‘You Bet Your Life’ Drops the Standup, Ups the Chat

'You Bet Your Life,' starring Jay Leno, will lean into contestant interviews when it returns this fall.
'You Bet Your Life,' starring Jay Leno, will lean into contestant interviews when it returns this fall. (Image credit: Fox First Run)

You Bet Your Life, Fox First Run’s reboot of the game show made famous by Groucho Marx, is tweaking its format for next season, its second in national syndication. Instead of having host Jay Leno open every episode with a few minutes of standup, as he did when he hosted NBC’s The Tonight Show, Leno will spend that time mingling with the show’s contestants. 

Leno always chatted with the players, but the new format will expand on that time and mine it for more comedy.

“It’s more fun to get right to it,” Leno said in an interview. “I’m always anxious to get to the contestants.”

“We’ve found that the interviews are comedic enough,” said Stephen Brown, executive VP, programming and development, Fox Television Stations. “We were hedging our bets when we first started, thinking, ‘What if these people are not that funny or entertaining?’ As we were watching more and more, we realized that the interviews were more funny than we first thought they would be. That’s really the meat of the show.”

Leno has long incorporated talking to real people into his act and his show, like on his Tonight Show segment “Jaywalking,” in which Leno would meet people on the street and ask them questions such as, “Who is the vice president?” How often people did not know answers to what seemed like basic questions was always good for a laugh.

“That’s where ‘Jaywalking’ came from — watching Groucho react to people,” Leno said. “My favorite one was when we were at a college talking to students as they got their diplomas. We asked, ‘Can you name a country that borders the U.S.?’ and they would say things like, ‘Geography wasn’t my major.’”

“I generally like talking to people,” Leno said. “I’m always amazed when celebrities don’t want to meet anyone.”

When it comes to hosting You Bet Your Life, Leno tries to treat the contestants a little bit like the celebrities that used to sit on his Tonight Show couch.

“I think the real trick is to listen and … be a comedian when you’re called upon,“ he said. On the Tonight Show, Leno said, “I was a comedian when I did the monologue, and then I was the host. My job was to not embarrass or humiliate the guests. You learn to pull back a little bit. That’s how you get guests to come back.” 

You Bet Your Life -- which Fox often pairs with 25 Words or Less, starring Meredith Vieira -- has been renewed for a second season in national syndication. It averaged a 0.8 live plus same day national household rating, according to Nielsen, in the week ended April 10. Next season, Pictionary, starring Jerry O’Connell, will be a new addition to Fox’s game block. ■ 

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.