Nearly thirty years after Bill Cosby quickly came and went with a revival of You Bet Your Life, the classic Groucho Marx game show is back with a new host: Jay Leno.
Starting in September 2021, Leno will host a new weeknight strip syndicated by Fox First Run, the syndication division of Fox Corporation formed after much of 21st Century Fox – including the Twentieth Television syndicated division was sold to The Walt Disney Company for $71.3 billion in 2017. This is the biggest project yet for Fox First Run, who distributes only three shows thus far: 25 Words Or Less, Divorce Court, and Dish Nation.
“We need a familiar face to make us laugh and we are incredibly proud and excited to reinvent this renowned franchise with the enormously talented Jay,” said Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy in a statement.
Naturally, the program has already been cleared on Fox’s 29 local stations, including WFLD-TV and WPWR-TV. With a name like Leno attached, expect You Bet to air in early fringe (afternoon) and/or access (6-8 p.m.), paired with either Family Feud or The Big Bang Theory in markets where Fox has rights (Fox’s Chicago duopoly has rights to both shows.) Fox also has expiring Judge Judy contracts next year in some markets and could windup being an ideal replacement as the top-rated courtroom show in its current form ends its run.
The executive producers of the project are David Hurwitz and Tom Werner, whose Carsey-Werner production company was also behind the Bill Cosby revival effort.
“I’m thrilled to be hosting the latest version of You Bet Your Life. One of my favorite things to do is talk to regular people and draw humor out of them. This is a comedy show wrapped in a game show that allows me to do just that,” said Leno in a statement.
Leno is currently host of Jay Leno’s Garage, which is continuing on CNBC. Leno succeeded Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show in 1992 and continued until 2009 when he relinquished the role to Conan O’Brien. But after having second thoughts about stepping down, NBC gave Leno a weeknight 10 p.m. ET strip, a first in prime-time which turned into a ratings and critical disaster. Several months later in a highly controversial move, NBC disposed of O’Brien and re-installed Leno as Tonight Show host, until 2014 when he stepped aside for Jimmy Fallon.
You Bet Your Life last aired as a syndicated strip during the 1992-93 season in a much ballyhooed attempt with Cosby as host, whose main station group partner were the CBS-owned stations, including WBBM-TV here. Even though the show did decently well opposite Jeopardy in its 3:30 p.m. weekday time slot in Chicago, it was completely hammered by it and Wheel of Fortune in access slots (7 or 7:30 p.m. ET/PT) at WCBS-TV in New York and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, the latter using You Bet and a failed weekday version of Star Search to replace both veteran game shows who defected to rival KABC-TV.
You Bet was produced in Cosby’s hometown of Philadelphia at PBS member station WHYY-TV. Sold in upfronts at a 10 rating – which it came nowhere close to, You Bet was canceled in December 1992 but didn’t leave the airwaves until September 1993.
Another short-lived effort was attempted by Buddy Hackett during the 1980-81 season, from MCA TV (now NBCUniversal Television Distribution.) Groucho Marx hosted the classic game show first on radio and then transitioned to television where it ran on NBC from 1950 to 1961 while also maintaining its radio home, also on NBC (until 1960.) The show was so popular, reruns of You Bet Your Life were sold into syndication by NBC Films during the 1960s under the title Best of Groucho.
This new attempt from Fox makes sense as the group is looking for something to pair with their existing stable of game shows on their schedules as local stations are exiting the off-network sitcom business in the streaming era. The real question is, can Leno still be a draw in 2021 and moreover, can the show avoid getting pummeled by the still potent Wheel and Jeopardy like it was the last time?