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.”
Enter Richard Zoglin, theater critic of Time and author of Hope: Entertainer of the Century 1 a new primary-source biography whose categorical subtitle is not wholly in accord with its content. On the one hand, Zoglin argues that Hope was “the most important entertainer of the century” and that his brand of humor was “an affirmation of the American spirit: feisty, independent, indomitable.” On the other hand, he also acknowledges that Hope’s comedy was noteworthy only for “the sheer force of his style and stage presence,” not for anything he had to say about the current events that were his customary subject matter:
His jokes never hit hard, cut deep, or betrayed any political viewpoint. Mostly they took personalities and events from the news and lampooned them for superficial things…The jokes were rarely memorable, trenchant, or even very funny.
What, then, made him the “entertainer of the century”? The answer is that he wasn’t. While Zoglin makes a convincing case that Hope “virtually invented stand-up comedy in the form we know it today,” 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. 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.
Reading Hope: Entertainer of the Century, one comes away with the suspicion that Zoglin felt obliged to inflate Hope’s place in American culture in order to persuade a younger generation of book editors to consider publishing a 576-page biography of a forgotten star. And while Hope offers an impressively detailed depiction of Hope’s life and work, it turns out that he was, like so many other entertainers, less interesting as a human being than as a performer. Moreover, nothing that Zoglin tells us about Hope’s private life is in any way revealing. It was an open secret that he was a compulsive philanderer, and none of his lovers seem to have gone on the record about their relationships with him. Beyond that, he was by most accounts a dull, opaque man who came alive only in front of an audience or a camera.
Nevertheless, Hope is of real value as a chronicle of a career. For even though Bob Hope’s work is no longer capable of holding the attention of modern audiences, it is still interesting to learn the details of how he turned himself into a star and then managed to stay on top of the mass-culture heap long after most of his less-driven contemporaries had vanished from sight. 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. Leslie gave himself the nickname “Bob” and became an itinerant song-and-dance man. He broke into vaudeville in 1924 and clawed his way to success. By 1936 he had starred in three hit Broadway musicals, Jerome Kern’s Roberta, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (in which he introduced the Vernon Duke–Ira Gershwin song “I Can’t Get Started”) and Cole Porter’s Red, Hot and Blue (in which he appeared opposite Ethel Merman, performing “It’s De-Lovely”).
On Broadway, Hope was a sophisticated light comedian who was capable of playing romantic parts. “I was very chic and very subtle,” he later told a reporter. It was in this capacity that he appeared in The Big Broadcast of 1938, his first important film, in which he and Shirley Ross introduced “Thanks for the Memory,” the Ralph Rainger–Leo Ross ballad he adopted as his theme song. Not only was he a fine singer, but his performance shows that he was equal to the challenging task of interpreting a witty “list song” whose lightness of touch conceals deep feeling: “Strictly entre nous/Darling, how are you?/And how are all those little dreams/That never did come true?”
Hope changed his performing persona in his later films, as well as in The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope, the radio series that made him America’s most popular funny man. It was his writers (on whom he was wholly dependent throughout his career) who created that new persona. Says Zoglin:
He [became] the brash but self-mocking wise guy, a braggart who turned chicken in the face of danger, a skirt chaser who quivered like Jell-O when the skirt chased back…always with a winking nod to the audience, an acknowledgement that he was an actor playing a role.
The Pepsodent Show was a variety program with comedy sketches that always opened with a high-speed monologue by Hope. 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.”
A handful of Hope’s films, by contrast, remain watchable, in particular the best of the series of seven comedies launched in 1940 with Road to Singapore in which he shared billing with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. But none was truly memorable, for Hope’s acting was as devoid of depth as his gags were lacking in bite (unlike that of Crosby, who was both an accomplished comedian and a naturally gifted screen actor with sufficient weight to play dramatic roles). As Woody Allen, one of the rare comedians to have explicitly acknowledged his influence, pointed out, the Hope we see on screen was “just a superficial, smiling guy tossing off one-liners.”
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.
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. Unlike the sardonic vaudevillians in The Sunshine Boys, whose humor is charged with anger and despair, Bob Hope was a comfortable comedian, amusing but unthreatening. It was this same quality that made him a natural for television, which places a high premium on performers with whom viewers at home can feel at ease. He made the shrewd decision early on, moreover, never to appear in a weekly TV series, believing that the immediacy of the medium made it too easy for stars like him to wear out their welcome. Instead, he stuck to “specials” that were telecast on NBC several times each year.
As a result, Hope remained popular long after such harder-edged, unabashedly ethnic personalities as Milton Berle and Sid Caesar departed the airwaves. According to Zoglin:
The ninety-minute NBC special edited from his 1969 Christmas tour…drew an almost inconceivable 46.6 rating—meaning that 46.6 percent of all TV homes in the country were tuned in to Hope on that Thursday night. It was the largest audience for any entertainment show in television history.
But Hope’s popularity was about to take a nosedive. The Bob Hope Christmas Special: 1970 had been filmed the preceding year in Vietnam, to which he had been traveling since 1964 to entertain American troops, just as he had done ever since World War II. It was a self-appointed task that he took with the utmost seriousness, so much so that on more than one occasion he was exposed to life-threatening enemy fire, and it had done much through the years to cement his popularity with middle-of-the-road Americans. The difference this time was that Vietnam, unlike World War II, was a controversial war, and in 1969 an audience of soldiers booed him off the stage when he told them that President Nixon had “a plan to end the war.”
By then it was clear that Hope was losing touch with younger viewers, who were unamused by his bland, toothless gags. In turn he had started to salt his monologues with jokes aimed at middle-aged viewers. In 1969, for instance, he included this bit about the Woodstock rock festival:
Hey, did you read about that rock festival in upstate New York that was attended by four hundred thousand hippies? It was held in a cow pasture. I can’t think of a better place for it. Four hundred thousand hippies. Since the dawn of man that’s the most dandruff that was ever in one place.
He could scarcely have found a more efficient way to alienate the baby-boom viewers on whom his continuing success was to depend, and after 1973, the year in which NBC aired his last Vietnam special, his TV ratings went into irreversible decline. He had already wound up his film career with Cancel My Reservation, a painfully unfunny Western-themed comedy, and though he kept performing on TV and in public for two more decades, it was evident that he had gone on for too long.
David Letterman described Hope’s final Christmas show, which aired in 1993, as “tough to watch. If it had been a funeral, you would have preferred the coffin be closed.”
It wasn’t that Letterman dismissed Hope’s comedic skills. In the same interview, he described the young Hope as “sharp and on the money and appealing and fresh and charismatic.” And so he was—when considered solely as a performer. Nobody has ever been better at putting across a wisecrack, and his singing of “Thanks for the Memory” in The Big Broadcast of 1938 leaves no doubt that in his youth he had access to a deeper range of feeling. But in all great comedy, the emotional stakes are higher than Hope was ever willing to acknowledge. Instead, he was content to remain, in Zoglin’s words, “the nation’s designated mood-lifter…a court-approved jester, the Establishment’s comedian.”
During World War II, when Americans shared both a common culture and an iron determination to prevail over their common enemy, such a comedian could speak for millions of listeners from coast to coast. But that America no longer exists, and the Americans of the 21st century demand more from comedy than mere reassurance. That is why Bob Hope is forgotten today, and will remain so. All he had to offer were punchlines that no longer have punch.
1 Simon & Schuster, 576 pages