By the mid-1940s, it looked as though the career of Groucho Marx had come to a whimpering end, especially to Groucho Marx. The laughs had given way to painful groans: Long gone were the surrealistic masterpieces of the late 1920s and early '30s, having been replaced by mediocre outings that rendered the brothers Marx little more than straight men in broken movies about department stores and nutty ex-Nazis. Things had gotten so bad that when Groucho, Chico and Harpo announced their retirement from the screen in 1942--among several such proclamations, predating The Who by some 50 years--"the motion picture industry embarked on a public relations campaign with a theme that 'movies are better than ever,'" Groucho wrote years later. "That's gratitude, folks." Some people have career lulls; the man beneath the leering eyebrows and greasepaint mustache was experiencing a career lullaby.
So no one was more astonished than he that by the early '50s, he was more popular than ever--as a quiz master, no less, on a game show that was less a contest of skills than one of wills, with Groucho as inquisitor, ad-libber and madman making sport of contestants just looking for an easy grand. For three years on radio, then 11 more on television, Groucho Marx was host of You Bet Your Life, still among the longest-running prime-time shows in the medium's history. This week, at long last, episodes of that show are available in a three-DVD package, along with outtakes considered too randy for network TV (they're "stag reel" extras), his 1947 radio audition and a then-for-DeSoto-dealers-only making-of special. None of these episodes--which feature the likes of Ernie Kovacs, Art Linkletter, boxer Archie Moore and Texan Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (whom Groucho would refer to as "the Mexican Jerry Lewis")--has been seen in its entirety since they originally aired.
What's most remarkable about them isn't how well they hold up--like an old man with crutches, just fine--but what they spawned. You can't watch them without noticing how much David Letterman picked up from Groucho, the sarcasm tinged with warmth he showered upon people who couldn't keep pace with one of the sharpest men who ever lived and leered. He didn't belittle his guests so much as find them slightly bemusing--say, the woman who ran the boarding house who tried to "get a rise" out of her husband with yeast biscuits, or the tree surgeon whom he asked, "Have you ever fallen out of a patient?" Groucho, born in October 1890 and by then well into middle age, was among the few comedians who amused the audience by amusing themselves; all he wanted by then was one more chuckle, one more sign people thought him funny, interesting, relevant.
In a December 31, 1951, cover story, Timedescribed the humor of Groucho Marx thusly: "His mind is like a panful of popcorn kernels with heat underneath: One ad-lib bursts, and the air is filled with popcorn...Groucho is still a better field shot than any other ad-libber, and shows it by shooting from the hip at these clay pigeons," referring to the contestants. Marx believed the kind words and analysis "excessive," he would say. "You simply can't intellectualize about comedy," he wrote in 1976's The Secret Word is Groucho, about the making of the show. "I just couldn't see how anyone can suitably describe anything so fragile as humor." What's particularly amazing is how sturdy his "fragile" vaudeville humor remains in the digital age.