"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
There's a little snapshot in horror Bob Hope recorded nearly thirty-five years ago, a rare concert album: "Bob Hope: On the Road to Vietnam." Taped right there in the rice paddies, from Bin Wa to Da Nang, it's a series of USO shows featuring the old ski nose joking live from Hell itself, Vietnam. "We're so close to the front," he told one crowd, "That when I sent my laundry out it came back with a fortune cookie in it!"
Yep, vaudeville for the VC. Did the joke make sense? Did it matter? After a day in the jungle burning villages and hoping you didn't get neutered by a landmine even that got some boff laughs. Or maybe it was Ann-Margret in the go-go boots and mini. Either way, "The Road to Vietnam" ranks with Bob's funniest work, if only for its sheer Brechtian blast of unreality in the midst of nightmare. You can almost hear Brando's Col. Kurtz whispering under the laughs, "The humor ... the humor ...". Just like World War II, just like Korea, Bob was on the front lines again, back in the shit. But when he got home this time, the shit stuck to him. He heard the boos of the boomers, the first boos he'd ever heard. He was already their Dad's comic, out of touch compared to Woody Allen or George Carlin. And for those of us just born then or thereabouts, he's always been something even further removed from our daily lives.
Which is perhaps why, when Bob was admitted to a Palm Springs hospital a few weeks ago, one citizen at a Los Angeles coffee shop essayed: "Bob Hope? He hasn't been funny in fifty years." And to be sure, there's an argument to be made in that direction. But fifty years - in Bob's case that means he was funny until he was 47. Keep that in mind the next time you tune in and see David Letterman in his middle-age.
But really, it's more like thirty-five or forty years for Bob. His last days of true funny disappeared back in the killing fields, when he rotated out of pop culture, an era he now dismisses as "a bad decade." And he should know, he's headed for his tenth. You couldn't pin a date on it exactly, but it raise beg the question: When was Bob Hope funny, and why?
That answer lies somewhere in 1920s vaudeville, when Bob, then a 23-year-old named Leslie Townes Hope, broke up with his song and dance partner to go on stage as a solo comic. The style then was baggy pants humor like the Marx Brothers or Chaplin, meaning comics went on as tramps, Italians, Dutchmen, Jews, "nuts," all lovable ethnic cartoons in an old world clown tradition. Leslie did the same, choosing a big green suit, green bowler hat, a red bow tie, a fat cigar and blackface, because he wanted to be like the king of vaude, Al Jolson. The minstrelsy didn't last though, as one night Leslie didn't have time for the shoe polish and he found people liked him even better as a skinny white guy.
It was a key moment for Leslie. From then on his gut told him to make the act as accessible and current as he could. To be someone on stage the audience actually knew, not an idea of someone they knew. He tailored his jokes to the locals, figuring out what Southerners liked vs. Northerners, and more importantly, what everyone liked. He sought what was funny about him, not some genre character. Leslie changed his name to "Bob," because, as he says, "it had more 'hiya fellas' in it." He was no Chaplin or Lenny or Woody seeking lofty intellectual laughs. He honed his act into the most efficient comedy machine it could be Maximum Bob.
By 1929, he had risen to the bottom of the New York big time. Still when Bob showed up on stage in his emerald ensemble and cigar, one New York critic harped: "They say Bob Hope is the sensation of the Mid-West well why doesn't he go back there?" To make it to the true big time, Broadway and movies, Bob sought out the comedy guru of the 20s, writer Al Boasberg, and they started work about a month after the stock market crash of October, 1929.
Boasberg's ideas were new in comedy: a modern style that required no goof suits, make-up, songs, tap dance, seltzer bottles, Will Rogers rope tricks, cream pies, or accents just talk. He turned Jack Benny, Bob, and a few others onto his stripped down, sleek humor. He called it "smart dress" comedy. Today we call it "stand-up."
Bob now went on in street clothes, introducing himself by name, relating an ersatz version of his life. Instead of a lovable character, he came on rude, a punk (in the classic sense of the word), following opening acts with "Now that the amateurs are done" and launching into a barrage of jokes. For audiences used to slapstick tramps and Chico Marx, it was fresh.
