Adam Gopnik: When Bob Hope Was Funny

bob-hope-660x360-660x330

Laugh Factory: How Bob Hope made a career in comedy

Adam Gopnik writes: When I was a teen-ager, I sort of hated Bob Hope. All of us did. Generationally crazy about the classics of American comedy—Groucho and Chaplin and Keaton and W. C. Fields—movie-loving kids could, in the nineteen-seventies, afford to be pious about the industrious, blue-collar types of that dispensation. Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges had their Dada charm—they were working so hard that you couldn’t help but laugh. Henny Youngman, with his violin and grinning, vc173rapid-fire delivery, was cool in his dirty-uncle-at-the-bar-mitzvah way. (Philip Roth went on the record as a Youngman fan.) If you were lucky enough to get to stay home with a cold and watch reruns on morning television, you could catch Lucille Ball’s and Jackie Gleason’s fifties sitcoms, which were truly funny, and had neat theme music, too.

But Hope was beyond hope. There he was, year after year, on those post-Christmas U.S.O. specials, with shrieking starlets and shirtless soldiers, swinging his golf club like a swagger stick. He seemed barely interested in his jokes, which he recited rather than performed, their standardized rhythmic forms—“Hey, you know what A is? It’s B!”; “Yeah, let me tell you: C reminds me of D”—more like the mumbled monotones of nixon_and_bob_hope_1969-visome ancient scripture than like anything funny. James Agee’s canonical essay on silent comedians used Hope as an example of everything that had gone wrong with movie comedy since sound came in.

[read the complete text of Adam Gopnik’s profile of Bob Hope in the New Yorker]

Worse, Hope seemed like the perfect jester for the Nixon court: contemptuous of his audience and even of his role. A rule of American life is that the same face often appears as comic and tragic masks on two public figures at the same time. The unsmiling and remote Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry and the ever-smiling but equally remote Johnny Carson were look-alikes of this kind through the seventies, and so in the early nineties were the shoegazing stoner twins of the rocker Kurt Cobain and the comedian Mitch Hedberg—both sweet and self-destructive and dead too young. Hope and Nixon had that kind of symmetry: the ski-jump nose; the hooded, darting, watchful eyes; the five-o’clock castaway shadow (in the thirties, Hope did razor-blade ads because of it); the flat, nowheresville American accent; above all, the constant show of regular-guy companionability, unable to disguise for long the coldness and isolation at its core.

bobhope1947film_2363170k

Woody Allen’s was the one voice speaking up for Hope’s genius in those years; he even did a Hope homage in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.” But one felt that Allen liked Hope because he needed something from Hope’s work for his own—perhaps a sense that this much verbal aggression was going to work out O.K., perhaps a desire to be pious about someone other than the obvious.

Annex - Lamour, Dorothy (My Favorite Brunette)_01

America, however, is the country of the eternal appeals court, where judgment, once it has worked its way through the system, has to work its way through it all over again. With a comedian or a humorist, the newsweekly eulogy usually oversweetens the case, then the memorial makes some of the right jokes, and then the biography comes to make the last, best case for his importance. Richard Zoglin’s biography “Hope” (Simon & Schuster) does such an effective job of arguing the appeal that even the Hope-hater comes away eager to see more of his good early work, and more sympathetic to the forces in his life and in the country’s which left him hard to like at the end.

Hope-Bob

Bob Hope, we learn, was born outside London in 1903, and remained in one respect more English than American: the truest thing that can be said about his inner life is that he chose not to have one. His hard-drinking father was a stone cutter—a mediocre artisan in a dying field, who, failing to make a living in London, immigrated to Cleveland only to fail further there. Hope’s mother brought up seven boys in drear, impoverished conditions. The outer fringes of London and then industrial Cleveland were not places designed to bring out the beaming aesthete in any man. The grim determination with which Hope pursued his career is perfectly understandable if you first grasp the grim lack of determination with which his father pursued his own.

Some successful performers are perpetually on, and some are just perpetually pushing. Hope was the second type. You almost have a sense, Bob-Hopefollowing his progress, that he became a comedian not because he much liked entertaining people but because he had to do something, and it beat all the other jobs on offer. Then he discovered that the same gift of sober perseverance that would push you up in any other business would push you up onstage. In the mid-twenties, he hopped onto what was left of the vaudeville circuit, which, one gathers, was a bit like writing for the Huffington Post today: to do it, you did it. The early notices suggest that Hope was an efficient comic rather than an inspired one—a swift retailer of as many jokes as he could borrow from other comedians or steal from magazines. This made his rise surprisingly swift without, at first, being particularly notable. He was successful before he had a style.

His real reputation was made on Broadway, when, in 1936, he was lifted out of the ranks of scuffling comics to star with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in Cole Porter’s “Red, Hot and Blue.” (In a duet he sang with Merman, he introduced the Porter standard “It’s De-lovely.”) He was what was called brash, and could dance lightly on the surface of conventional comedy, without melodrama or pathos. “He knows a poor joke when he hides it,” a critic wrote of Hope on Broadway, and he always would.

Annex - Hope, Bob (My Favorite Brunette)_NRFPT_04

It was the final, onstage translation of all that pure ambition. Hope knew that there were many laughs to be had by laughing at the whole business of making people laugh. Early on, he had hired stooges to heckle him from the wings during his act. “Don’t you boys know you can be arrested for annoying an audience?” Hope would snap. “You should know!” was their reply. (Johnny Carson took this manner over whole, knowing how to get laughs out of the failure of a one-liner.)

