Looking Back at Bob Hope’s Early Work
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
In just a few short days, on May 29th, Bob Hope would have been celebrating his 110th birthday. Before you get too upset that he didn’t make it that long, take solace in the fact that he made it into the triple digits, passing away at the age of 100 after an incredibly long career in vaudeville, radio, film, stage, and television. The problem with having such a long and storied career is that the longer it goes, frequently you’re alive as you get further and further from your peak. Bob Hope, for example, was a very biting, at times controversial, edgy comedian for his day, but if he’s thought of at all by today’s generation of comedy fans it’s probably as a guy who told jokes holding a golf club, often at USO tours, lived a long time, and did tiger growls. In fact, notoriously nice guy Christopher Hitchens kindly waited a month after Hope’s passing to publish his article “Hopeless,” which explained (over and over again) why he thought the comedian wasn’t funny.
But I, and Justin Gray who recently wrote on Hope in his Begrudging Respect column here on Spltsider, beg to differ. Woody Allen (who in case you couldn’t tell, I like a lot) owes his career to the man. Jay Leno, Bob Newhart, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, any many more have all been inspired by Hope. Even Seth MacFarlane, in the early seasons of Family Guy paid homage to the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies with their Stewie/Brian “Road To…” episodes. Today we look at some of Hope’s earliest recorded material to see who was right: the late Christopher Hitchens or a bunch of comedians you like. (Spoiler: I’m not going to agree with Christopher Hitchens.)
We’ll begin with a look at Hope’s monologue jokes from four of his early radio programs, among the earliest to be found in the Paley Archives. Though his predecessor Steve Allen often gets the credit, many consider Hope the originator of the modern late night monologue, as he translated his vaudeville act of short, punchy jokes into a short preamble into the sketches and musical acts that would follow on his radio show. I recognize that this is a rather simple thing to get excited about, but as I listened to these the thing I was most fascinated by was the subject matter behind his topical jokes. Obviously jokes told in the late forties are going to be about things that were going on then, but it was really strange to hear jokes about things I only heard about in my history classes. Remember that photo of Truman holding up the “Dewey Defeats Truman” newspaper? Yeah, Bob Hope was telling jokes about that less than a week later. You know how Daylight Savings happens every year and always has, forever and ever, as far as we know? Well, Bob Hope was telling jokes about it like it was a new concept, because it pretty much was! I recognize that it’s kind of dumb to point out that a comedian from a long time ago was making jokes about things that happened at that time, but it’s pretty jarring to hear a side of history that isn’t just straight fact.
On November 9, 1948, six days after President Truman was reelected as President, Hope began his show with a few jokes about the election. “President Truman was cheered on his return to Washington. From every window they threw confetti and old cabinet members.” When talking about how the pollsters predicted the outcome incorrectly he says, “Dr. Gallup (Dr. Gallup! That was a real guy who was alive then! Okay, I’ll stop it now.) was amazed at the outcome, but he’s still not admitting he was wrong. Last night he was peaking into the White House singing ‘Maybe He’ll Be There.'”
In 1952, on television as part of an on-going variety series entitled All Star Revue, Hope kept the monologue alive with a series of jokes about the recent atomic blast tests in Nevada and developments in the upcoming presidential election. He claims to have been at Nevada for the atomic broadcast and that he is now loaded with electrons, which explains why when he got off a streetcar, it followed him to the porch. The blast tests have also had an effect on gambling in Nevada. “Now they don’t shake the dice, they just lie them on the table.” In political news, “everyone’s really excited about General Eisenhower…I know why he’s running for president: it’s the only way he can get out of the army. He’s already had plenty of trouble with the election, as soon as he threw his hat into the ring, he was arrested by an MP for being out of uniform.”
Earlier in April of 1947 as part of the Pepsodent Show which aired on the NBC Blue network, Hope says they got the idea for Daylight Savings from the notoriously censored Fred Allen Show. “They just fade out for sixty minutes.” He then goes on to point out that the network never seems to censor Bing Crosby. “Of course, if they did, he’d buy out the sponsor, three rival networks, and get a letter from Marconi [inventor of radio] saying ‘please don’t cut the wires.'”
Now you can say that these jokes aren’t as biting as one would expect from a monologue joke is today, but there’s no denying that the selections listed above are finely crafted, well-honed jokes. Paired with Hope’s rapid-fire, smooth delivery, he was a powerhouse of comedy that couldn’t be matched. But the thing that I was surprised to learn while listening and watching these old performances was the fact that his comedy could have a real absurdist streak to them. For example, while on the topic of Daylight Savings he says, “I know a girl with an hourglass figure, I can’t wait to see what part she sets back.” Or when talking about Dr. Gallup’s polls he says that the man is done doing house-to-house polls. “From now on I’m only going to ask people.” When discussing the ritziness of New York City he talks about standing in front of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. “Swanky place. I saw a Cadillac pull up the other day and a Rolls-Royce got out.”
The final piece of Bob Hope material I looked at was from his second appearance on television as part of a show called the Star-Spangled Revue that aired on NBC on May 27, 1950. What I found most interesting about Hope’s delivery in this special was the fact that he never looks at the camera. On the modern talk show, the host is talking to the viewer at home, but Hope is performing for the crowd that’s in the room with him. As a television watcher, it changes the experience and it no longer feels as personal. I’m not so much inviting Hope into my home, rather I’m part of a larger event. I’m just like anyone else in this crowd. Maybe Bob will look in my direction at some point, but like everyone else, I don’t necessarily get to make eye contact with him. It’s a very subtle difference, but it separates the viewer from the performer, and not necessarily in a bad way. He begins with a little self-effacing humor: “I do want to take this opportunity to thank the thousands of you who wrote in after the first show. Also the three that mailed them. I got thousands, the FBI is going through them now.” He then continues on to make fun of television itself: “One nice thing about television is that it’s bringing Vaudeville back to kill it at a more convenient time.”
There are some sketches, one with Bob at an automat, one featuring Beatrice Lillie, who I was previously unfamiliar with, but was very entertaining as a woman who constantly and subtly insults her friends, and a number of musical numbers including “Suzette” about a pretty grape presser told in dance by ballerina Janet Reed (I fast-forwarded). But perhaps the most notable thing about this special is the fact that it is Frank Sinatra’s first televised appearance. Bob introduces him saying, “It takes a lot of courage to get your feet wet on television and I’m so happy this guy is about to make the plunge.” Frank steps out from the curtains to loud, Beatlemania like screams from the audience and sings “Come Rain or Come Shine.” He’s one to watch, for sure.
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every single thing that came out of Hope’s mouth in this haphazard selection of radio and television shows was a gem, because it wasn’t. For every finely tuned barb there was something like the interminable baseball sketch that Hope and Sinatra perform in together. Or when he explains that Whittier, California got its name from its traffic police. “If one of these speed cops pulls you over and gets witty, you shouldn’t get wittier.” Or when he talks about a biochemist that discovered that adding minerals to soil grows healthier vegetable and says, “There’s so much iron in the celery, lettuce and radishes, when you toss a salad if you miss the bowl it can break your leg.”
However, what I can say that Bob Hope knew jokes. He knew how to write them (and he knew how to find people who wrote good ones) and he knew how to deliver them. Yeah, he did some crappy TV specials later in life, but it doesn’t change the fact that when he was in his prime, his comedy was razor sharp.