Between 1929 and 1932, Boasberg and Bob created the stage character known as "Bob Hope," playing him as cowardly, greedy, grasping, a wanna-be ladies man, blowhard, liar, and always, always desperate. Bob personified all the cynicism and anti-sentimentality of the Depression. Unlike Groucho or Chaplin, class warriors who stuck it to everyone around them, Bob was the joke in his act and he had no class. And he was no burlesque ethnic, but a home grown, all-American creep. He was the base instinct of every Forgotten Man on a breadline tempted to take a short cut. And after all, who didn't know a guy like that? Who wasn't a guy like that in 1932?
Boasberg's "Bob" made it to Broadway musicals and by the late 30s his grasping grifter had his own radio show. He wasn't the first stand-up, but by then Benny had become America's first sit-com star. Hope saw radio's verbal world as one where his monologue was the best attack. What good were costumes and slapstick on radio? Bob brought "smart dress" to the new medium, relying on pure jokes rather than situations, thus popularizing stand-up to a national audience. The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields were still on top, but Bob's style shifted the ground beneath them.
Bob's career, as artist and pop entertainer, peaked in the 40s when his cowardly character became the most popular thing in movies and radio. During World War II, Bogart, Cooper, John Wayne, they played tough guys kicking Reich and Imperial Japanese butt in Hollywood movies. They always had that moment when they admitted, yes, they were afraid. Any man would be, right? It humanized them before they took Berlin apart with their bare hands.
Bob never had such moments he was yellow from the get go, and eagerly ducked any and all moments of honesty, courage, or possible violence. Even Jane Russell slapped him around in "The Paleface." And that's why he shot to number one during the war, everyone was afraid, and only Bob accepted it. Dying, seeing a loved one die, watching a friend die, dying, or, possibly even dying, was a reality for every American. Like Bogart, Bob always had a singular moment. But for Bob it was the one where he came through when it mattered most (and in his best films he never did). And wasn't that what happened to most citizen soldiers? Check out "Caught in the Draft," "The Road to Utopia," or "The Paleface" America may hate a loser, but not if he's funny. Even Gen. George S. Patton, four-star slapper of scaredy cat kid soldiers, liked Bob so much he gave him a legendary photo of himself pissing in the Rhine river.
That's what Bob was best at, acting out the worst of American life. They say you're either part of the solution or part of the problem, and Bob happily became poster boy for The Problem. If American life is, at its most cynical, a scramble to cover your own butt and grab all you can, Bob played it out, usually failing, but never having any greater goal in mind than BOB. Who didn't know a guy like that? Who wasn't (at times) a guy like that?
Like the way Bob dealt with corporate sponsors for his TV and radio gigs. Benny, Carson, Letterman, they always got demure around plug time. They palmed it off to announcers and sidekicks as beneath them, as if, no, their show isn't really there to sell tires and cheese and soda and shoes, but because they're so damn funny. Which they were, but funny in a way that sells a lot of tires and soda and cheese and shoes. That is, after all, the job.
Not Bob, no prissy posturing for him. When Pepsodent backed him he shamelessly introduced himself as "Bob 'Pepsodent' Hope." When Texaco took over he didn't blink before saying, "Hello folks, this is Bob 'Texaco' Hope." A sell out? A shill? No, Bob was the shill's shill. Bob's "Bob" character allowed him no dignity, which wasn't a problem, because real dignity isn't all that funny in a comic. Bob railroaded sketches and interrupted guests to cram toothpaste and gasoline plugs in edgewise. He even did it on other people's shows when he was the guest. Bob jumped on the pop consumer-gestalt of the 40s and 50s with both feet and made the hard sell so brittle it broke. And if the sponsors paid him even more to pitch that obnoxiously, so much the better. While David Letterman prides himself on ridiculing his sponsors and employers almost as risky a practice today as rock stars who dare to call for revolution Hope made the point much better. He didn't hide from what television is, he rubbed our noses in it.
This was the Bob who inspired a thousand imitators, a mob of natty-suited club comics riffing on the news, politics, their made up stage lives, playing schnooks. The most successful of them, a teenage Woody Allen, still living in 1940s Brooklyn, later said of Bob: "He's stunning sometimes. There are certain moments when I think he is the best thing I have ever seen. It's everything I can do at times not to do him. It's hard to tell when I do it ... but once you know I do it, it's unmistakable. But both of us have the exact same wellspring of humor."
