From Commentary, a publication of the American Jewish Committee:
02.01.15 – 12:00 AM | by Terry Teachout
There is hardly anyone under the age of 60 aware of how phenomenally successful Bob Hope once was. His heyday may have been long-lasting—he hosted a top-rated weekly radio series from 1937 to 1953, appeared frequently on TV from 1950 to 1996, and acted in more than 70 films, many of which were hits—but the latter-day consensus is that he was never all that funny. When he died in 2003 at the age of 100, Christopher Hitchens brutally dismissed him as a purveyor of “comedy for people who have no sense of humor.”
Hitchens, of course, being a comic genius. Who can’t recall countless Christopher Hitchens zingers like … uh …
Enter Richard Zoglin, theater critic of Time and author of Hope: Entertainer of the Century, a new primary-source biography whose categorical subtitle is not wholly in accord with its content. While Zoglin makes a convincing case that Hope “virtually invented stand-up comedy in the form we know it today,”
Hope [1903-2003] was able to invent modern stand-up comedy between the wars for the same reason Bing Crosby invented modern pop singing — they both grasped the far-reaching implications of microphones and radios to bring performers in more intimate contact with audiences. No longer did you have to telegraph everything to the cheap seats. (Crosby, by the way, had an unbelievably far-reaching voice that would have made him a success without amplification, but he brilliantly chose to exploit the full potential of the new technology even though he showed less naturally gifted rivals how to compete with him.)
Hope: Entertainer of the Century otherwise exaggerates his significance. It is true, as Zoglin says, that he “achieved success—often No. 1–rated success—in every major genre of mass entertainment in the modern era: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song, and live concerts” (though his success in the field of music was far more limited than this description suggests). But he was influential as a comedian only, and scarcely any of his work was distinguished.
Inventing modern stand-up is kind of a big deal.
Moreover, Hope’s 1940s movies were wildly innovative, anticipating many of the post-modern stylistic flourishes of Woody Allen’s best 1980s films (as Allen has repeatedly pointed out). Earlier Allen films, such as his 1974 Love and Death, are often direct knockoffs of Hope. Love and Death is simply the Cowardly Bob Hope Character plugged into a pastiche of War and Peace and other 19th Century Russian novels.
If anyone deserves the title of “entertainer of the century,” it would be his longtime collaborator Bing Crosby, for he was as successful as Hope, worked in as many fields, and was vastly more significant and consequential, both as a musician and as a film and radio performer.
Crosby’s role in helping create Silicon Valley’s venture capital culture is potentially interesting. Hope was a real estate tycoon, usually ranked second to Gene Autry among stars in that regard. That’s less striking than Crosby’s important role as a Steve Jobs-like customer and investor pushing analog high-tech along for decades, but it’s not wholly boring.
… But Zoglin, for all his admirable thoroughness, inexplicably fails to emphasize the central fact about Hope and his career—one that not only goes a long way toward explaining why he was so successful, but also why we no longer find him funny. Simply: He wasn’t Jewish.
Born in London in 1903, Leslie Townes Hope was the fifth of seven sons of a stonecutter who brought his family to Cleveland in 1908 in a futile attempt to improve their meager lot. … The gag-based humor of these monologues was largely topical, especially during World War II, when the show was broadcast each week from military camps that furnished Hope with captive but willing audiences of servicemen who reveled in his inside jokes (“You know what the barracks are—a crap game with a roof”). Most of his shows survive on tape, but they are no longer listenable—unlike, say, Jack Benny’s. The jokes, in spite of the crisp, cocky flair with which Hope rattled them off, are inextricably rooted in their long-ago time and place. In the words of the radio historian John Dunning, “The moment is lost, the immediacy gone, and a modern listener is left, perhaps, with a sense of curiosity.”
That kind of explains Hope’s enduring popularity with old Americans (including Woody Allen) that Teachout finds so inexplicable: Hope and Crosby peaked in talent during WWII, which was — you can look it up in the newspapers — a big deal to people at the time.
Hope’s persona as a physical coward was particularly funny to Americans when millions of men had to risk their lives in WWII and were thus nervous about how they would respond to danger. (And it wasn’t just combat that could kill them, but also training and transportation. Here’s a statistic I have heard but haven’t seen confirmed, but it sounds plausible: 30,000 American troops died during WWII in non-combat airplane accidents: that’s like a packed 737 going down every week.)
Woody Allen got tremendous mileage out of Hope’s shtick in his own career even though it was awfully dated by then. (Allen turned 18 the year the Korean meatgrinder war wrapped up: how much do you think he worried how he’d do in combat if he’d been drafted? My best guesses: Allen probably worried all the time, and he would have done himself proud.)
It’s hard today to put ourselves back inside the heads of Americans in the 1940s, but Hope obviously tapped into a major psychic obsession of that time. That’s what the USO tours for the rest of Hope’s life were about — men in danger of violent deaths found Hope’s character funny. Hope acted out for draftees the opportunistic 4-Fs with flat feet back home who were getting rich and making time with their girlfriends. But now he’d bumbled into their world.
What was missing from his style? Even though Hope was a first-generation European immigrant, there was nothing remotely ethnic about his stage manner. He was among the few successful WASP comics of his generation, and despite the fact that he hired such Jewish writers as Larry Gelbart and Mel Shavelson, the jokes they penned for him lacked the sharp ironic tang of Jewish humor that is to this day one of the essential ingredients in American comedy.
