Whatever you think of him, it’s next to impossible to refute the fact that Bob Hope was the king of comedy during his tenure. Whether it was his “Road” films with Bing, catapulting to success on the radio, or entertaining the troops throughout the sixties and seventies, for a time, Hope with synonymous with comedy. Whether we’re talking about niche tropes, like the comedian leaning on the golf club, or more specific comedic ideas like, for example, the late night monologue, comedy owes a debt of gratitude to the man. From 1950 into the ‘90s, Hope was also a fixture on the small screen with his series of annual comedy specials, most frequently for NBC. Today we look back at one of these specials during the heyday of Hope, from October of 1966 as part of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.
There are two things that immediately struck me about this particular Bob Hope special. The first is the guest list, loudly intoned by the announcer. “Dick Shawn! Jack Carter! Rowan and Martin! Milton Berle! Don Adams! Jimmy Durante! Johnny Carson!” This is just a taste of the 15 names that appear within this special, but from that selection alone you have a collection of some of the biggest names in comedy at that time.
The second thing that struck me about the special was the strange format. When I hear “comedy special” and “1966” I expect that I’m going to see a monologue, a surprise walk-on, a few musical numbers, an interview, and maybe a pre-taped piece of some kind. While some of those elements are present in this special, it certainly isn’t the standard format we expect.
It begins with Hope’s home base: the monologue. There are number of very topical jokes on the celebrities of the day, as well as some that still feel appropriate. For example, Bob asks “Did you read where they’re trying to get an increase in Social Security money for everyone over 62? It’s backed by a very powerful senior citizens’ group: Congress.” Of course, this is from an era when Congress was working to help health care. When referring to his special’s lineup of guests for the evening he referred to it as “the biggest assemblage of comedians since the Dodgers went to Baltimore.” This leads into a long string of jokes on the Dodgers’ poor performance in the past season, and the fact that they’re traveling to Japan for some exhibition games. “Most of the Dodgers made the trip, except for Willie Davis who dropped his ticket.” For whatever reason, Bob spends the majority of his monologue poking fun at the home team, but as a Cubs fan in the midst of a rough series of games, I certainly wasn’t complaining.
It’s after the commercial break that things get strange. The remaining 50 minutes of the hour-long special is an extended sketch, for lack of a better term, although once you break ten minutes, I don’t know if you can still count that as a sketch. Entitled “Murder at NBC,” Bob plays an evil scientist wearing an odd-looking blonde wig. He has invented a shrinking ray and has plans to ransom the world with it. Dick Shawn as a traveling salesman arrives to irritate Bob with prop comedy until he is interrupted by Jack Carter who plays a Charlie Chan-esque private eye who is there to foil Hope’s plans. It is a textbook example of yellowface from top to bottom, and it is incredibly embarrassing to watch. In fact, the only line that was remotely funny was after both Shawn and Carter are shot, Shawn sits up and announces, “I’m dying!” and Carter replies, breaking out of his accent, “So’s he, but we have an excuse.”
Rowan and Martin of Laugh In fame arrive as compatriots of Hope, and together they sing “Where Would I Be Without You,” the way that villains always do when they are alone together.
The next phase of Hope’s plan is to travel to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show because the famous Professor Finsterwald, played by Jonathan Winters, is a guest that evening. Winters speaks in an over-the-top German accent, and the highlights are when Winters begins improvising in character, rambling in a spray of Germanic sounding words as Hope attempts to hide his amused expression. Hope leads Winters out a window, where he falls to his death, and begins to put on the Professor’s clothes.
Meanwhile on the Tonight Show stage, Johnny introduces his first guest. I recognize that this isn’t the most plot-dependent joke delivery machine of all time, but this next move makes absolutely no sense. His first guest on the show is an old friend and former roommate of his, Secret Agent X-100. Why would a secret agent go on a talk show? And if they were to, why would they give their code name? Further frustrating a modern audience, this character is played by Bill Cosby. He is given nothing funny to do so one doesn’t even have to enter into a mental exercise of debating if it’s okay to laugh and separate the art from the artist – he doesn’t do anything funny here and he’s an awful person.
Hope takes the stage as the Professor, shrinks Cosby and Carson, and traps them in Carson’s cigarette holder. He runs backstage into the dressing room of Don Adams in character as Maxwell Smart from Get Smart. Why does secret agent Smart have a dressing room backstage at the Tonight Show? Don’t worry about it!
Hope uses Smart’s shoe-phone to call his contact and gives a message: “There may be people listening in so get this and get it straight! The oak tree gurgles the funguous paint turn left the piccolo the owl’s on the blink!” Max, overhearing, announces, “Got it!” Hope is incredulous. “You got it?!” Max looks at him innocently, “Longfellow, isn’t it?” and Hope replies, subverting Smart’s catchphrase, “Would you believe Casey Stengel?”
Hope’s character (obviously) has to flee to Tijuana and does so in a plane piloted by Red Buttons and Don Rickles, who are also given nothing all that funny to do. Hope shoots Don and jumps out of the plane with an umbrella and a bad Mary Poppins joke.
The final segment finds Hope in Tijuana, exploring a selection of embarrassing ethnic jokes and a number of jokes that must have seemed tired even in 1966. Soupy Sales tells Hope to “walk this way” and does the most insane ballet jete/walk across the stage that Hope then mimics. He meets Wally Cox, who plays Mr. Big and introduces him to the “lovely Rosalita” played by Milton Berle in sequined drag.
Rosalita inadvertently poisons herself just as a 73-year-old Jimmy Durante enters and announces, “Everybody is under arrest! If anybody moves, I’ll blow my brains out!” He knows that the person he’s trying to catch will recite a code based around the song “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” and sits down at a piano to set the spy up while Wally Cox grabs a guitar. Durante can’t remember the song he’s supposed to play, and begins playing “One of Those Songs,” a record of his that he released that year. Hope sings the first line of “Won’t You Come Home” and Durante sings the second line, which would indicate that he is the spy, and after a brief prop malfunction, Wally Cox shoots him from his guitar. “Took ya long enough,” Durante ad libs before dying.
Ultimately this special is a bit of a mess and not really a great showcase for any of these comedians (with the exception of Carson, who gets to play himself hosting a talk show). A few years later, Hope’s specials will transform into footage of him entertaining the troops in Vietnam, which will end up being his most divisive move yet. The war is unpopular at home, and whatever his own views on it, he will become the establishment comedian that is associated with it. In my research, I was unable to find any reviews of this particular special, but however it was perceived, this would ultimately be towards the tail end of Hope enjoying universal acclaim. While it may not have held up 50 years later, the fact that Hollywood’s funniest comedians were willing to carve out time to unite for Hope’s special speaks to his influence and the level of respect that was given to him. Ultimately it is undeniable: in his time there was nobody more influential in comedy than Hope.