Maximum Bob

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The charge that Bob Hope was not funny is not a new one, and Christopher Hitchens doesn't bring any new evidence to it (in fact, several of the jokes he holds up for condemnation are pretty damn funny). Worse, his uncharacteristic bow to baby boomer sacred cows is rancid. Setting Hope off against Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl? Puh-leeze. Nick has the last word about Lenny Bruce around here, and the one really funny story I've heard from Mort Sahl isn't even believable: Two hours into a screening of Otto Preminger's Exodus, Sahl allegedly stood up in the theater and shouted, "Otto! Let my people go!" It's a funny story, but sounds suspiciously like esprit d'escalier rewritten as an on-the-spot witticism.

Anyway, Ben Schwartz wrote a great appreciation of Bob Hope, and more important of Hope's svengali Al Boasberg. In a blatant attempt to become the next Vincent Canby, he wrote it years ago, but failed to die in the meantime. Which is just as well; on the topic of comedy history, I trust Schwartz as I do my own left hand.

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  1. Hitchens, as usual, gives less credit where credit is due; Hope deserves every bit of praise for his USO duties. However, Hitch is fundamentally correct. Bob Hope may have been a great entertainer, in movies, sketches, and the like. But his stand-up was below par. He was a joke-teller, not a comedian.

    It’s not age-related, either. I’m only 26, so neither Bob Hope nor Lenny Bruce should mean that much to me. But Lenny’s 45-year-old material is damned funny, and makes me laugh. I can’t say the same for Bob Hope, and for me, THAT’S the difference.

  2. By the way, Tim, I meant to ask about something:

    ” … in fact, several of the jokes he holds up for condemnation are pretty damn funny.”

    Which ones? The only only that caused even a grin was “It was either that, or marry the girl.”

    Just curious.

  3. Ray: Robin Williams isn’t funny. Or, at least, he hasn’t been funny since his tenure on the very short-lived Richard Pryor Show in the ’70s, in which I assume he simply absorbed some of Pryor’s talent by osmosis.

    I’m basically with Richard on Hope: Whatever the importance of his early stand-up in setting the template for the form, it was his movies — specifically his 1940s movies — that made him a great comedian; a lot of his old jokes are now as stale as Mort Sahl’s or Lenny Bruce’s.

    Speaking of Bruce: most of his material isn’t funny anymore simply because most of his targets aren’t sacred cows anymore. (Who would laugh at the “Religion Incorporated” routine today? From daring satire to conventional wisdom in a few short decades!) But some of his stuff still holds up, and he was as important as Hope was for creating the modern stand-up form, and besides, he deserves some slack for being a free-speech martyr.

  4. Oh — I can’t speak for Tim, Richard, but I liked both the “marry the girl” joke and the bit about the footloose hotel.

  5. I guess part of what I like about Bruce’s comedy is not just its staying power, but the fact that it was a total free-speech experience. For example, religion is not the sacred cow today that it was in 1958, meaning that Religions, Inc. has inevitably lost some of its bite.

    But what about the part of the routine where he has Oral Roberts on the phone with the pope, and asks Billy [Graham] if he wants to say anything to “Johnnie”, and after a pause says “Billy wants to know if you can get him a deal on one of them dago sports cars.”

    God help you if you use words like that in your routine today, even as satire. It’s that total sort of freedom, with sacred cows slaughtered on both the right and left (what we call “political correctness”) that I really admire, and laugh at.

  6. Robin Williams is so awfully unfunny.
    I’d rather sit through ten hours of Bob Hope than 15 minutes of Williams. Hope may have been boringly or plainly unfunny, but Williams is in-your-face unfunny and leaves you with no charisma to let you trick yourself into believing he’s funny for the sake of it.

    Mike Myers is awful, too.

  7. Bob Hope’s position in the world of comedy is not exactly a new subject, but I doubt someone like Christopher Hitchens is really speaking on the same terms as the posters here or the many others who have written about Hope in the past.

    With Hitchens as with most of these European intellectual types it’s all about the politics. If Hope had done his 1960s’ performances in Vietnam for Communist troops, Hitchens would be writing about how hilarious and important he was.

