Watching as Bob Hope Entertains Vietnam

141 - hopevietnamThe 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.)

For a long period in America, if you looked up the word “comedy” in the collective cultural dictionary there’d be a picture of Bob Hope holding a golf club next to it. The man was an institution as he conquered radio, television, movies; he had a syndicated daily newspaper column, a comic book, and still holds the record for most frequent Oscar host (18 times). The Bob Hope comedy special became a yearly tradition on television, and when America was at war, whether it be World War II or the Gulf War and everything in between, Hope would travel with the USO and put on a show for the boys. But around the time of the Vietnam War, things began to change. As the political climate changed and the war became more and more unpopular with Americans, Hope doubled down on the patriotism, permanently damaging his relationship with America.

Richard Zoglin, author of the new and definitive Hope biography entitled Hope: Entertainer of the Century, describes Vietnam as Hope’s turning point in the American eye. “His tours to entertain troops during World War II had made him a national hero,” he writes. “By the turbulent 1960s, he was the court-approved jester, the Establishment’s comedian.” Hope did his first show in Vietnam in 1963 and it was wildly successful. The footage shot there that year was turned into not just one wildly successful TV special but two, and an album was released him performing there. Hope would return to Vietnam and the surrounding areas each year, but as troop levels surged from 35,000 to just shy of 550,000 at their peak, tensions back home mounted. Hope kept coming back to Vietnam for nine straight years and as each one passed, Bob sound more and more out of touch with the younger generation, even though they provided him with some new material. Another example from Zoglin’s book: “It’s very confusing; everybody looks like Samson and talks like Delilah.”

Today I look at Bob Hope’s Christmas Special, which was filmed in Vietnam across 15 days and 22 shows in December of 1967, and airing on January 18, 1968. One thing that’s important to know about Hope is that his humor doesn’t always translate to the written word. In the most recent edition of Mike Sacks’ And Here’s the Kicker, M*A*S*H creator and former Hope writer Larry Gelbart encapsulates this perfectly with an anecdote about watching Bob perform in England: ‘I was with a date, and Bob told a joke with the word ‘motel’ in the punch line. The audience roared, and so did my British date. ‘Do you even know what a motel is?,’ I asked her. When she said she didn’t, I asked her why she was laughing. Her answer was, ‘I don’t know! He’s just funny!’” So… be ready for some of these jokes (that were originally delivered to a bunch of young soldiers on foreign soil almost fifty years ago) to not hold up so well.

The format of the 1968 Bob Hope Special is structured the same way that each of his other Vietnam specials were, and would continue to be: Bob narrates and quips as footage is shown of he and his troupe traveling to various bases, then footage is shown of him and the actors he brought along performing for the troops stationed there. Hope seems to have a different costume for each location he performs at, 22 in all, often wearing hats or jackets that were gifts from the soldiers at that base, but he’s always holding that golf club. He never seems to use it the way Carson would to punctuate a punchline, Hope just absentmindedly twirls it like a baton or throws it over his shoulder. It feels more like an object to fidget with than a comedy prop. Each show would begin with a monologue, which is where Bob would do a couple of jokes about his present location. For example, when doing a show on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, Bob quips, “For anyone that hates being here on this boat, how’d you like to be here without it?” Or at a base at Pleiku in Vietnam, “This installation is at the base of Dragon Mountain, and I gotta tell you the mountain ain’t the only thing that’s dragging. Love the modern facilities they have here. They gave us two shovels, marked his and hers.”

While in Da Nang, he enters into a riff discussing the political unrest back in America. “Don’t worry about those riots in the US: they’ll send you through survival school before they send you back.” This joke seems to get a small reaction from the crowd, and while funny, it makes sense as it no doubt reminded the soldiers that this war that many of them were drafted to be in was not entirely popular back home. But Bob gets the crowd back by telling a joke from the other side. Of any joke in the special, this one easily got the biggest reaction from the soldiers. “Can you imagine those peaceniks burning their draft cards? Why don’t they come over here and Charlie’ll burn them for ’em?” At this, the crowd explodes. Then Hope finds a way to pinpoint a spot directly in between those two extremes with his final joke of this set: “Everything’s going up over there [back home], prices, taxes, and miniskirts. Miniskirts are bigger than ever, even some of the fellas are wearing ’em. Don’t laugh. If you’da thought of it you wouldn’t be here.”

In addition to Hope’s comedy, there were a number of other performers that he brought along with him. These were usually attractive women, meant to “remind the boys of what they’re fighting for” and include actress Raquel Welch who performs Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum,” Madeline Hartog Bel, who was 1967’s Miss World from Peru, and Phil Crosby, son of Bob’s frequent co-star Bing. They all perform admirably, and the crowds enjoy them, but this special is clearly focused on Hope.

Watching the footage of Hope in Vietnam with the benefit of history, I found myself very divided. On one hand, I respected Hope for continuing to go over there and not only entertain the troops, but to actually put a lot of work into it and produce new material for each of the bases. I’m sure a lot was repeated, but there’s still a significant amount of stuff custom built for each new locale, that the boys at each base no doubt felt some sort of connection to the man on the stage who took the time to get to know the place they were stationed. But on the other hand, as the savvy consumer of media that I like to consider myself, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering how much editing was done. According to Zoglin, Hope rarely liked to show audience reaction shots in his specials because they disrupted his timing, but in his Vietnam specials the audience shots are constant. With just about every punchline we get a shot of the crowd. Was this for their families back home? Or was this a way for the then 65 year old to get a lot more laughs through TV magic? When those teenage Marines were standing and applauding, was it really because Bob Hope made that patriotic joke or is that footage from when Raquel Welch came on stage?

The final segment of the show has the entire troupe of actors in Hope’s production leading the crowd in a performance of “Silent Night,” a staple of his USO shows. Then, over a sustained bit of narration, mixed with some footage of Bob and the other actors visiting the injured at a hospital, Hope gets introspective. “If there’s anything an actor hates,” he says, “it’s losing an audience. I hope this one is real careful. …This war gets bigger every year and as the war gets bigger, the casualties grow. Despite the millions of words that have been spoken and written, there’s no easy answer to this conflict. …We hope and pray that before too long the peace for which we’re all yearning will become a reality. With God’s help, this will be the year. We had a great Christmas. Thanks for the memory.” Whatever you want to say about Hope and Vietnam, it’s clear from this special that he did a lot of good through his visits and lifted a lot of spirits. Watching this special with almost 50 years of distance, it may not work as an uproarious comedy experience, but it’s certainly a fascinating glimpse of an incredibly tumultuous time in American history.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title and will be premiering new episodes later this month!

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