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COSBY FOLLOWS IN GROUCHO'S FOOTSTEPS WITH VAPID VERSION OF `YOU BET YOUR LIFE'

The secret word is "vapid."

And you better say the secret word and flip the channel when Bill Cosby's new "You Bet Your Life" appears on your TV screen.This syndicated revival of the old Groucho Marx-hosted game show is premiering on some 140 stations coast-to-coast.

(Locally, it debuts tonight at 10:35 p.m. on Ch. 14.)

You can bet your life that seldom has so meager a concept been reproduced so faithfully.

Here, exhumed as if from a 1950s time capsule, is the venerable formula:

Successive pairs of contestants try to win money by answering questions. A dilapidated stuffed bird - this time around, a black goose - is entrusted with a secret word which, if uttered by a contestant, is good for bonus bucks. Most importantly, of course, there's a wisecracking host for whom all else serves as his showcase.

Thirty-one years after Groucho finished a decade-long run, Cos, having wrapped up eight fabulously successful seasons on his just-concluded sitcom, now takes a turn at the "You Bet Your Life" podium.

Always easygoing, his style in recent years has congealed, like the Jell-O he hypes, into complacent shtick. Indeed, on "The Cosby Show" he began to settle into a comedic version of Dean Martin, crooning his way through each storyline while the action whirled around him.

Now, retiring to a bargain-basement set in a Philadelphia studio, Cosby has used his standing as arguably TV's biggest star to give up even standing: He does "You Bet Your Life" sitting down.

The secret word is "coasting."

Cosby's guests admittedly are well-chosen, furnishing ample material for laughs.

For instance, a Navy man is paired with a ladies' room security guard who says she carries a whistle on the job. Of course, Cosby is ready. "Now, is this to START them, or . . . ?"

When the laughter subsides, he presses on.

"It isn't just women," he confides. "See, I'm 54, and there are times when I have to whistle to get MYSELF started."

How does the Cosby edition stack up with Groucho's?

See for yourself. The original "You Bet Your Life" - billed as "The Best of Groucho" - can be viewed on Comedy Central weekday mornings, where the channel is available. And next Tuesday through Friday, the cable network has scheduled four special episodes that feature an 11-year-old Candice Bergen, Liberace, Phyllis Diller in her first TV appearance, and brother Harpo.

Watching the old shows, you may be struck by how lame the show was, even for those early days of TV. But Groucho saved it by approaching the job with his usual bad-boy relish. Today's viewer - and probably yesterday's, too - can tell that, underneath it all, HE knew as well as anyone that the whole thing was pretty silly.

Conversely, Cosby's carefully cultivated image is based on reassurance and sincerity. Therefore, he can never let on how quizmaster is an odd career move for a megastar presumably in his prime.

For this, at least his half-dozenth TV series, it's the basics: full-strength Cosby on a stool.

It's too little. It's too much.

Pssst: the secret word is "wasteoftime."