WASP Without a Sting 02.01.15 – 12:00 AM | by Terry TeachoutThere 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 was able to invent modern stand-up comedy for the same reason Bing Crosby invented modern pop singing — they both grasped the implications of the microphone and radio.
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.Hope’s 1940s movies were wildly innovative, post-modern avant la lettre, anticipating many of the stylistic flourishes of Woody Allen’s best 1980s films. 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 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.
… 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 explain Hope’s enduring popularity with gentile Americans (and Woody Allen) that Teachout finds so inexplicable: Hope and Crosby peaked in talent during WWII, which was — you can look it up in the papers — a big deal to people at the time.
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 he was A) inoffensive and B) made offensive jokes about Baby Boomers.
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:Of course, Neil Simon plays, 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 probably spent the workday as a prisoner of Continental thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard in his life. Sic semper comicus.)Also, a lot of Simon’s humor came encrusted with unthinking Beverly Hills class and ethnic privileges and prejudices that Indiana dinner theater audiences found off-putting. I fixed the most obnoxious lines Simon had written for my wife’s character, and the production went over well with the audiences with lots of frequent flyers who were on my yuppie wavelength, such as corporate Christmas party groups. But one night most of the crowd 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. (Nor did they appreciate my Dave Barryish additions that had so convulsed the corporate crowds.)It’s ever thus with comedy.
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.