  8. How old are you people? I’m 40 and he has never been funny in my lifetime, and that includes his “prime” starring in the Road movie reruns on cable. Like music without a melody, words came out of his mouth in joke format, it just wasn’t comedy. Bob Hope was lame, lame, lame.

    You can bet he was paid very well for “entertaining” his captive USO audiences, which was probably his only option after TV/movie decision makers saw he wasn’t much of a draw anymore.

    That said, hardly any comedian’s work holds up over time. Many of the edgy Saturday Night Live skits that had me in stitches in high school seem weak now. About the only exceptions I can think of off-hand are Harold Lloyd’s work, some Laurel & Hardy, some WC Fields one-liners, selected Cheech & Chong… Oh, and Bill Hicks who’s at least as relevent today as when he was alive.

  9. I remember Ernie Kovacs in the tilted library reading room; Charlie Chaplin in the skating ring. I can’t think of anything else that was really funny to me.

    Hope certainly wasn’t. Hope was a celebrity, a professional famous person.

    A lot of stuff I watched I thought, well maybe it’s for grown-ups. It turns out it wasn’t.

    I assume Hitchens is trying to voice a truth that the obits are a little over the top; to do that you don’t have to claim the guy is a bore, just that he’s not really a comedian, he’s something else.

  10. Actually, this is the first thing Hitchens wrote that I agreed with in quite a while. I liked when he tore into Hillary, and when he called Queen Elizabeth a “drunken old tit-head,” but I forget which one was most recent.

    This isn’t about politics. I don’t think Robin Williams is funny, either. Neither is Richard Pryor or Whoopi Goldberg. What Hitchens said about Hope is true of a lot of supposedly “hip” younger commedians: having a reputation for being funny is enough to get a laugh, no matter how unfunny you are. I remember when everybody thought Howie Mandell was hilarious. But nothing he said ever made me laugh. And what was supposed to be so funny about that rubber glove gag?

    There’s a lot I like about Norm Rockwell’s America; but the white bread culture of golf, martinis, tuna casserole, jello mold, and Lawrence Welk is something we’re well rid of.

  11. Hitchen’s attack is the second such “dance on graves” piece that Slate has done in recent memory.

    Remember, they were similarly disrespectful of Strom Thurmond when he died.

    Doing a Bob Hope Is Not Funny Piece last year would have been okay, assuming anyone would have found it relevant and published. Doing the piece now is just disrespectful and a means of cashing in on the current news and using Bob Hope’s obituary to get your thousand words in for the week.

  12. Richard II, the joke you cite was one, the other was the one about the hotel passing him in the other direction. Neither one is a barn burner, but in an article designed to prove Bob Hope wasn’t funny, I can’t help but be struck that these jokes are, to some degree, funny.

    Also, I’ve realized that I probably only like that Mort Sahl story because it reminds me of an anecdote of personal failure by a friend of mine. During a revival theater screening of The Graduate, my friend was geared up for the scene where Norman Fell, cast against type as an irritable landlord, tells Dustin Hoffman, “I want you outta here.” Without a pause, my friend stood up, pointed at the screen and said, “Fuck you, Roper.” The audience greeted his gag with deafening silence. He tells that story as a great personal embarrassment, but I say it really shows what drips art house hipsters are. If I’d been there I’d have laughed like a hyena just out of solidarity with the gesture. Or maybe just out of surprise that any actual entertainment could occur at a screening of The Graduate.

    And man, some of the Lenny Bruce bits I’m reading on this thread are making me reconfirm my indifference to that particular comic genius. I think the folks who have noted that comedy tends not to age well have a point, though.

  13. …using Bob Hope’s obituary to get your thousand words in for the week.

    Has there ever been any other reason to pick a column topic?

  14. Quite alright,Mr. Hitchens doesn’t think the Marx Brothers were funny either.He also fancies himself a stand-up comedian of sorts.I’d like to offer my services as a partner-I’ve seen his act and I couldn’t hurt it.

  15. Bah, I used to be a fan of Hitchens, thinking him to be a rare breed of intelligent liberal, but his writing has descended into sophistry and triviality.

  16. …I trust Schwartz as I do my own left hand.