This argument has been going on a long, long time. I recall in the early 1970s reading in the Los Angeles Times that WASPs aren’t funny, and then somebody sent in a letter pointing out that the four most successful stand-up humorists in American history — Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and Johnnie Carson — were all WASPs. But retconning history is a compulsion among victors these days.
Teachout goes on to explain that Bob Hope was bad because A) he was inoffensive (to the old majority) and B) he was offensive (to Baby Boomers). Like I’ve said once or twice: Who/Whom.
Needless to say, Richard Zoglin is well aware that Hope was not Jewish, but he only mentions it briefly in his book, twice in passing and again when he cites a letter that Neil Simon sent to the comedian in 1973. Hope wanted to adapt Simon’s The Sunshine Boys as a screen vehicle for himself and Bing Crosby, a notion that Simon flatly refused to entertain, explaining in reply that his vaudeville team was nothing like Hope and Crosby:
Not only are their appearance, mannerisms and gestures ethnically Jewish, but more important, their attitudes are as well. And if the audience would believe that Bob and Bing could portray two old Jews, then John Wayne should have been in Boys in the Band. Simon was, of course, dead right.
Of course, Neil Simon plays (17 Tony nominations), unlike Bob Hope monologues, are immortally funny.
Seriously, my wife starred in a 1987 dinner theater production of Neil Simon’s 1978 musical They’re Playing Our Song, and I had to script doctor a half-dozen of Simon’s jokes that were already painfully, show-stoppingly unfunny just 9 years after Simon’s show had debuted.
And the jokes I came up with to replace Simon’s stinkers no doubt aren’t funny anymore either. One guy in the audience laughed for five minutes straight at one of my new jokes whose punchline was “Continental Airlines!” But Continental Airlines doesn’t exist anymore and it’s not worth trying to explain why in 1987 some poor bastard who had maybe just come from a workday spent as a paying hostage of Continental thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard in his life.
Sic transit gloria comici.
Also, a lot of Simon’s humor came encrusted with Beverly Hills class and ethnic privileges and prejudices that Indiana dinner theater audiences found off-putting. To show you what I mean, here’s Roy Scheider as Broadway director Bob Fosse in Fosse’s All That Jazz running a table reading of a 1970s Simonesque play:
I fixed the most unintentionally obnoxious lines Simon had written for my wife’s character, and the production went over well with audiences that included lots of frequent flyers who were on my yuppie wavelength, such as corporate Christmas party groups from offices in the Chicago suburbs.
But one night most of the playgoers were black lady schoolteachers from Gary, Indiana on an outing, and they found nothing about Simon’s characters or dialogue amusing or even likable. They just sat there staring stonily at the rich white people characters up on stage, as appreciative of Simon’s witticisms as Bob Fosse having a heart attack. (Nor did they find amusing my Dave Barryish additions that had so convulsed the corporate crowds.)
It’s ever thus with comedy.
That reminds me of a running gag in Fosse’s All That Jazz in which the hero is trying to edit a film he has directed about a sainted comedian whose historic importance is constantly celebrated in the media: a lightly fictionalized version of Fosse’s biopic Lenny with Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce. The problem facing Fosse’s alter ego in postproduction is that if Lenny Bruce’s stand-up style was ever funny, it sure wasn’t funny anymore by the mid-1970s, as demonstrated by the annoying working cut footage that Fosse is glumly trying to edit:
So, over the course of the movie Fosse returns to the editing room to tweak the stand-up scene, finally, after infinite pains, succeeding in making Lenny Bruce funny on film.
Then when the movie is released, a film critic is shown on TV announcing that the director’s hyperactive editing gets in the way of revealing the obviously enduring talent of Lenny Bruce, and the only good part of the movie is the stand-up scene when the director sits back and just lets Dustin Hoffman channel the genius of Lenny Bruce without all that fussy Fosse editing.
(By the way, Dustin Hoffman has probably gone from overrated to underrated, perhaps due to the piling up of all the anecdotes about him being a jerk on the set, which aren’t actually all that relevant to what we see on the screen. Hoffman’s reputation, like Hope’s, has suffered from living a long time past his peak. But, like Hope’s, his peak was pretty impressive.)
Mark Steyn has dissected best how Hope was meta before meta, and I’ll put that below the fold:
When you’re that big – when you’re as mass as mass media can get – you don’t have hardcore followers, you’re not a cult or a genius like Buster Keaton or Monty Python.
… As a boy in Cleveland, he’d dress as Chaplin and waddle down Euclid Street. But, as soon as he could, he dispensed with the pathos of the little tramp, the sentimentality of the ethnic comics, and embraced instead the dapper assurance of a newer American archetype: the wiseguy, the kind of rat-a-tat quipster you could find in the sports columns and the gossip pages of the Jazz Age but not in its comedy routines, in their way as convention-bound as grand opera.
Much of what we now take for granted as the modern comedy monologue – the delivery, the structure, the subjects – comes from the template developed by Hope. …
If Hope started out as the first modern comic, he quickly became the first post-modern one….
Other comedians had writers, but they didn’t talk about them. Radio gobbled up your material so you needed fellows on hand to provide more. But Hope not only used writers, he made his dependence on them part of the act.
… In vaudeville, a performer would have a comic persona – he’d be a yokel, say, and he’d tell jokes about rustics and city folk – but Hope’s comic persona was the persona of a comic: he played a guy who told jokes for a living, and the conceit (in every sense) worked; by advertising the fact that he had a team who did all the tedious chores like providing the gags, he underlined his extraordinary preeminence.
I don’t know about you, but I find the meta-joke that Hope made out of his ridiculously successful career (which included living to be 100) very funny. But not everybody gets the joke anymore.