By the 50s, Bob was indisputably our President-of-Comedy-for-Life (maybe hanging out with every U.S. President since FDR helped). A generation had passed and stand-up was everywhere, with only Red Skelton going out in the tramp bit. The shoe polish? Now even Groucho hosted his game show with a real mustache. Young comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl elbowed Bob off comedy's aesthetic edge, but he still had the chops, he was still funny. But what looked so fresh next to Chico Marx in 1938 looked like an act two decades later. After all, Bob golfed with Ike, he owned a monster chunk of California (the comedy conquistador, Bob eventually became Cali's largest private landowner), and had been married to a hot model, Dolores, for decades. Who could believe Bob the cowardly, broke, loser-with-women gag in the late 50s?
No, from 1900-2000, American comedy has been about relevance, about creating humor from what felt real to the audiences. If things had shifted from blackface Leslie Townes Hope to Bob "Hiya Fellas" Hope, it was shifting again. Bob was on top, but comedy didn't just move Bob's way, it lapped him. If his act presented him as Regular Guy Bob, Lenny refused to even say he had an act. "I am not a comic," he liked to sniff, "I am Lenny Bruce."
Well, so what? Bob's movies were stale but still money makers. His cue-card laden TV specials, which were just rehashed versions of Boasberg's vaudeville formula stand-up, funny banter with girl, musical act, sketch, music, finale, repeat at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter still racked up boffo ratings. It worked for thirty years, why change now? Meanwhile, Mort talked Civil Rights and Lenny asked audiences if they liked blowjobs.
And that's just about when Bob propped up the chair against the bunker door. What was he supposed to do anyway? The Bay of Pigs, Who Killed JFK?, Vietnam, Who Killed MLK?, pubic hair in "Playboy," Who killed RFK?, "Midnight Cowboy" didn't anybody golf anymore? To his credit, Bob never jumped on any trendy bandwagons. That said, the bandwagon then left Bob in the dust. Instead of ducking mortal combat like he had in "Caught in the Draft," he advocated the war in Vietnam. "The Pentagon sent me," told the boys at Bin Wa, "they thought you'd like a change of enemy." He was so linked with our troops that Don Rickles, upon seeing Bob walk in a club during one of his shows, asked the crowd: "What's he doing here? Is the war over?"
So the hippies booed old Bob, whether he had any "hiya fellas" in him or not. The boomers sure hated that war, although, it's hard to think of any boomer comics who heckled the Panama Invasion or Gulf War. But they blasted old Bob back then, turning him forever from one of Us into one of Them.
Since then, Bob has played elder statesman of comedy, the Nixon of stand-up, doing holiday specials and showing up on alternating Tuesdays to pick up Medals of Freedom, honorary Oscars, and hundreds of other much deserved, patriotic awards. Even into the late 80s he still had it, he could still hold a room (as witnessed by this writer), but if the boomers had shined him on, what was Gen X to do with a comic now twice removed their culture?
Bob was a national monument, but he didn't matter. He'd outlived his day by decades, yet his influence on American comedy is so profound we don't even notice it. His stand-up defines stand-up. Look at it this way: Bob went on in street clothes talking about pop culture, lightweight politics, his (fictional) life, and the front page. Take that out of anybody else's act and whose left standing in the year 2000? That's right, Carrot Top.
From one end of the 20th century to the other, American stand-up has moved in a straight line, with each generation demanding a more and more reality based humor (or at least, what seemed real to them). From Chaplin to Bob to Lenny to Pryor to today's alterna comics reading scribbled notes about the funny thing that really did happen to them on the way to the theater tonight comedy has been about, for lack of a better term, keeping it real.
And of all of them, Bob was the breakthrough, the one who shifted comedy from the What to the Who. That is, from the Jew to Woody, from the minstrel to Pryor. Bob's popularity, his drive to just be Bob, shifted comedy from cream pies to the individual voice. And whether you think Letterman or Pryor or Roseanne or Chris Rock are funnier than Bob, that's only because they found their own way to be Bob. And no one's been anything else since.
(Special thanks to KAZ on this one read UNDERWORLD!)
courtesy of Bertolt Blecht