Bob_Hope_1953_standard

Onstage, Hope was a wise guy and a go-getter—“cocky, brash, and bumptious” was his own summing up. Durante, Bert Lahr, and, later, Jackie Gleason played at being lovable naïfs of a kind. The personae presented by Groucho and W. C. Fields represented another form of displacement: Fields a nineteenth-century con man lost in the new world of immigrant energies, Groucho a rabbinic disputant without a congregation to listen to him. Hope, by contrast, was all the things comedians are not supposed to be: sure of himself, self-satisfied, a man justified in his complacency. He got his laughs by hovering knowingly over his material, without worrying it too much. Hope was entirely a city smart-aleck. (It was already an American voice, right out of Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt.”)

Bob-hope-USO-tour

The Marx Brothers were satiric—they were against war and authority—but they were not particularly topical. Hope was always “on the news” in a nicely breezy way. Zoglin retails some of his lines from his first movie hit, the horror-flick parody “The Cat and the Canary”: Someone asks whether he believes in reincarnation—“You know, that dead people come back.” Hope: “You mean like the Republicans?” Will Rogers preceded him in this, but that was slow-spoken country-boy wisdom. Hope was tabloid-alert, and very New York. He later referred to his “suave, sterling style” on Broadway; Hollywood to his mind was mere “Hicksville.”

D+B-Hope

He was also what was called in those days an “inveterate skirt-chaser.” After an early and unsuccessful marriage to a vaudeville partner, he made an early and successful marriage to a minor singer, Dolores Reade. It was successful in the sense that they stuck together and raised gopnik-book-parischildren—she was devoutly Catholic—and that she permanently stabilized his life.

[Order Adam Gopnik‘s book “Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology” (Library of America) from Amazon]

Along the way, however, he had an apparently unending series of sexual escapades. Most of his assignations were with little-remembered beauty queens and chorus girls, though he did tell a friend that he had had sex with the brass-tonsilled Merman in doorways all the way up Eighth Avenue. Although all this was widely known, Zoglin points out, no one chose to notice. Some work went into this. Hope’s agent Louis Shurr once said, brutally, to a new Hope publicist, “Our mission in life is to keep all news about fucking and sucking away from Dolores.”

bob-hope-bing-crosby-349

It was in Hollywood, hick town or no, that he got paired with Bing Crosby, a much bigger star, in a small buddy comedy called “The Road to Singapore” (1940). This was the first of the series of “Road” movies—“The Road to Morocco,” “The Road to Utopia,” “The Road to Rio”—which made him a household name, and are his best shot at posterity. They really are funny, and curiously modern, and a key part of this, strange to say, is Hope’s sex appeal. He’s a self-confident wise guy—exposed as a coward but not as a nebbish. Riding the back of a camel with Crosby in “Road to Morocco,” he’s as at ease in his undershirt as Brando.

Zoglin is right that the meta-comedy, “the fourth-wall-breaking,” of those movies is still charming, and must have seemed startling at the time. After Hope stops to recapitulate the plot in “Morocco,” Crosby protests that he knows all that. “Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t,” Hope replies. This is a stunt, and we buy it because the characters are so companionable—the real subject of the movies was Bob and Bing’s friendship, and our sense that, as with Redford and Newman later on, they were funny, attractive equals. Crosby isn’t truly a straight man; Hope isn’t truly a clown. The Hope character doesn’t see himself as ineligible for Dorothy Lamour, just squeezed out….(read more)

New Yorker


4 Comments on “Adam Gopnik: When Bob Hope Was Funny”

  1. The Moz says:

    Well, I was one of those faceless shirtless guys in the audience in Vietnam…a fresh Lance Corporal my first tour and a foul platoon sergeant my second tour- a member of the 1st Marine Division – Force Recon — lucky enough I saw the Hope tour twice..trust me, dude, it was a hell of a holiday when he was there..and we laughed hysterically at his humor because that was how we told jokes about the officers and each other— bitterly dry…Hope knew exactly what he was doing…he was playing to us and not the people back home…the jokes he told were simple and straightforward and we told them to each other over and over again in places you could never imagine yourself being…but, the real reason he underplayed things is because he wanted us to remember the girls and the music — the good times and not the sarcasm because god knows he had enough of that in our real lives while in country……I can still remember Connie Stevens standing to Bobs side as he told a joke….and looking me straight in the eye and smiling and mouthing out the words, “hello soldier”….but, I guarantee there were about a hundred other guys in my general direction who thought she was talking to them…Maybe Hope wasnt funny enough for you…but, he was there and our families and friends and home was somewhere else…but, he was HERE…

    we laughed uproariously and seemingly over the top at times because we were laughing for the boys whose guts were left out in the jungle and whose bodies were sent home in sticky black bags…we laughed because we really wanted to cry…we laughed because we all thought we were going to die ignominious deaths the next time in combat…and you know what? a lot of us did…so, when you rip Bob Hope …you rip us…and I am standing with him because he had the nerve to care…how many of you can say the same thing?

    • The Butcher says:

      Thanks for your comment — it should really go to Adam Gopnik, the writer of the article, rather than here. (we just posted a portion of it) Consider posting this at the source, via the link to the New Yorker

  2. […] The Butcher Laugh Factory: How Bob Hope made a career in comedy Adam Gopnik writes: When I was a teen-ager, I […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.