To be paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny is not a particular defect or shortcoming in, say, a cable repair man or a Supreme Court justice or a Navy Seal. These jobs can be performed humorlessly with no loss of efficiency or impact. But to be paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny is a serious drawback, even lapse, in a comedian. And the late Bob Hope devoted a fantastically successful and well-remunerated lifetime to showing that a truly unfunny man can make it as a comic. There is a laugh here, but it is on us.
Give a man a reputation as an early riser, said Mark Twain, and that man can thereafter sleep until noon. Quick, then—what is your favorite Bob Hope gag? It wouldn't take you long if I challenged you on Milton Berle, or Woody Allen, or John Cleese, or even (for the older customers) Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl. By this time tomorrow, I bet you haven't come up with a real joke for which Hope could take credit.
Poor Vincent Canby was really up against it in last Tuesday's New York Times, which awarded him acres of space to celebrate the passing of a national laff-meister. Canby, who died three years ago, must have been glad he wouldn't live to see his Hope obituary in print. Read this without writhing, if you can:
Mr Hope was often at his best sticking barbs in politicians. In Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes, his daughter Linda helped compile some of his jibes decade by decade. His perspective on the 1984 presidential race between Ronald Reagan and Walter F. Mondale was vintage Hope, a theme and variations with only the slightest pause for laughter. "Hey, what a victory for the Reagans … or, as they're now being referred to … 'Dynasty.' "
"I wonder if anyone woke up the president and told him."
"Mondale knew this was gonna be a bad day when he called Dial-a-Prayer and the taped message answered him by name."
Canby went on like this, in descending order of lameness and cliché. ("Only the slightest pause for laughter," indeed.) It's always a bad sign when a Times reporter has to signal the fact that he's dealing with wit. Some of them do this by resorting to the stale words "he quipped," or "he shot back," lest we miss the "barb" altogether. By the time he was halfway through his trudging obit, Canby was reduced to telegraphing the punch without any code at all. Hope and comedy partner George Byrne at one point "did a little of everything, including the playing of saxophones, a blackface routine and for another brief period were the dancing partners for Daisy and Violet Hilton, the celebrated Siamese twins. ('They're too much of a woman for me,' Mr. Hope joked.)" So why not "Mr. Hope observed"? Was Canby afraid we might miss it?
This is comedy for people who have no sense of humor and who come determined to be entertained and laugh to show that they "get it." Hope had a huge vault of material, much of it mercifully unused, that was amassed by "researchers" and cross-indexed by subject. The great thing, for him, was to be able to bang on the existing funny bone by daring, say, to make a gag out of Reagan's notorious propensity for naps.
It's true that Hope had a mobile face and could twist it to look suggestive or leering (though he wasn't in the same class as Benny Hill or John Cleese in this respect). The idea that all women are attractive, not especially thigh-slapping as a concept in itself, can often work with audiences who are very easily pleased and whose members don't want to be left out of the general mirth. The sexlessness of Hope's routines, however, was just another clue to their essential conformism and cowardice. Eye-rolling and wolf-whistling are among the weakest forms of crowd pleasing that we possess. And Hope never stretched or challenged an audience in his life. For him, the safe and antique moves were the best, if not the only. The smirk was principally one of risk-free self-congratulation.
I saw him twice, and both times he was playing, as he often did, to the soft-centered Brit or Anglophile culture. At an evening dedicated to Prince Philip at Merv Griffin's Beverly Hilton, Hope got up and told of how he left England at the age of 3. "It was either that," he said, "or marry the girl." The timing was OK, consisting as it did of a long pause. The next time I caught the act was at the British Embassy in Washington, where the ambassador did the intro and tried to wow the crowd by telling "Bob's" favorite reminiscence, which was that he left England at the age of 3, having discovered that he could never become king. These are the kinds of joke that keep things going at golf clubs or Rotary dinners: They are harmless and sentimental and have no intrinsic humor. A Bob Hope joke was no laughing matter: It was a bland attempt at what we would now yawningly call inclusiveness.
There were many cringe-making references last week to Hope's doggedness in entertaining the brave boys overseas. I have met more than one veteran who says that those USO concerts were the last straw. Here's Canby, extracting the last ounce of brilliance from a Hope gag in Saigon after an officers' billet had been blown up by the Vietcong. "I was on the way to my hotel, and I passed another hotel going in the opposite direction." Nobody had the bad taste to recall the moment at which Hope was openly booed by the grunts in Vietnam: He was to the comedy of the war what Nixon was to its negotiation and what Billy Graham was to its husky religiosity.
Even the most determinedly fawning obituarists had to concede that most of his movies and many of his "joke" anthologies were basically insulting in their unfunniness. Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times, stuck with writing an appreciation on the same day as Canby's labored obituary (and stuck by the newspaper with the exact same vaudeville photograph as illustration) fell back on the exhausted line that Hope always played the same character, which was Bob Hope. A fitting tautology. Hope was a fool, and nearly a clown, but he was never even remotely a comedian.