in the audience knew the identity of contestant Daws Butler until he began speaking in the voice of cartoon character Huckleberry Hound. He and his partner in the episode went on to win the top prize of $10,000. Cajun politician Dudley J. LeBlanc, a Louisiana state senator and medicine showman, demonstrated his winning style at giving campaign speeches in French, also confessing (in a rare moment of candor) the truth about his signature nostrum, Hadacol: when asked what Hadacol was good for, LeBlanc admitted "about five million dollars for me last year." General Omar Bradley was teamed with an army private, and Marx 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.

Other celebrities, already famous, occasionally teamed with their relatives to win money for themselves or for charities. On February 6, 1958, silent-film star Francis X. Bushman and his wife Iva Millicient Richardson appeared on the show and won $1,000 by successfully answering questions in a geography quiz. Arthur Godfrey's mother Kathryn was a contestant on another episode and held her own with Marx. Edgar Bergen and his then 11-year-old daughter Candice also teamed up with Marx and his daughter Melinda to win $1,000 for the Girl Scouts of the USA, with Fenneman taking on the role of quizmaster for that segment.


Other celebrity guests included Jayne Mansfield, Edith Head, Mickey Walker, Francis X. Bushman, Howard Hill, General Clarence A. Shoop, Louise Beavers, Irwin Allen, Frankie Avalon, Lord Buckley, Sammy Cahn, Ray Corrigan, Sam Coslow, Don Drysdale, Hoot Gibson, physicist and host of Exploring Albert Hibbs, Tor Johnson, Ward Kimball, Ernie Kovacs, Laura La Plante, Liberace, Joe Louis, Bob Mathias, Irish McCalla, Harry Ruby, Max Shulman, Fay Spain, Colonel John Paul Stapp, John Charles Thomas, Edith Head, Pinky Tomlin, Rocky Marciano and his mother, Charles Goren, and Johnny Weissmuller. In 1961 Groucho's brother Harpo appeared to promote his just-published autobiography, Harpo Speaks.

The cigar incident[]

A story recounts the appearance of a female contestant named Charlotte Story, who spoke in broken English. Story offered that she had borne eleven children, to which Groucho remarked "Eleven children!" Story 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.[3]

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.[4]

Nielsen ratings[]

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.

Season Rating/Share Place
1950–51 36.0 17th
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 30
1959–60
1960–61

Later incarnations of the show[]

1980 Buddy Hackett version[]

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.

The show would begin with Hacket performing a brief stand up routine followed by a brief chat with Husmann. Three individual contestants appeared on each episode, one at a time. The contestant was interviewed by Hackett and then played a quiz of five questions in a particular category. The first correct answer to a question earned $25, and the amount doubled with each subsequent correct answer. After the fifth question, the contestant could opt to try to correctly answer a sixth question to triple their winnings; however, if the contestant was incorrect, their earnings were cut in half. Maximum winnings were $1,200.

The secret word was still worth $100; in this incarnation, however, if any of the show's three contestants said it, all of them would each win that amount. 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 (if there was a tie, they would be asked a question with a numeric answer, which they wrote down, and whoever was closest without going over won), and 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 Pilot[]

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, each worth either $100, $150 or $200. Later, both teams came out and they each played four questions, each worth either $200, $300 or $400. The team with the most money at the end of this round advanced to a bonus game. The secret word was around, but since it was never guessed, it's unknown whether the duck survived for this pilot; Dawson told one couple on the pilot, however, "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 matched on five answers and their matched answer was correct, the team won $5,000. If they didn't reach five, they received $200 per correct match.

1992 Bill Cosby version[]

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, making this the first show they distributed themselves (all product at that point went through what is now CBS Media Ventures). Cosby was joined on this show by a female sidekick, Robbi Chong, who was referred to as "Renfield". Robbi is the real life sister of actress, Rae Dawn Chong and both are daughters of comedian Tommy Chong.[5]

Main Game[]

In this version three couples competed, each playing the game individually. After the couple was introduced, they spent time talking with Cosby. Sometimes the interview would run late and only two couples would be seen competing. When the interview was done, the game began and it was usually signified by Cosby saying "we're gonna give you some money." Each couple started at $750, and Cosby gave a category; he 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 stuffed toy black goose wearing a sweatshirt from Temple University, Cosby's alma mater; if one couple said it, a new word would be chosen when the next couple was introduced. Maximum winnings, therefore, were $6,500 (including the Secret Word).

Bonus Round (The Big Fella)[]

The couple with the most money (independent of any secret word bonuses) advanced to the bonus round for an additional $10,000. In this game, the winning couple was asked a final question under the same subject they had before. A correct answer won a choice of three envelopes numbered 1, 2 & 3, which were all attached to the goose. Two of the envelopes had the goose's face in it, and choosing either of them doubled the couple's money (for possible maximum winnings 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.

2021 Jay Leno Version[]

On September 9, 2020, Deadline reported that the show was being brought back in 2021 hosted by former Tonight Show host Jay Leno.[6]

In this version, two teams of two answer four questions worth $250-$1,000 in $250 increments. They then have the option to go double or nothing on one final question. With the Secret Word still worth $500, this made for possible maximum winnings of $5,500.

Secret Word Girl[]

Marilyn Burtis

Announcers Only[]

Buster Jones (1991-1993)
Kira Soltanovich (2021-present)

Music (1990s Version)[]

Bill Cosby & Shirley Scott

Rating[]

72px-TV-PG icon svg.png

Merchandise[]

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.)

Press Photos[]

Trade Ad (2021 version)[]

You Bet Your Life Trade ad.png

Tickets[]

1980-1981 version[]

1992-1993 version[]

Trade Ad (Hackett era)[]

Studios[]

NBC Studio D, Hollywood, CA (Marx Version)
TAV Studios, Hollywood, CA (Hackett Version)
WHYY-TV Studios, Philadelphia, PA (Cosby Version)

Episode Status[]

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. It was also one of the first game shows aired in syndicated reruns. All non-public domain episodes of the original version are owned by NBC.

The Hackett episodes are also owned by NBC.

Carsey-Werner, which also produces The Cosby Show, its' spinoff A Different World and Cosby, retains the rights to the Cosby episodes.

Additional Page[]

You Bet Your Life/In Popular Culture

You Bet Your Life (2021) Episode Guide

Spinoffs[]

References[]

Links[]

Rules for You Bet Your Life
Bill Cosby's You Bet Your Life @ Carsey-Werner.net (en)
Carsey-Werner - You Bet Your Life (Cosby era)
Special (Leno era)
You Bet Your Life (Leno era)

Advertisement