Did Groucho Marx Really Say It- The Cigar Quip

Eddie Deezen 5
grouchoIt is, without question, one of the most oft-quoted anecdotes in the history of comedy. It goes, pretty much, like this:

A woman with 10 (or 12 or 14 or 16 or whatever) children makes a guest appearance as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life (which started out on the radio and later found its way onto TV, running from 1947-1961)

Woman: “I have 14 children, Groucho”.

Groucho: “You have 14 children? Why do you have so many kids?”

Woman: “Because I love my husband”.

Groucho: “I love my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.”

The most generally accepted version of the “Cigar Story” was that it took place on radio in 1947 during the show’s first year.  A “Mrs. Story” was the supposed contestant’s name. But other sources claim it occurred on TV and the lady’s name in that case was supposedly “Mrs. House”.

However it supposedly happened, literally thousands of people have claimed to have either been there in the studio or heard it on radio or TV.  This is, of course, impossible.  If it ever did occur, it would have inevitably been edited out before any actual airing.  The ribald gag was much too crude for radio or television in those times. So, at most, 200 people (the capacity of Groucho’s studio audience) could have actually heard it.

What did Groucho have to say on the matter?  In 1972, in an interview with Roger Ebert for Esquire magazine, Groucho stated: “I got $25.00 from Reader’s Digest last week for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said. You know that line in You Bet Your Life the guy says he has 17 kids and I say ‘I smoke a cigar, but I take it out every once in a while.’ I never said it.” (Obviously Groucho himself here misrepresents the common story today and the sex of the contestant is a man instead of a woman.)

Despite Groucho himself denying he ever said it, in the 1976 book The Secret Word is Groucho by Groucho, “Groucho” says: “The story, however, is not apocryphal. It did happen.” Confused? Unlike the 1972 Esquire interview, this book was largely ghost-written by biographer Hector Arce and he may easily have put these words in Groucho’s mouth.  By 1976, the year of the book’s publication, Groucho was pretty much a shell of his old self, having survived a few strokes.  The poor man could barely string together a coherent sentence in his final year (Groucho passed on the next year, 1977), let alone properly edit Arce’s work for content.

The truth is, the “cigar” remark, taken at its burlesque show level, wasn’t really Groucho’s “style”. Groucho would definitely make an occasional off-color or lewd remark in private. And as we all know, Groucho’s sense of humor and mind were amazingly quick, fertile- and hilarious.  But on the air, Groucho was the consummate pro and it wasn’t like him to make a remark like that in front of an actual studio audience, who may well not have appreciated the crudeness; and he’d know it would never make it on the air anyways.

In the end, there is no record or transcript of the legendary exchange ever actually taking place. And as Groucho, before his body and mind started failing him, stated he never actually said it, we can pretty safely say it never happened.

Interestingly, on January 11, 1950, Groucho did interview a woman who was one of 17 children and the following dialogue did take place:

Groucho: “How does your father feel about this rather startling turn of events? Is he happy or just dazed?”

Daughter: “Oh, my daddy just loves children”.

Groucho: “Well, I like pancakes, but I haven’t got closestsful of them.”

This rather innocent exchange may possibly have been the actual source of the now infamous “Cigar Story”.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Most of Groucho’s best “ad-libs” were written in advance by his group of comedy writers.  The writers themselves would meet and interview the contestants for the show, then they would would write the clever “Groucho” quips on cue cards and Groucho would read them off before the studio audience, making them sound fresh and original. It is true, though, that Groucho did not meet the guest contestants before the show’s taping.
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5 Comments »

  1. James Shaw August 27, 2013 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    I saw the show in which Groucho made the statement and it was to a Spaniard gentleman. He stated, “I like my cigar too, but I take it out once in a while.” I remember this as if it were yesterday.

  2. Bill January 13, 2014 at 1:04 am - Reply

    While their does not seem to be a clip of this cigar joke in existance, saying he would never say something “dirty” like that in front of an audience as it was not in character is as false as your “bonus fact”. There are plenty of outakes from You Bet Your Life that are just about as “dirty”. Even a feeble attempt at a little research before writing this would have shown that.

    The que cards in question was actually an overhead projecter they could write on to pass messages along to Groucho to move the show along when he would go on to long about something, so they could keep the show moving along.

    As for scripting, again some research would have been a good idea. One of the problems he had in radio early on was sticking to a script. He scared sponsers and was considered risky as they never knew what he was going to say. The basis, and origin of You Bet Your Life came from his ability to ad lib.

    Anyhow, he definitly was not by definition a dirty comedian, but he was a great at getting listeners/viewers to think the “dirty” stuff for themselves while sounding fairly innocent himself.

    “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”

  3. Bill B April 5, 2014 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    I also saw the show where Groucho absolutely did say the cigar comment! Perhaps he denied saying it because as he got older, he was embarrassed by the remark! There may not be any definitive proof, but like James, I know. What I saw and heard!

  4. Woody April 25, 2014 at 12:09 am - Reply

    I had never heard the cigar joke until one evening back in 1977 or 78 , local UHF channel in Philadelphia ran episodes of You Bet your Life at 10 or 10:30 pm. Sure enough he tells the joke to a couple wiating to play the game. There were 3 UHF stations braodcasting in Philly at the time Chnl 17, 29 & 48. It was one of those & I’m leaning into WTAF as the station that broadcast it.

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