The most irresistible new show of the season -- and possibl the season's best -- debuts tonight and airs every weeknight at 7:30 on WBAL (Channel 11).
Because it is syndicated -- meaning produced and sold independently -- it was not promoted by the network. Still, "You Bet Your Life," with Bill Cosby sitting in Groucho Marx's old chair -- and let us acknowledge right off the bat that he sits there magnificently -- is going to be on almost everyone's lips.
The show is a reminder that one talented performer can carry a certain kind of TV show, even for a decade. In Groucho's case, it was from 1950 to 1961. The new version is so funny and seems to be so effortless on Cosby's part, it looks as if it could easily run 10 years, too. And you won't even miss George Fenneman.
For those not familiar with the original "You Bet Your Life," let it be said that this is a game show only by the widest of definitions. Nobody bets their life or anything close to it. Money is pretty
much beside the point of the show.
Two contestants -- a male and a female unknown to each other usually -- walk onstage having already chosen a topic. They get ** to answer three questions, betting some or all of the $750 they were given at the start of the game. There are three sets of contestants, and the winning pair gets to come back at the end of the show and try to win more money -- up to $10,000. This is very small potatoes in today's market; "Jeopardy!" contestants have won that much in the first round.
Cosby's contestants probably have not been among the winners on "Jeopardy!". One couple featured on a preview tape of the show had chosen the category of One Word Movie Titles. The clue was "a 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman in which he gets an acting part by cross-dressing." The question stumped the couple.
The key, the everything to the show is Cosby -- the host who interviews the contestants before they answer the questions. He actually gets to know them, you might say. And, without being cruel or snide or slimily ingratiating, makes us and the contestants laugh. It's a little like watching Cliff Huxtable LTC interview his kids or a potential son-in-law. You know it's going to get good,you're just not sure how good.
A big part of the formula for success here is finding people who aren't camera shy and are very much into their own lifestyle and are eager to explain their personal philosophies to a seemingly mesmerized Cosby, who occasionally lets them upstage him.
Is there any funnier reaction shot in all of television -- game show, comedy or drama -- than Cosby's changing expressions as someone explains something to him that's just a little bit off the wall? The answer is one on which you can bet a long, long life for this show.
'YOU BET YOUR LIFE'
What: "You Bet Your Life."
When: Weeknights at 7:30.
Channel: WBAL (Channel 11).