He had a million of ‘em, literally. Bob Hope kept nearly every joke ever written for him — the good, the bad, the keepers, and the rejects — in a voluminous joke file locked away in a vault in his Toluca Lake, California, home. He was America’s unofficial comedian-laureate for more than half a century, wisecracking about everything from presidential politics to Dean Martin’s drinking. Today, Hope’s comedy is often dismissed as dated and corny — not to mention the product (in the old-fashioned way) of writers, rather than the comedian’s own ideas, experiences, and neuroses. But Hope’s topical monologues were the foundation stone for all modern stand-up comedy; no one ever delivered a one-liner better, and some of his gags remain classics. Richard Zoglin, author of Hope: Entertainer of the Century (on sale today), picked ten worth remembering.
1. “Welcome to the Academy Awards. Or as it’s known at my house, Passover.”
Hope’s most famous crack about his most famous running gag at the Academy Awards: never winning an Oscar himself. Hope, who hosted or co-hosted the show a record 19 times, was somewhat disingenuous: The Academy actually gave him five awards over the years, all honorary.
Hope, a friend to every president from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, sent this succinct telegram to Truman on the morning after his upset victory in the 1948 presidential election.
3. “The country is behind you, 50 percent.”
In nine straight Christmas trips to Vietnam, Hope became a partisan figure, scorned by much of a generation for his hawkish views on the war. Yet his jokes provided a chronicle of the country’s growing divisions over Vietnam, as in this wry quip to the troops in December 1966.
4. “In a dirty glass!”
His movies were memorable more for Hope’s blustering-coward character than for great lines. An exception came in Road to Utopia, when Hope growls this comeback after startling the rough characters in a Yukon bar by ordering a lemonade.
5. “It just proves one thing: Their German scientists are better than our German scientists.”
The Cold War brought out the best in Hope’s topical humor. This was his explanation, after another failed U.S. missile launch, for why the Soviet Union was winning the space race.
6. “Kate Smith finally turned in her girdle. You should see the moon come over the mountain now.”
During World War II, Hope often joked about wartime shortages and rationing, like the ban on women’s girdles to save rubber. This crack, about the amply proportioned singer whose theme song was “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” was censored by NBC as too racy. Hope used it later in one of his wartime broadcasts to the troops.
7. “As we flew in, they gave us a 21-gun salute. Three of them were ours.”
Hope’s sardonic reference to the dangers he faced on his first trip to Vietnam in 1964. He did variations on the line in nearly every hostile locale he visited.
8. “Senator McCarthy is going to disclose the names of 2 million Communists. He just got his hands on a Moscow telephone book.”
Hope privately admired Senator Joseph McCarthy, but that didn’t stop him from taking swipes (within limits) at the red-baiting senator’s penchant for finding communists under every cushion.
9. “California’s back to a two-party system: the Democrats and the Screen Actors Guild.”
Two of Hope’s favorite topics were politics and Hollywood. Ronald Reagan’s run for governor of California in 1966 was a fortuitous marriage of the two, and the Gipper became one of his perennial targets.
10. “I’ve never seen six hours whiz by so fast.”
As the Oscar shows became ever more tedious and bloated, emcee Hope always brought them down to Earth. His quip at the end of the 1968 ceremony would be repeated, in some form or other, by nearly every Oscar host who followed.