Hope-Less: How Different Would Standup Be Without Bob Hope?

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The truth is, Bob Hope actually dug Lenny Bruce, he really did – even considered him “brilliant,” according to Richard Zoglin in his new biography Hope: Entertainer of the Century. Zoglin tells the story of Hope dropping in on a Florida nightclub to check out Bruce’s act. “Bruce introduced Hope in the audience and after the show,” writes Zoglin, “ran into the parking lot to flag him down, asking Hope if he would give Bruce a guest spot on one of his TV shows. Hope laughed him off: ‘Lenny, you’re for educational TV.’”

Whether there was more sharpness or self-deprecation in Hope’s remark, it’s a tender moment between two comedians who couldn’t possibly have been more different. In Hope, however, Zoglin is determined to make the case that there’s less difference than we perceive between Bob Hope and those comedians of Bruce’s generation and later – and, what’s more, that without Bob Hope, none of those comedians would have been possible.

Zoglin claims, very bluntly, that “Hope was the first to combine topical subject matter with the rapid-fire gag rhythms of the vaudeville quipster. His monologues became the template for Johnny Carson and nearly every late-night TV host who followed him, and the foundation stone for all standup comics, even those who rebelled against him.”

That’s a strong claim, and it’s one that Zoglin grounds firmly in history. Hope’s radio manager, Jimmy Saphier, has said that in the 1930s he “felt it was a shame the home listeners weren’t getting the best of him. Radio simply wasn’t using his talents properly. I knew this, and I sensed Bob knew it but didn’t yet know how to overcome it. His work with [his radio foils] was funny, but his strength seemed to me and also to him – eventually – to be centered in what he did best, the monologue.”

Before long, Hope was talking up the monologue in this press, saying things like, “The monologue is now showing signs of being a main comedy trend. I haven’t discarded dialogue and sketches, and I don’t expect to. But I intend giving short monologues prominent spots on all my programs.” These would, Zoglin writes, “be monologues of a new kind – filled not with generic vaudeville-style gags, but with fresh jokes, drawn from the news and from his own real-life experiences.” Hope told another news reporter that “the monologue in modern dress, clever and smart, is due for a comeback.”

It was the monologue in modern dress, but Hope knew enough not to deny that Will Rogers had cut the fabric. Will Rogers took political commentary and, in Hope’s words, “cloaked it with novelty, gave it vitality.” “Hope was Rogers’ logical heir,” writes Zoglin. “He adopted the humorist’s everyman approach and topical subject matter…, but added speed and moxie and a vaudeville gagster’s instinct for the laugh line. In doing so, he invented a new kind of monologue – the seeds of modern standup comedy.”

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Anytime someone claims that Bob Hope planted the seeds of modern comedy, it begs the question of just how important to modern comedy one considers personal expression. Hope notoriously hired a whole staff of writers, and, beyond that, was one of the very first comedians to ever use cue cards. This last is something Hope took up after transitioning from radio to television, whereupon he couldn’t very well be seen holding a script while performing. Hope’s cue-card guy was the Ur-Cue Card Guy, one Barney McNulty, late of the Army Air Corps, where he’d learned to transcribe Morse code in letters large but neat. From there, he took his talents to Ed Wynn’s TV show in 1949, and, four years later, to Hope. He would remain a “loyal member of the entourage,” according to Zoglin, and “often a whipping boy,” for some forty years afterward.

Hope called his 1954 memoir Have Tux, Will Travel, where a different kind of comedian might have gone with Have Mic, or even, in some extreme cases, Have Pen. But Hope went with Have Tux. That’s just the kind of comedian he was. After all, he had people to hold the pens for him – he didn’t handle those very much more than he handled the cue cards. When he was working in radio, Zoglin claims, Hope hired more writers than anyone else working in the medium.

Later on, he’d use them for his most personal canvases, for the longform performances he took on the road throughout America and Europe and wherever U.S. soldiers were fighting. This wasn’t just how he put product on the air nightly. This is how he communicated his vision, across all formats and mediums.

But he really did care about the monologue, as an art-form, and applied the full extent of his attentions and instincts to making it right. Larry Gelbart, who worked as a writer for Hope before creating M*A*S*H, has said that Hope “was terrific with us. He was a great editor. He knew what he should do and knew what he shouldn’t do. He cared about the rest of the show, but nothing received the personal attention and that kind of involvement that the monologue did.”

He wasn’t shy about his use of writers. In fact, he was, writes Zoglin, the first comedian to openly acknowledge them in his act, with his so-called “savers,” those self-deprecatory ad libs he would toss out whenever a joke bombed. They were the onstage equivalent of all that fourth-wall-breaking he would do with Bing Crosby in the Road pictures. “I don’t think Hope invented savers,” Zoglin tells me when I ask him about it by e-mail, “though he certainly popularized them.”

And, of course, the savers weren’t always as spontaneous as they were meant to appear. Sometimes they were written by the very writers they often poked fun at. Nevertheless, writes Zoglin, “Hope could improvise when he had to; his reactions were quick and his ability to roll with the punches impressive.”

