Volume 20 Issue 5 | June 15 - 21, 2007


“You Bet Your Life - Live”
June 18 at 7 p.m.
HERE Arts Center
145 6th Avenue

Photo by Reven T.C. Wurman

Would you bet your life with this woman?

The secret word is Lisa

‘You Bet Your Life’ comes back to life Downtown


Lisa Levy is crazy, and she’s got the empty Prozac bottles to prove it. The visual artist and improvisational comedian has a sculpture of spent bottles of anti-depressants on display in her funky bachelorette pad in the Village, appropriate for a women who once hosted a show called “Psychotherapy Live.”

The striking, fortyish redhead has been turning her quirky life into art ever since the late 1970s, when she sold t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Studio 54 Reject” outside the famed nightclub. Since then her bizarre conceptual art has included a matchbook commemorating her first period, personalized condoms, an installation of items that she had stolen from friends and business establishments and “Ten Things I Don’t Want People to Know About Me,” a framed list of personal secrets that hangs above her bed. Levy has also bowled with her pet hamster on David Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks” and crashed “The Today Show” wearing a sandwich board that said “I’m Looking for a Commitment.”

“For me it’s never ‘Aha! This is the end product,’” Levy told me. “It’s always ‘What’s next?’”

What’s next for Levy nowadays is an updated version of Groucho Marx’s 1950s game show “You Bet Your Life,” an odd choice, perhaps, for someone who had never seen the show, nor any of the comedy legend’s work.

“I knew that my parents’ generation were huge fans, and I knew how well-respected Groucho was,” she said. “But I was never interested in him before.”

That all changed when Levy’s boyfriend suggested that she stage a live version of the classic game show, which began on the radio in 1947 and aired on television for more than a decade.

“I’m watching the DVDs, and listening to the old radio shows on my iPod,” she told me. “It’s amazing. It’s like learning from the master.”

On the heels of the success of “Psychotherapy Live” and her follow-up show, “Red Carpet Live,” Levy premiered “You Bet Your Life — Live” last week at the experimental performance space HERE in Soho. While the format of Levy’s update is the same as that of the classic — audience members compete against each other with Levy as the quizmaster — that is where the similarities end.

“I would never be arrogant enough to compare myself and Groucho,” she said. “What I’m interested in is getting people to say things that you wouldn’t expect them to say.”

At the first installment of “You Bet Your Life — Live” that’s exactly what Levy did. Her announcer Derek Stubbs selected two reluctant participants from the audience, who sheepishly took the stage and fielded Levy’s probing questions.

“I’m a special ed teacher,” answered Gillian, the first contestant, prompting a suggestion from Levy that the young woman might have an unfair advantage over the other players.

“It’s early childhood stuff,” Gillian replied. “I don’t know a lot of adult information.”

“Derek does,” Levy shot back, smirking at her sidekick.

Levy’s research had paid off. The brilliance of Groucho’s game show was never the game itself, nor the simple staging or the miniscule cash prizes. What made that show an enduring classic was Groucho’s ability to engage in witty banter with everyday folks.

In that sense, Levy’s experience with her real life art and performance projects has served her well. She held her own as she joked her way through three fast-paced rounds of the game with real live nervous people.

Bob from Inwood was unemployed. Olga was a divorced hairdresser who claimed to “make people from Staten Island beautiful.” Maggie proudly gushed about her two cute kitties named Reggie and Lizzie and guessed that the secret word was “food” when asked what she fed them.

And therein lies the major difference between Levy’s version and the source material. In the original, Groucho’s announcer George Fenneman would reveal the secret word with the help of a mustachioed duck puppet that descended from the sky. In Levy’s update, announcer Stubbs displayed the words on various parts of his body. The highlight (or lowlight, depending on your perspective) of the evening involved the announcer dropping his pants to reveal a word written on his butt cheeks. At that moment, if you listened very closely, you could hear Groucho Marx spinning in his grave.

Still, with its satirical live commercials for 2000 Flushes Toilet Bowl Cleaner, and the quirky charm of the eminently engaging hostess, “You Bet Your Life – Live,” was an wacky treat — a piece of performance art in which the audience members got the biggest laughs.

“That’s where I see the real humor,” Levy told me. “When real people say funny things and the audience cracks up.”

In retrospect, maybe “cracks” was a poor choice of words. But you get the idea.

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