Cosby shows interview skills in new 'Life'

June 18, 1992|By Francesca Chapman | Francesca Chapman,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA -- One evening last week, Bill Cosby:

* Chatted with a pregnant woman about her constipation.

* Ridiculed an Air Force technician for refusing to paint his wife's toenails.

* Leaned on a 76-year-old newlywed for the details of her romance with a neighbor.

* Got an employee of the University of New Mexico to say she wouldn't let her sons go there because she wanted them to attend "good schools."

He got them all to do it in front of television cameras.

And they loved every minute.

That's the main idea behind "You Bet Your Life," Mr. Cosby's new game show, which began production at a Center City TV studio earlier this spring. The syndicated show is set to premiere this fall, and tapings of the show are under way in Philadelphia and open to the public.

Watching the taping is a treat. (Bright lights! TV cameras! And Mr. Cosby's own Vanna White, Robbie Chong, is ultra-leggy and sophisticated.) It's a fun field trip for groups (church members and senior citizens are typically in heavy attendance).

If you do take in a taping, you'll be among the first in the country to see Mr. Cosby in his new gig. If you're a fan, you won't be disappointed.

The host mugs his way through the show with trademark eyebrow-raising, frowning, ogling and smirking. (To prove what a perfect fit this show is for Mr. Cosby, that's exactly how Groucho Marx did "You Bet Your Life" when he starred in the original in the 1950s.)

But even if you're fed up with Mr. Cosby's mannerisms from eight years of "The Cosby Show," you may be pleasantly surprised by his charm and skill as an interviewer. The former monologist is quick on his feet, and happy to let guests do most of the talking.

Here's how "You Bet Your Life" works: A team of two contestants (they're unrelated, typically one black and one white, one male and one female) comes out and banters with the host. Mr. Cosby, primed with background information, asks questions designed to elicit the silliest or most interesting responses.

Contestants must have some interesting quirk, job, or family to make the cut, and Mr. Cosby's good at getting folks to relax and open up. A retired librarian was shy and mumbly as she described her career; when he asked how she met her husband, she brightened right up and launched into a delightful anecdote about their courtship.

It's a talk show, with regular people for guests. Mr. Cosby's skill at eliciting information makes you wonder why, with every schmo from Los Angeles signing up to host a talk show, his name has never come up.

The "game" part of "You Bet Your Life" is inconsequential. The team is asked three easy questions. (How many keys on a piano? What's the name of the government agency that oversees space exploration? What Oscar-winning crusty cowboy starred opposite Billy Crystal in "City Slickers"? Please.) These guests may be good conversationalists, but judging by the alarming number of incorrect responses, they'd never cut it on "Jeopardy!"

The process is repeated for two more teams. Whoever is left with the most money gets asked a bonus question worth up to $10,000. And that's it.

Taping one "You Bet Your Life" lasts 90 minutes to two hours, and tends to meander. Later, each session will be edited down to 30 minutes. By the time it gets to TV, the show should be fast-moving and funny; the editors will cull the best bits for each show.

The crew tapes three shows a day. Sitting in on one show should be enough for anybody, but you can stay for a second if you like.

Between tapings, a crew member banters with the audience, and the house band, the Shirley Scott Sextet, plays jazz tunes. If you're lucky, Mr. Cosby will not take a turn at the keyboards during a break.

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