    That’s more than we needed to know, Tim. I’ve never heard it put quite that way. I guess if Mr. Schwartz is comfortable being on par with your hand, though, that’s all that really matters.

  17. As a child I found Bob Hpe specials to be frightening affairs. Mostly because as a child I was frightened by people laughing so hard at something that was clearly not amusing.

  18. Hope was buddies with Ronald Reagan and generally a pretty conservative guy, though you wouldn’t know it directly from his routine.

    So of course there are people out there who will have to down play Hope’s talent and importance of his input to several generations.

    I’m sure there are plenty of conservatives though that would try to make the false case that someone like Robin Williams wasn’t funny just because he’s a screeching liberal.

  19. The only comedian more painful to watch than Robin Williams is Bill Mahr. Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t even give me the impression that she’s trying to be funny. Richard Pryor and Bob Hope are also not funny, but are likable. Mike Myers is funny, though many of his jokes fail completely. Lenny Bruce was probably funny in his day, but what I’ve seen of him certainly doesn’t make me laugh.

    I’m not sure what the deal was with Howie Mandell either.

    The only truly funny comedian working today is Chris Rock.

  20. I guess I can’t get past much of the blatant, over the top racism that is common in Hope’s films – especially the “On the Road” films.

  21. As a caveat I would write that racism in and of itself desn’t neccessarily mark a work for the junk heap – I can appreciate the quality of work in such a film as “Birth of Nation” without liking its content for example. And I happen to love Chaucer, even though his treatment of Jews and Muslims in his “Tales” is less than stellar. However, the racism, etc. in Hope’s works along with its general lack of artistic merit simply undermine whatever might be redeeming in that body of work.

  22. Re: Howie Mandel. He did make me laugh…once. On stage in Atlantic City he asked, “ladies, how many of you would agree that men are f***ing idiots? (Chorus of agreement from women)
    “Well, think about it, gals…we’re f***ing YOU!”

  23. Kevin Carson,

    Your fifth paragraph seems to confirm what I was wanting to say about your first four: Isn’t that just an over-elaborate way to simply say that fashions change? Cause when they do, isn’t it inevitable that the previous fashion be colored by irony and parody by those who have embraced a new one?

  24. Hey Tim, that left-hand joke was pretty good. I almost heard a rim shot going off after I read it.

    About Hope, what gets overlooked about many of these old comedians is their radio work, which in Hope’s case was better than any of those clips you’ll see dug up from his NBC tv shows. On the radio shows he was in his prime, loose and ready to ad-lib as needed; on TV you see an old man doing hubba-hubba jokes, relying on a teleprompter.

    Kinda get the impression Hitchens spends a lot of time sucking on lemons.

  25. joe – you’re mistaking the Bush Administration for “Conservatives”. True Conservatives recognize that in terms of rolling back civil liberties and enlarging the size and scope of the centralized federal government, Bush has done more than any Liberal (with the possible exception of FDR on the enlarging of federal government) ever did, including the supposedly Liberal Clinton.

  26. I agree with anon@1:21, Chris Rock is about the only funny guy out there. Most of the rest of them suck my nuts.

    Mahr sucks my nuts in August. After I work out.

    Liberals are usually too afraid of hurting someones feelings to be funny. Right wing conservative christians just plain don’t know how to be funny.

    A lot of my friends are rather conservative, but more of the Libertarian type, and they are a fucking riot.

  27. Oh man, how could I forget to include Groucho.

    P.S. Bob Hope is still not funny, Strom had it coming, and I am looking forward to dancing on the graves of Ronald Reagan, Idi Amin & Pope JP in the near future.

  28. I think we’re all overlooking the comedic genius of Skip Stephenson.

  29. Comedy probably does not age well. But NOTHING has gotten as stale as quickly as Hitchens. Time to put him in the irrelevant file.

  30. Jeebus Kevin.

    “the whitebread culture of golf, martinis. . . is something we’re well rid of.”

    Are you shitting me? Comments like yours are why this comments section is always good for a belly laugh.

    People will very nearly stroke out if you even suggest that perhaps the state has some interest in restraining the heroin and PCP trade.

    Yet nobody says anything when it’s suggested that we ought to get rid of golf culture and martinis -two of God’s gift to boozers. And as for white bread, you obviously don’t golf in an urban area.

