Nowadays, we think of Groucho mostly as one of the Marx Brothers, the guys who made movies like Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. What’s less familiar, because radio and TV are for the most part far more ephemeral, is the 15 years he spent doing You Bet Your Life, which was a game show of sorts: there were prizes to be won, either by answering questions or by happening to say the Secret Word 1. But that was secondary; the reason to watch it was to see Groucho interact with the contestants, making puns and insulting them 2. The show made Groucho not only famous again, but beloved; on meeting him in person, people would ask both for autographs and to be insulted. 3
Anyway, there’s a guy named Frank Ferrante, who does an almost one-man show 4 called An Evening with Groucho, which my daughter took me to not long ago. Ferrante begins as himself, explaining how inspiring it was to see one of the concerts Groucho gave towards the end of his life. It helped him change from a shy, uncertain teenager into a man with unshakable self-confidence, someone like … Well, as he tells this story, he’s putting on a black wig, a frock coat, and a greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, so it’s pretty clear like whom. The show is split about half and half between routines and songs from the movies, and going into the audience to do an improvised version of You Bet Your Life, with people once again thrilled to be insulted.
As a confirmed Grouchophile, I wasn’t expecting any surprises, but there was one. Back in the early 60s, there was a TV version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, with Groucho starring as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. One of his featured songs is Tit-Willow, a tragicomic ballad about a lovesick bird, sung to an unpleasant, elderly woman whom, for reasons that make as much sense as the plot of Horsefeathers 5, Ko-Ko needs to woo and marry. Ferrante sang it as Groucho, and it was wonderful. 6
And, even better, it turns out that the audio, though alas not the video, of the original is available online:
- Which would cause a duck wearing Groucho glasses to descend from the rafters
- I recall a fellow who flew for the Flying Tiger Line. On hearing that, Groucho immediately said “Make up your mind. Is it a line or a tiger?” because of course he did.
- The classic story is Groucho meeting a couple, and the husband insisting, “My wife would love it if you insulted her.” His response was “With a wife like that, you should be able to think of your own insults.”
- There’s also a piano player.
- What, you didn’t know that the duties of a college president include kidnapping a rival school’s best football players?
- Although his version was about a lovesick boid.