Seven years after he signed off as host of “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno is ready to dive back into the daily TV grind as emcee of “You Bet Your Life,” a revival of the classic quiz show hosted for years on radio and TV by Groucho Marx.
Leno’s edition of the durable game show bows Sept. 13 in syndication, distributed by Fox Corp.’s Fox First Run division.
The veteran comedian has been offered hosting gigs on many game shows over the years, but Leno didn’t have much interest in a show with a lot of involved game play. The highlight of the original “YBYL” — which began on radio in 1947 and expanded to TV on NBC for a decade-long run from 1950 to 1961 — was always Marx’s famously fast zingers and his banter with everyday contestants. That made it a perfect fit for Leno, who sees it as a version of his longtime person-on-the-street interview segment “Jaywalking” that aired on “Tonight Show” during his 22-year run at NBC.
“This is a comedy show with a kind of tenuous connection to a game,” Leno told Variety.
As with the original, contestants will be everyday people but with offbeat personalities, unusual occupations and other colorful characteristics that Leno will explore. Another aspect of the original that will be retained is the low value of the cash winnings available to contestants. The small amount of money at stake also helps make for a lighter mood. The most a contestant can win is about $55,000.
“It’s not life-changing money. It’s month-changing money,” Leno quipped.
Tom Werner, who is executive producer of “YBYL,” reinforced that the contestants and their interaction with Leno is the crux of the show. Producers are focused on finding “interesting and likeable” people from all over the country, he said. Werner and his former partner Marcy Carsey previously produced a version of “YBYL” in syndication hosted by the now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby that ran for one season in syndication in 1992-93.
“My favorite moment so far is when Jay asked a contestant to name the four Presidents on Mount Rushmore. She said, ‘Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.’ Jay then asked, ‘Which Roosevelt?’ The woman responded, ‘There’s more than one?,’” Werner said.
Yes, there will still be a “Secret Word” of the day — a pre-selected term that if stated by a contestant brings them $100 — but no, it won’t be announced by a Groucho-styled duck puppet lowered down on a wire as in the original series.
One new touch will be a spin-the-wheel game dubbed “The Rodney Run,” in honor of fast-talking comedian Rodney Dangerfield, that will involve contestants trying to speed through a series of jokes.
“What makes this show fun is the combination of Jay Leno’s comedy with the pairing of two strangers, each with their own unique stories, working together to win money and prizes,” said David Hurwitz, showrunner and executive producer.
Leno is unabashedly looking forward to working in a comedic style and tone that is appropriate to early evening rather than late-night or comedy clubs. Especially given the troubled times, Leno’s aim is to deliver good, clean fun.
“There’s no politics here. We just want everyone to be laughing at the end,” Leno said. “That was a real selling point to station managers in the Midwest — no politics. Everybody’s so angry. We need to see more fun on TV.”
The return of “YBYL” also marks a reunion for Leno and his longtime “Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks. Eubanks will serve as a co-host with Leno and he penned the show’s new theme song. The two were not at all surprised to see that they easily returned to their old groove even after a long break.
“There’s a natural ebb and flow” to working with Eubanks, Leno said. “Comedy and jazz are a lot alike. It’s all about timing and you never do it the same way twice.”