Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.
It is, without question, one of the most oft-quoted anecdotes in the history of comedy. It goes, pretty much, like this:
A woman with 10 (or 12 or 14 or whatever) children makes a guest appearance as a contestant on Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life. The following dialogue takes place.
Woman: "I have 14 children, Groucho."
Groucho: "You have 14 children? Why do you have so many kids?"
Woman: "Because I love my husband."
Groucho: "I love my cigar, too, but I take it out every once in a while."
Groucho Marx's popular quiz show You Bet Your Life debuted in 1947 on radio. In 1950, it made the move to television and became even more popular. After a hugely successful 14-year run, the show finally ended in 1961.
On the show, Groucho became famous for his ability to ad-lib. The truth is, Groucho was an undisputed comic genius with a quick, brilliant mind. But ironically, most of Groucho's ad-libs were written in advance by his group of comedy writers. The writers themselves would meet and interview the contestants for the show, then they would write the clever "Groucho quips" on cue cards and Groucho would read them off before the studio audience.
It's true that Groucho did not meet the guest contestants before the show's taping. Groucho, being a talented comedian, had the ability to read the ad-libs off the cue cards and make them sound fresh and original.
The most generally-accepted version of the "cigar story" was that it took place on radio in 1947 during the show's first year. "Mrs. Story" was the supposed contestant's name. But other sources claimed it occurred on TV and the lady's name was "Mrs. House." However it supposedly happened, literally thousands of people claim to have either been there in the studio or heard it on radio or TV. This is, of course, impossible.
If it ever did occur, it would have inevitably been edited out before any actual airing. The ribald gag was much too crude for radio or television in those times. So, at most, 200 people (the capacity of Groucho's studio audience) could have actually heard it.
But in 1972, in an interview with Roger Ebert for Esquire magazine, Groucho himself said, "I got $25.00 from Reader's Digest last week for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said. You know that line in You Bet Your Life the guy says he has 17 kids and I say 'I smoke a cigar but I take it out every once in a while.' I never said it." Interestingly, Groucho himself misrepresents the sex of the contestant and instead of a woman, the supposed butt of the quip is a man! Either way, this unequivocal statement by Groucho himself should put an end to the life of this legendary story.
But in the 1976 book The Secret Word is Groucho, by Groucho biographer Hector Arce, Groucho supposedly says "The story, however, is not apocryphal. It did happen." Unlike the 1972 Esquire interview, this book was largely ghost-written by Arce and he may have easily put these words in Groucho's mouth. By 1976, the year of the book's publication, Groucho was pretty much a shell of his old self, having survived a few strokes. The poor man could barely string together a coherent sentence in his final year. Groucho passed away the next year, in 1977.
Robert Dwan, the producer of Groucho's show, was present at every single radio and TV taping of the show during its 14-year run. Dwan was to insist, "I am (now) convinced that it did happen I believe Groucho said it." But strangely, Dwan consulted 20 volumes of the original series, which included "the funniest and most audacious sequences which were deleted from the broadcasts as being unsuitable for viewing in the 1950s." He made no mention of ever actually viewing or turning up the story.
Dwan's memory may have "dubbed in" hearing the anecdote, when in actuality, he had just "heard of it" second-hand for decades. The truth is, the cigar remark, taken at its burlesque show level, wasn't really Groucho's style. Groucho would definitely make an occasional off-color or lewd remark in private, as most men will, especially among members of his own sex, such as his fellow male comedians at the Hillcrest Country Club. And as we all know, Groucho's sense of humor and mind were amazingly quick, fertile, and hilarious.
But on the air, Groucho was the consummate pro and it wasn't like Groucho to make a remark like that in front of an actual studio audience (especially in the 1940s or '50s, when the public's sensitivities were so much different than they are now).
True, a Marion and Charlotte Story, who had 20 children, were radio contestants with Groucho on November 17, 1947. But there is no record or transcript of the legendary exchange actually taking place. Interestingly, on January 11, 1950, Groucho did interview a lady contestant who was one of 17 children and the following dialogue took place:
Groucho: "How does your father feel about this rather startling turn of events? Is he happy or just dazed?"
Daughter: "Oh, my Daddy just loves children."
Groucho: "Well, I like pancakes, but I haven't got closets full of them."
This rather innocuous exchange may possibly have been the actual source of the "cigar story." Perhaps someone heard this exchange and spiced it up a little with a much funnier (and raunchier) punch line, and attributed it to Groucho. The "cigar story" is hilariously funny and it does "sound" like a Groucho quip, and so…
This is how urban legends get started.