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Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Timing is Everything: The Comedy of Bob Hope

For over half a century, Bob Hope was arguably the most famous and beloved comedian in America. Like most comics from his era, he started as a song and dance man in Vaudeville and slowly made his way up the ranks through radio, stage, and ultimately into the movies, where his brand of acerbic humor won him accolades as well as fame. Hope also became famous for his variety specials that aired on NBC as well as his unwavering commitment to entertaining American troops overseas through the USO. So what the hell is he doing in this series?

Just days after Hope’s death, Christopher Hitchens wrote what might be called an anti-obituary titled “Hopeless: Did Bob Hope ever say anything funny?” in which Hitchens wrote of Hope’s brand of humor, “This is comedy for people who have no sense of humor and who come determined to be entertained and laugh to show that they ‘get it.’” Never one for nuance, Hitchens’ attack on Hope seems as short sighted and ignorant as his infamous Vanity Fair piece about women in comedy (he was not a fan). Bizarrely, Hitchens praises both Mitlon Berle and Benny Hill in his tirade against Hope, so one should grab a fistful of salt when reading his article. Perhaps the most dishonest part of an article in which Hitchens asks if Hope was ever funny is the fact that he limits his target to the Hope of the late 1980s and 90s, when it could be argued that the great comedian did indeed lose his way. But for a career than spans three quarters of the 20th Century, it is a bit like saying Ben Stiller isn’t funny because you didn’t like The Watch.

In his prime Bob Hope was at the very top of his game. In fact, Woody Allen has confessed on several occasions that he outright stole Hope’s character when performing in his early comedies.

And what a character it was. Vain but self deprecating, bold yet cowardly, and always quick with a well-timed one liner, there is a lot to like in Hope’s character and it's proven to be quite enduring. We see bits of Hope not just in Woody Allen, but Albert Brooks (Defending Your Life),  Bill Murray (Stripes), and even Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express). Anytime we see a witty, urbane hero stuck in a position that requires courage but has only wisecracks to fall back on, we are seeing a little bit of Bob Hope. Hope is a kind of Tigris and Euphrates of comedy that proves to be just as relevant today.

Granted, not all of the humor holds up, but dear Lord, what timing! It has become something of a cliché to praise Bob Hope for his razor sharp timing, but his talent absolutely cannot be discounted. Within the first couple of minutes of the above clip from his 1948 vehicle, The Paleface, Hope tosses off one liners like they are used Kleenex, moving from joke to joke with anarchic glee.

Bob Hope starred in several movies through the 40s, 50s, and 60s on his own as well as in the hugely popular “road” movies with Bing Crosby. The movies are so popular, they are a recurring motif on Family Guy in episodes centered on Stewie and Brian, complete with song and dance numbers!

Once Hope left behind filmmaking for good, he primarily showed up in the yearly variety specials he did for NBC and touring with the USO overseas to entertain American servicemen (a duty he began performing soon after the USO formed in 1941). It was during this time his reputation as a comedian began to tarnish. During the tumultuous Vietnam era, the world was changing. Young people were fighting to address civil rights issues and to put an end to an unjust war (luckily today, we don’t have to worry about that anymore!). However, Hope served as a comedic standard bearer for the establishment. He palled around with presidents and ridiculed the anti-war movement as hopelessly naïve at best and borderline communist at worst. Hell, he even rang up none other than Richard Nixon to give birthday wishes.

While it is tempting to dismiss Hope’s allegiance to the establishment of that era as a mere symptom of his age, it must be said that during this time older acts such as The Marx Brothers had something of a resurgence, partly due to their 1933 film Duck Soup, which remains one of the finest anti-war films ever made. Indeed, Groucho was embraced by the counterculture of that era because he continued to thumb his nose toward authority right up until the very end.

So, we can see why an intellectual and political firebrand like Christopher Hitchens may not like or appreciate Hope’s humor, but to say he is not funny? Well, that's just wrong. While Hope certainly became complacent in his later years and showed no interest in upsetting the status quo, he was a consummate joke teller, wringing laugh from even the worst jokes with a self-possessed, laid back style that showed a man in complete control of his powers despite his age.

One thing that we can learn from Hope is the economy of words he uses to set up a joke and hit with the punchline. Shortly after Albert Brooks took to Twitter to promote his novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America he tweeted “Spent my life deconstructing jokes now Twitter turns us all into Bob Hope.”

There is something to that. With Twitter, one only has 140 characters to get a joke across and nothing works better in this form than the classic set up and punchline format. There is little room for playfulness or meta commentary so the joke has to hit. It's no wonder that so many comics have taken to this technology as it proves to be a great exercise in crafting jokes. It's a format that seems tailor made for a comedian like Bob Hope (though he rarely ever wrote his own material).

To say Bob Hope had an enviable career is an understatement. Right up until his death in 2003, Hope was invited into living rooms throughout the country. While his later years lacked the bite that his early comedies had, there was something reassuring about seeing him pop up on television screens throughout the years. The kind of near-universal appeal that Hope enjoyed may have died with him due to the fractured nature of media and society today. And despite the criticism Hope received as he fell into self-parody during his later years, that criticism was only leveled because he was so good. Like Leno today, those who are the most vocal about his milquetoast brand of comedy are those who know how great he can be. Of course, even Leno does not have the pure comedic chops to make a throwaway gag like this from the Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd movie Spies Like Us funnier than it has any right to be:

So judge Hope all you want, but remember this man set the table for a lot of modern comedy today. If that doesn’t deserve respect, then we're all doomed.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/bmkane Brian Kane

    I don't know if you read this article from the late, lamented Suck.com in 2000, but it hits on a lot of similar points:

    http://www.suck.com/daily/2000/08/22/

  • http://ralphhaygood.com/ Ralph Haygood

    I watched lots of Bob Hope movies on TV when I was a child in suburban Los Angeles. I found them mildly funny in the same way as the sitcom reruns I was watching during the same period, stuff like Bewitched and Gilligan's Island. Then I discovered Monty Python and a few others that were in a whole other league as far as I was concerned. I haven't thought about Bob Hope for many years.

    What Hitchens was getting at in his usual nasty, bludgeoning way was that Bob Hope was comedy for people who aren't fundamentally dissatisfied with the world. He was a great joke teller. He wasn't much of a satirist, and for people like Hitchens and, in this respect, me, the best comedy is scathing ridicule of society's idiocies and monsters like Richard Nixon. But this is a matter of taste, not morality.

  • TS Idiot

    I am a huge Hope fan – his movies from the 40s/50s are still very, very funny and for the most part still stand up very well (alas the occasional unwelcome blast of racist caricature pops up, a la Steppin Fetchit) – Monsieur Beaucaire, the Road movies (Morrocco, Rio and Utopia my faves), The Ghost Breakers, My Favorite Blond/Brunette, The Paleface, etc. all have more laughs than 90% of the 'comedies' these days and well worth a view.

  • Rob_Bates

    I have always felt there are two different phases to Hope's career. In his early stuff in the 40s, 50s, he was a Bill Murray-type fast-talking irreverent smart-ass, who was known for pushing the envelope on sexual content. When people like Woody Allen admire Bob Hope, that is what they mean. That stuff really had its moments. He then morphed into the Carson/Leno-type one-line spouting master of ceremonies that everyone was supposed to love even if you weren't sure why. And, yeah, that stuff was pretty awful, and I'm sure that is what Hitchens was reacting to.

    I read an article about Hope in the New Yorker a while ago. Apparently, a fellow comedian once asked him how his timing got to be so good. He replied, "You have no idea what I've been through" to get to this point. The guy clearly worked hard at what he did and had the chops to show for it.