For the First Time: The Truth About Groucho’s Ad Libs 🇺🇸

Groucho Marx |

November 22, 2021

The man sits up there on his long-legged stool and bounces the ad libs off the contestants, and the quiz that was never supposed to get off the ground is now the consistent Number Three show in all television.

What you don’t see, however, is the little blackboard at the end of the space Groucho Marx keeps staring into. Written on the board, in large letters, are a number of cues and leading questions. Sometimes they consist of only one word, enough to jog Groucho’s memory, and out comes the six-paragraph ad lib.

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.

“That show,” someone once remarked, “has all the spontaneity of a Swiss watch.” The man was quite right. You Bet Your Life represents the finest manufactured spontaneity television has yet known.

For the three years the show has been on the air, its producers have made a veritable fetish of keeping its mechanics a Top Secret item. There was a time when even a trade paper reporter wasn’t allowed in the studio ahead of time for fear he might see the script or the little blackboard or the “audience-selected” contestants wandering around backstage while the audience itself was still out on Sunset Boulevard waiting to get in.

Now, all this skulduggery actually isn’t skulduggery at all. Television is a professional’s medium. NBC, Groucho and producer John Guedel rank among the best professionals in the business. Their business happens to be concocting entertainment and all three are paid handsomely to concoct it. It should thus be obvious even to the dullest viewer that you don’t come up with the Nation’s third-rated show simply by grabbing a handful of innocent citizens off the street and plunking them down in front of a comedian.

Here then, revealed for the first time in print, is the way the highly professional Groucho Marx show is put together.

First consideration is to get at least one attractive girl. The producers go to a dancing school or a girls’ college or an airline or almost any place where they can find girls in some specialized category. They talk to perhaps a dozen and ask the six likeliest to attend as members of the audience.

Then three are selected chiefly because they think fast on their feet.

On the night of the filming, announcer George Fenneman tells the studio audience that three airline hostesses have been invited. The girls go up to the stage and ad lib with Fenneman for about two minutes each. The audience decides, by its applause, which of the three is to appear on the show with Groucho. The two losers get gifts for their trouble.

The other five contestants are selected in approximately the same way, well screened in advance. The producers are constantly on the lookout for interesting people with unusual stories or occupations.

If, for instance, the show needs two men, at least one will be selected in advance. Fenneman will then ask for five or six men from the studio audience. All are interviewed backstage before the filming begins, and it is quite possible that one might make the grade. The qualifications seem simple enough: chiefly an ability to talk entertainingly when confronted with a live camera, a live microphone and a very live Groucho Marx.

Once selected, the contestants are given definite and thorough instructions on what to say to Groucho. Generally they are given two or perhaps three key lines which fit into the story they have to tell and to which Groucho’s ad libs have been carefully fitted. If, on camera, a contestant appears to have forgotten a key line, a signal is flashed to Groucho and he feeds a cue question to joggle the contestant’s memory.

If one of the contestants is a fireman, Groucho will be primed in advance with a dozen good fireman gags. If an old lady is fresh in from Scotland, Groucho will have brushed up on his Scottish lore. But if a contestant happens to be a beautiful girl, Groucho is left strictly on his own.

It is a virtually ironclad rule, however, that Groucho is not allowed to meet or even see any of the contestants before they actually appear onstage with him. He will know a good deal about them and will even know what they are going to say and what he is going to say in return, but he doesn’t see them.

Not all of Groucho’s ad libs are pre-written, of course. A pretty fast man on his feet himself, he will frequently dream up a line of questioning out of the blue—and there are times when blue is the only word for it. He seldom offends, however, for he has a remarkable facility for smoothing ruffled feathers and generally knows precisely when to stop. Those portions, incidentally, are carefully edited out.

The filming itself is done by eight cameras set up in pairs in four different locations. Four cameras, one at each location, roll simultaneously, its twin taking over when reloading is necessary. The filming lasts for an hour, sometimes more. The film from each location is then screened simultaneously, the editor picking the best shots, cutting out the deadwood and coming up with a half-hour show.

If other portions of the show are rigged, the prize money is strictly for real. The contestants do not know the questions in advance and they get no help from Groucho. On rare occasions, when there is considerable audience sympathy for a contestant—such as a Medal of Honor winner—who’s going for the jackpot, producer Guedel will slip in a relatively easy question. But there is no payoff for a wrong answer.

Carefully screened: George Fenneman presents hand-picked contestants to Groucho.

No detail overlooked: make-up man at work on Groucho as contestant awaits turn.

Hilarious; movies picked up Gonzales Gonzales after he set a laugh record.

Source: TV Guide Chicago, March 1954