Zoglin is willing to acknowledge that, “In truth, Hope got away with plenty of old jokes – tired, knee-jerk gags about Gleason’s weight and Benny’s cheapness and Crosby’s many kids – and his material was often second class.” But he did a volume business, did Hope, and his best work managed to entertain even as it innovated. And, anyway, it’s not always about the joke as it’s written; it’s about the delivery, too. Hope didn’t always say funny things, they say; but he always said things funny. It was as an interpreter that he excelled.

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Mort Sahl, the most topical monologuist of the generation or two following Hope’s, identified a different father to his own sensibility. He liked to cite Henry Morgan. When I ask Zoglin about the importance of Henry Morgan to topical monologists, he acknowledges that this “near-forgotten figure” is “cited by many as an influence” in making standup “more personal, acerbic, socially relevant and politically pointed….But Hope, I maintain, still paved the way for all of these guys a decade earlier, by basically inventing the topical monologue.”

What Hope did for them, in other words, is very similar to what Will Rogers had done for Hope. Although Rogers was already doing material as topical as that afternoon’s paper, the “folksy, slow-paced delivery” was something in desperate need of upgrading, or at least modernizing. That’s what Hope gave it, by accelerating and sharpening it with the pacing and punchlining picked up in vaudeville. Hope’s retooling of Rogers was retooled yet again by the comedians of Sahl’s era – those who came to prominence in the 1950s – by developing routines that were much more thoughtful and discursive, not to mention irreverent and iconoclastic.

If Hope had kept his iconoclasm – or, rather, if he had modified it with time to keep pace with the standard for what passed as iconoclasm – he’d be much better remembered today. Instead, he kept it at the cruising speed he’d set in the very beginning. The man who in 1947 had been deemed the most tasteless comedian on the air by a poll of Christian college students was, by the 1960s, someone so anodyne and establishment-friendly that he golfed with presidents, and performed ideologically neutral in front of kings and queens and U.S. combat troops.

On those rare occasions when Hope tried to tell jokes that had about them at least the flavor of controversy or indecorousness, he quickly acceded to censorship. When NBC aired one of his USO specials from Vietnam, they removed jokes such as: ““I hear you go in for gardening. The commanding officer says you all grow your own grass.” The press complained, but Bob Hope did not – not publicly, anyway.

Beyond that, there was always a distance to Hope, a deliberate repelling of any who would approach the vicinity of his soul’s secrets, whatever they may be. A womanizer of notorious appetites even by Hollywood standards, Hope also developed, in childhood (according to Zoglin), defenses “for protecting himself from harsh realities: a thick skin, an ability to mask his feelings, and a relentlessly positive, can-do attitude in the face of precarious times.” Michael Herr, who had plenty of opportunity to observe Hope up close when reporting Dispatches in Vietnam, would later write, “Famous beyond famous, the ultimate show business machine, when you met him you could look and stare and still not really see him. Your real life was just another medium that he was starring in.”

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What ultimately did more damage to Hope’s reputation than anything else wasn’t the writing staff, the cheap jokes, the respectability, or the distance. It was the laziness – the complacency. This complacency didn’t prominently appear until the age at which such a thing becomes excusable, or at least understandable, but there it appeared all the same. And it stayed for many years afterward, because Hope himself stayed. It got to a point, as early as the 1970s, where even the savers were more than Hope was willing to go through with. “His delivery…was growing more rigid and imperial,” writes Zoglin: “the joke, the stare, the laugh, the next setup. No more ‘savers’ when he stumbled on a line, or when a joke fell flat – or much acknowledgement of the audience at all.”

“Energy,” Zoglin tells me, “is really important: being constantly attuned to the audience, quick on your feet, able to roll with the punches. I think energy is one thing that Hope lost as he grew older. In the early years he was a focused and fully engaged performer. By the later years he was just reading the cue cards and walking through his performances.”

When I raise with Zoglin an issue raised near the top of this essay – just how important is personal expression in a comedian, particularly a standup? – his answer is intelligent and nuanced and formidable: “It’s certainly important today, but it wasn’t always. There have been great comedians who simply did jokes – Rodney Dangerfield, or Henny Youngman – without revealing anything of themselves. One of Hope’s innovations was to make his comedy monologues more personal – joking about his own experiences, travels, golf game, Hollywood friends – than other comedians of that era. To be sure, it was personal only in a superficial way, and it was surpassed by the far more personal comics who came later. But it was new when Hope began doing it.”

Finally, I ask him what he would say to the present-day standup with nothing but contempt for what Bob Hope did.

“I would say, read my book and try to put yourself in Bob Hope’s shoes when he was first trying to make it in vaudeville and radio. His topical jokes were a major advance on the vaudeville-style comedy around him, and you have to respect how much of a pioneer he was. He may look old-fashioned today, but it’s a sign of how quickly the innovator can become old hat.”

Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large and the features editor of Bangkok Post: The Magazine.