I heard a cute tale about how Groucho Marx supposedly got the hook while hosting a live broadcast of his famous TV quiz show, You Bet Your Life. As this micro-legend has it, Groucho was small-talking with a female contestant when the following exchange took place:
groucho: So, you got any kids?
female contestant: Yes, Groucho, I have eleven children.
groucho: Eleven?! Did you say eleven kids?
female contestant: Well, I love my husband.
groucho: Lady, I love my cigar but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.
Supposedly, the program's censors immediately stopped the broadcast and never let Mr. Marx do the show again.
I'll admit the story does sound a little contrived. Still, as a hunter of truth in the forest of deceit, do you find any droppings of plausibility? More important, can I get it on VHS?
William S., Arlington, Virginia
I’ve had to strangle so many show-biz myths in their cradles, it’s a pleasure to report on one that has some basis in fact. Groucho Marx, who regularly did for the airwaves what Cecil tries to do for the newspapers, really did pull off the exchange quoted above. In fact, he mentions it in a book he wrote with Hector Arce about his broadcast experiences called The Secret Word Is Groucho. But it didn’t happen at the end of his network career, it happened at the beginning, in 1947 or ’48, when You Bet Your Life was still on the radio. The censors didn’t stop the show, either; they just prevented the exchange from getting on the air. Groucho’s producers knew about his penchant for ribald humor, so they took the precaution of recording all his shows and cutting out the dirty parts before airtime.
The name of the female contestant was Mrs. Story. She lived in Bakersfield, California, and she had 19 children, all of whom came down for the show. Groucho says he asked Mrs. Story, “Why do you have so many children? That’s a big responsibility and a big burden.” Mrs. Story responded as indicated above, and Groucho then unloaded his zinger. The studio audience roared, but censor Robert Dwan gave it the ax, so you’re not going to find it on VHS or anywhere else.
The Secret Word Is Groucho quotes a lot of the repartee from the show, including some stuff that didn’t make it onto the air. Most of the censored material is tame by today’s standards but still pretty funny, such as when Groucho said, “I had never seen anybody dressed in evening clothes, except my father when he got married.” My personal favorite, which did get broadcast, was the time Groucho asked a tree surgeon, “So, did you ever fall out of one of your patients?”
There are dozens of legends about dirty jokes that famous personalities have allegedly told on the air (and there’s no way I’m going to track them all down, so don’t get any ideas). One yarn has it that Soupy Sales was trying to teach the alphabet to White Fang the dog. Soupy would point at an x, say, and ask, “OK, Fang, what letter is this?” Fang would grunt something, and Soupy would say, “Very good. And what letter is this?” This continued until they got to f. When Fang grunted his answer, Soupy said, “No, no, it’s not k, it’s f.” They went on to some other letters, and then came back to f. Fang again grunted an answer, and Soupy said in an exasperated tone, “No, Fang, I told you, it’s not k. What gives? Every time I show you an f, you see k!”
Then there was the joke that supposedly got a well-known Chicago DJ yanked off the air years ago. (Actually, there are several versions of this.) This couple was making out in the upper deck at a baseball game, see, until finally the guy comes up for air. “Listen,” he says, “we gotta get organized. Tell you what, I’ll kiss you on the strikes, you kiss me on the …” But heck, you’ve probably already heard that one.
Memo to history
I personally heard Dick Biondi [the Chicago DJ] tell the infamous “baseball joke.” Showing an unusual brevity of expression, he merely exclaimed: “Hey, everybody, let’s go out to he baseball game. The boys kiss the girls on the strikes and …” Years later, I was told this joke originated with Dizzy Dean during his time as a radio broadcaster. By the way, Biondi says he was not fired for telling dirty jokes. He claimed he was fired for starting a fistfight with the advertising director over the number of commercials on his program.
As for Soupy Sales, probably his most infamous stunt was the time he said: “Hey, kids! Go into your parents’ dresser, take out all those pictures of dead presidents, and mail them to: Soupy, WXYZ-TV, Detroit …”
— Steven S., Skokie, Illinois
Cecil’s buddies at WMAQ radio in Chicago did some checking on the famous story that Soupy supposedly got fired when he told his youthful audience to go into their parents’ dresser drawers and send him all those little pieces of paper with pictures of dead presidents on them. Soupy was working as a DJ at WNBC in New York when the ‘MAQ folks called, and his producer said he wasn’t fired, he was only suspended for a week. We’re happy to set the record straight, and hope this puts an end to all those vicious show-biz rumors.
Update on Groucho’s cigar
- Some of Groucho’s associates believe he said the cigar line, but Groucho himself denied it.
- Marion and Charlotte Story of Bakersfield, California, who had 20 (not 19) children, did in fact appear with Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life. The recorded interview, which has been posted on snopes (see bottom of the page linked to above), features a bit about cigars, but not the famous line. Instead, Groucho asks Mr. Story: “With each new kid, do you go around passing out cigars?” To which Mr. Story replies: “I stopped at about a dozen.”
- In 1955, Groucho had a female contestant on his show with 16 siblings. He asked her: “How does your father feel about this rather startling turn of events? Is he happy or just dazed?” The woman replied: “”Oh, my daddy loves children.” This moved Groucho to respond: “”Well, I like pancakes, but I haven’t got closetsful of them.”
- So we’ve got two appearances by people with big families. One featured the pancake joke, which of course is the cigar joke in milder form. The second contained a different cigar joke. Obvious guess: at some point along the line, someone conflated the two stories, and a legend was born. (Updated Sept. 28, 2010.)
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.