    Kevin, let’s be clear on this: the only way you should get rid of a martini is by drinking it.

    And ordering another.

  31. I agree with Zathras on this one. With Liberals, it’s always about the politics. To a Liberal, a Conservative CANNOT be talented and CANNOT be funny.

    On the other hand, I consider myself to be a Libertarian/Conservative. The Dixie Chicks are Liberals, but I recognize their musical talent. Countless Hollywood actors and actresses are highly Liberal (Robin Williams, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, etc) but I recognize their acting talents. To me, part of the beauty of America is that I don’t have to agree with their politics to enjoy their performances.

  32. Brad, name a funny conservative.

    And are you classifying Hitchens as a liberal?

  33. Uh, isn’t funniness way, way too subjective to warrant objective statements about who is or isn’t funny? Unless, I suppose, if no one really thinks a particular someone if funny but he gets a free ride because he’s PC to some chunk of society. But to back that, you’ve gotta get some consensus on the matter….

  34. As I see it, humor and Conservatism go hand in hand. Firstly, staunch Conservatives tend to be a bunch of fat self-satisfied louts anyway, exactly the kind of people who find the misfortunes of others hilarious. Second, humor, which cuts people down to size, puncturing their presumptions, and humbling them, fits in perfectly with the conservative understanding of Man’s relative insignificance, and men’s incompetence. It is precisely because we are all a load of bumbling fools that we should not allow one group of dolts to dictate to the rest. Only Liberals, who believe in the infinite capacity of their own minds to determine solutions to problems and implement them effectively, have the temerity to suggest that person A should, or can, make decisions for persons B, C, & D.

    As far as “funny” Conservatives, off the top of my head : Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Winston Churchill, W. C. Fields, E. B. White, James Thurber, Frank Capra, Jean Shepherd, P. J. O’Rourke, Joe Queenan, Andrew Ferguson, etc.

  35. Stephen Fetchit:

    By “getting rid” of the culture of good, respectable Republican cloth coats, I meant only it was a good thing it died on its own–any perceived suggestion it should have been suppressed was unintentional. And I’m glad to have obliged with today’s belly laugh.

  36. Although the cultural conflict of the Greatest Generation vs. the Boomers hasn’t been explicitly mentioned, it seems to be haunting this thread pretty intensively.

    I read an article several years ago that said the counterculture came about because first the Beatniks, and then the baby boom generation, adopted an attitude of irony toward the older generation’s aesthetic values.

    The WWII generation’s straightforward and unironic view of “high class” behavior was sitting in a nightclub in evening dress, drinking cocktails and listening to big band music–probably following a movie starring Crawford or Davis or one of the other queens of the “golden age of Hollywood.”

    Their children ironically stood this whole aesthetic culture on its head, and adopted the culture of the underclass–the slang of black jazz musicians and the dress of migrant workers–as an alternative. The older culture of their parents was turned into high camp and self-parody, which is the reason for the stereotypical association of gay culture with show tunes and ’40s films. Even the resurrected “hipster” culture of today, with its attempts to make golf and martinis cool for twenty-somethings, has an element of self-parody in it.

    But before anyone objects too much to the elitism of beating up on the WWII generation, we should bear in mind that that generation, in its turn, had defined itself in contrast to ITS OWN parents’ values. (I wish I could remember the guy on C-SPAN booknotes who talked about this!) The aesthetic of the WWII generation and of its older brothers and sisters was largely shaped by the “lost generation” reaction to WWI; the whole “stiff upper lip” ethos of Gary Cooper was a repudiation of their parents’ Victorian sentimentality. And the clean-shaven look, now identified with “conservative” middle America, was originally an “up to date” reaction against mutton chops and handlebar mustaches.

  37. WC Fields? Mark Twain? You’re stealing bases. I could just as well call Twain a liberal for his opposition to heirarchy in general, and racism in particular.

    And conservatives are perfectly happy to have one group of dolts dictate to the rest of us, as long as those dolts make the proper noises about religion, the military, wealthy people, and family values.

  38. Tim:

    I feel for your friend. As George Costanza would say, “Man, that’s GOTTA hurt!”

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