I’m always in search of interesting material to listen to in my car on long drives with my wife. We like lots of different kinds of music, but her interest in audiobooks diminished after she suffered a brain injury. Her favorite listening has been Spike Jones and His City Slickers, but there’s only so much of that hilarity available.

Recently my car’s CD player started to fail, and I decided to replace rather than repair. Unfortunately the difficulty in obtaining a new unit which included a cassette player closed off a lot of possibilities in our old collections. But more possibilities opened up when I learned that my new player was capable of playing MP3 discs. I had a few of these but was able to play them only on my DVD player at home.

Searches on eBay opened up to me the world of OTR (“old time radio”) MP3s. Various dealers have an astonishing variety of old radio broadcasts, which they claim are public domain material and therefore free of copyright. (This doesn’t accord with my understanding of current U.S. copyright laws but wotthehell.) From the bewildering number of choices, I decided to try a few discs, one of which included 60 (!) programs of the old Groucho Marx “comedy quiz show” “You Bet Your Life.” They were big hits with both of us. Within a couple of months we had listened through the entire disc. As we neared its end, I did another search and found another seller (in the U.K.!) who was offering a disc with 209 “You Bet Your Life” programs. It arrived just before we exhausted the first disc. These listings come and go so rather than providing a link I’ll just suggest you try eBay if you’re interested.

There are also plenty of “You Bet Your Life” TV shows available on DVD. Some of them are very low priced “public domain” issues of variable quality. But the excellent Shout! Factory label has issued two boxes of programs. (The second one, “You Bet Your Life – The Lost Episodes” includes the appearance of Lord Buckley as a guest.) Some of the PD issues are of surprisingly good quality, but they include the now-boring De Soto-Plymouth commercials, edited out in the Shout! Factory issues. For most of the decade-plus run of the show, there were separate radio and TV programs every week. The Shout! Factory collections are the best ones, but if you’re willing to sit or fast-forward through the commercials the 13 episode collection “Comedy Legends Series – Volume 1” is good and cheap.

While we watched our way through a disc of TV shows during a recent vacation, I’ve been dealing mostly with the radio programs. When you listen to so many programs in such a short period of time (we’ve now heard over a hundred, some of them twice) patterns emerge. Groucho’s humor becomes pretty predictable. He will never pass up an opportunity to make politely suggestive remarks about women contestants, some of which would be considered offensive today. (He almost invariably refers to them as “girls.”) Another favorite type of joke consists of pretending he hasn’t heard a contestant correctly, or pretending he doesn’t understand an idiomatic expression and taking the words literally.

But damn, the guy is funny! He obviously got, and kept, the job because of the quickness of his wit, and it’s often pretty impressive. When his foil, George Fenneman (who also did announcements for “Dragnet”), got the chance, he could be rather funny himself. But he knew his role as straight man and performed it admirably.

One reason for the success of “You Bet Your Life” was the producers’ ingenious decision to record the programs in open-ended sessions and then edit them down to the desired length. On the MP3 discs, there are a few programs taken from unedited tapes, and it’s fascinating to hear the way the programs take shape. Groucho, freed by the knowledge that if a gag fizzled it would disappear, takes all kinds of chances. Plenty of them do fizzle. The editing is made plain when you are listening to a program with a readout of the elapsed time visible, and you can see how unequally the time is allotted to different pairs of contestants. Some of them get five minutes of air time, some fifteen.

The betting strategy is a constant source of amusement to me. In the classic radio shows, each pair of contestants was given $20 to start. They were then free to bet as much of their money as they wished on each of four questions. The couple which wins the most money then gets a chance to answer a big money question, for $1000 plus $500 for each week that the big prize hasn’t been won. Almost inevitably the contestants start by betting $10, obviously wanting to stay in the contest if they miss the question.

This makes me wonder if any of them had ever heard the program before. The questions in the first round are sometimes tricky but mostly quite easy. I answer most of them correctly except for ones dealing with current events. The contestants answer most of the questions correctly too. Sometimes they bomb out, and I remember one program where contestants wound up winning only $20 but still got the chance at the big money because the other two couples lost all their money. (When that happens, they get a chance to win $10 by answering a question like the famous “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”)

Do the math. If you start out winning $10 on your first question (total $30), and bet all you have on the three subsequent questions, your maximum winnings add up to $240 (and few bet all). If you start out winning $20 on your first question and bet all, your maximum winnings are $360. Since few contestants who miss any question wind up with the highest score anyway, it would have made sense to bet everything on each question. Sometimes I feel like shouting at these poor people, almost all of whom are dead by now anyway. The “big money” questions tend to be rather difficult; while I haven’t been keeping score I’d say they are answered correctly less than half the time.

The compilations we’ve been listening to aren’t ideally prepared. They aren’t strictly chronological (easiest to track by the amount of money offered in the final question), and the sound quality is variable. But they are almost always intelligible, which is all that really counts. It’ll be a while before we get through episode 209 on the current disc, but we’ll be sad when we do.

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