My worship of Bob Hope grows apace. He has always been a divisive figure, even among families. He was my maternal grandfather’s favorite comedian; my father hated him (he always detested smart alecks, he called them “wise guys”). It’s impossible to be loved by everybody, but Hope pulled off an astounding balancing act. When I think of the vaudevillian who went the furthest, as high as it was possible to go, I think of Hope, who conquered vaudeville (and its children the presentation house, the speakers’ platform and the U.S.O. show), Broadway, radio, television and movies, and — more than this — became a friend and adviser to Presidents and other world leaders.
Thus, the subtitle of Richard Zoglin’s comprehensive new Hope biography “Entertainer of the Century” is not overstated. There are very few others who could conceivably challenge Hope for this mantle. Frank Sinatra or Charlie Chaplin, perhaps. Most others either came too early (Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor) or too late (no one I can think of – – rock and roll performers and stand-up comedians aren’t well-rounded enough to qualify).
I just finished reading this obvious labor of love — prompted by reports that my own book No Applause got a generous shout-out in the book and is cited throughout in matters pertaining to vaudeville. (Thanks, Dick! Check’s in the mail!) This will undoubtedly be the go-to Hope reference book for a long time to come, not just thoroughly researched but even-handed. It doesn’t shy away from Hope’s faults (e.g., chronic infidelity, a myopic degree of patriotism, slipshod craftsmanship in his later movies and tv specials). But nor is it a hatchet job like the egregiously bitchy Bob Hope: The Road Well-Traveled by Lawrence J. Quirk. Hope shows us a man who was smart, talented, unpretentious, dedicated, close to his family (he even employed several of his brothers), and (typical of many vaudevillians and movie stars of his generation) conservative.
Zoglin sort of gives equal weight spacewise to each period of Hope’s life, which has the effect of filling in the beginning and end of his life perhaps at the expense of the heights in the middle. The early years are important (they always are), the years of grinding poverty in his native England, and in Cleveland. The time of struggle in vaudeville. But…because Hope’s career lasted so long, his period of decline was concomitantly lengthy. It is kind of depressing spending so much time experiencing a slide that began in the 1960s and lasted until Hope’s death in 2003 — a period of decline that lasted longer than the entirety of most careers. Interesting, though. That period coincides roughly with the first 4 decades of my life. When I say Hope was declining during those years I don’t refer to his FAME. Not by a long shot. That never wavered during his lifetime. I remember during the Reagan years, for example — Hope was probably the conservative President’s most visible Hollywood supporter, and I remember countless television specials during the 1980s which seemed to flaunt that connection. Tuxedos were worn. Hope was very present on television well into the 1990s. When I refer to his “decline” it wasn’t in fame but in relevance. He “clicked” with an increasingly small portion of the populace. He was a throwback during his last years, a kind of joke to be tolerated – – even as he was one of the richest men in the nation, and the confidante of the leaders of the free world (including Bill Clinton. A true patriot knows no party). But Hope’s support of the Vietnam War and for Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal was for many like a crack in the ice…Bob had broken off the main berg and was now drifting increasingly far away.
I think Zoglin goes too far in claiming Hope as the father of stand-up. I can see why he does it – – you need a strong thesis to drive a narrative ahead, even in non-fiction. But while Hope is important in that history, I see him as one key link in an evolutionary chain, and so many of his cohorts played important roles. For example, to watch Hope as the radio m.c. in The Big Broadcast of 1938, is to watch a comedian who is still flailing somewhat, who hasn’t yet quite found his voice. In fact, it marks no kind of advance that I can see over Jack Benny’s performance in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 a decade earlier. Both men (and many others) patterned their style on Frank Fay, and lord knows there were plenty of vaudeville monologists before and after Fay. So what about Hope was different?
In the 40s Hope was to find his voice, in movies, radio and live performance. And in television in the ’50s Americans got the full enchilada — the Bob Hope comedy monologue. It is highly distinctive. All it takes is to have seen a few to conjure Hope’s delivery and the stylized structure of the jokes themselves. (In fact, it’s easily parodied. I love this guy’s web page, for example. I don’t know why it hasn’t gone viral yet).
And yet, Hope’s legacy in this realm is complicated. For a few reasons. One is that his style was as IMPERSONAL as it gets. He didn’t write his own material, a staff of writers did. Think about it — though we can catch a little something of the real Hope’s personality in the way he delivers a joke, he tells us NOTHING about who he is. Any aspect of the life of the English immigrant he actually was is BURIED. Contrast this with modern stand-ups almost all of whom, taking their cue from the likes of Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen et al, draw from their own lives for material. Secondly, Hope worked clean. Again, almost all modern stand-ups take a page from the post-burlesque nightclub comics, who work sex and profanity into the act.
So what is Hope’s stand-up legacy? (We know the movie legacy – -Woody Allen). For the stand-up legacy there is only one lineage of descendants — mainstream television variety hosts, the most obvious example being Johnny Carson. Zoglin talks about this relationship at length in the book. After that…well, certainly NOT Carson’s preferred anointed David Letterman. In Letterman I see Ernie Kovacs, Bob and Ray, Steve Allen...but Bob Hope? Not so much. But after Carson there is an obvious one and it doesn’t bode well for Hope’s legacy: Jay Leno. Impersonal, middle of the road, written by a staff of drones, loved by old people (and only old people). That way is (was) a dead end. Frankly, nobody does it that way anymore. Not Jimmy Fallon and not any of the other hosts.
But I started this blogpost by saying how much I love Hope. That’s because I’m discovering Hope the movie star. I’d seen a handful of his best-known pictures before, but now I’m catching up with the whole legacy. Like Woody, I see his genius. An extremely appealing movie star. I’m even really digging the late ones, the ones where he’s a really square dad. Young people used to hate those movies because Bob Hope was such a square. But nowadays that’s a novelty! We don’t MAKE squares anymore, or people who will admit to being uncool and not understanding young people. This is an undiscovered territory on the modern landscape, one which would be delightful to chart, a Road to Utopia just there for the taking. Innat wild?