Groucho Marx and the Sylvers lining

Let’s dig into the vault of old television.

From 1950 to 1960, Groucho Marx had a game show on NBC-TV called “You Bet Your Life.” It was a simple show. Groucho would have a couple of people come out. They’d talk for a while, then he’d ask them four questions to get to a $500 prize. If they answered correctly, they’d come on again at the end of the show and spin the “Wheel of Fortune” for a chance at $10,000, which was a ton of money back then.

I was looking at some Marx Brothers clips (I don’t have to explain to you who the Marx Brothers were, do I? If so, go rent the movie “Horsefeathers.” That’s all you need to know.) and saw a link to this episode of “You Bet Your Life.”

Now consider the context. This is a nationally broadcast game show in the 1950s, and Groucho has a black couple on. Today, that’s no big deal. But back then, it had to be scandalous. Black people were rarely seen on television. If you read Jet magazine well into the 1970s, one of the highlights was the last page before the back cover. That gave a listing of all the black people scheduled to be on national television that week. The appearances were so rare, the listings didn’t even take up a half page of a mini-magazine.

The entertainment industry shied away from showing black people because of concerns over offending white viewers in the South. But here’s Groucho with a black couple and a boatload of kids. No mention of race. No uncomfortable jokes. Just a straightforward back and forth with a nice family. Though I did think bringing the kids on was a bit much.

Anyway, the husband and wife leave the show with $2,500. The family is happy, six kids in tow and number seven in mom. And Groucho invites them back for another appearance.

And I’m left to wonder: Whatever happened to that family?

No way!!! Really??!!!

Yep. The couple on “You Bet Your Life” was the Sylvers. And the little kids grew up to be The Sylvers.

Now I’m thinking, no that can’t be possible. I’m jumping from point A to point Z without going through the rest of the alphabet. Until I found this clip:

It’s really them. The couple ended up with 10 kids. Dad left mom to hang out with Ike Turner. Mom and kids moved to crime-ridden Watts. And then the kids formed a megahit disco group that later fell apart because of drug abuse.

All this new knowledge because I saw a clip with Chico Marx that made me laugh. (Yeah, I was looking at the “swordfish” routine from “Horsefeathers” with Groucho and his brother Chico and then stumbled on this history of the Sylvers.)

Phyllis Diller: Beginning to end

The comedian Phyllis Diller died Tuesday at the age of 95. She was one of the iconic funny people from the 1950s to the new millennium, but if you asked most of today’s recent college graduates who she was, they wouldn’t have a clue.

Her wild hair, bizarre cackle and relentless delivery of back-to-back one liners were comic standards way back when. Her style matched that of the classic comedians like Bob Hope and Henny Youngman (two more legends kids have never heard of).

She paved the way for today’s female comedians, because Phyllis was the first woman to become a star in standup comedy. And no, comedy legends like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett don’t count, because they didn’t do standup. They did sketch comedy.

For older people, who actually remember her, here’s a clip of her with Groucho Marx when she was first starting out, a fledgling funny woman who’s hadn’t quite grown into the legendary comic figure:

No one knew her then. It’s fascinating to see her in the beginning. And now, here’s the star we remember:

And here she is, almost 50 years after “You Bet Your Life,” with one of her last  performances: