He was a guy who basically did nothing but stand at a microphone and tell jokes. He was a wiseguy, a smart aleck, a comic minimalist in pursuit of the perfect gag, which, through a process of trial and error and full of genially sneering asides at the eggs he laid along the way, he often found.
But Bob Hope, who died last week at 100, was something else too: the voice of 20th century America at midpassage, the spokesman of our heedless, surface-skimming spirit, the comic for the age of the production line, churning out interchangeable, immediately disposable jokes at an industrial pace. His comic persona was primitive. He was a wolf, constantly leering at pretty women, constantly rejected by them (until the last reel). He was a coward, hiding his ignobility under instantly collapsible braggadocio.
That was about it. And the finer critical minds were always dubious about him. "Bob Hope is a good radio comedian, with a pleasing presence, but not much more," critic James Agee wrote in his lament for the passing of comedy's Golden Age. Hope lacked Groucho's surrealism, Fields' misanthropy, Chaplin's soul, not to mention that element of the grotesque they all shared. Dapper and a trifle distant in his suit and tie, he also lacked their patience in building and extending gag sequences. Typical American that he was, he always wanted the instant gratification of the big boff.
When he was at the height of his first fame--with his top-rated radio program, his 12-year run in the top 10 at the movie box office--he set a tone for us junior-high wisecrackers that resonates to this day in our inner monologues and in our snap-dash dinner-table zappers. Give us enough gag writers (reportedly underpaid and overworked in his case) and a vast file of jokes (which he stored in a fireproof vault), and we thought we might, on a good night, be him.
And, indeed, one among us managed a pretty fair imitation. That would be, of all unlikely people, Woody Allen, ever voluble in his admiration for Hope. "It's just shameless how I steal from him," he said recently. "I don't mean the contents of his jokes--but I do him, I lean on him." He means Hope's comic character--especially, in Allen's early films, his sexual ineptitude and the endless spray of one-liners. What Hope uniquely had was brashness, the ability to tweak the mighty (and their supporting ninnies) and skip away unscathed.
There was no depth to Hope. But he made up for that with his tireless brio, his total lack of sentimentality--and his ability to stay on top of the news. He famously mastered every comic venue his 20th century offered--vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies, television--and even in his early days he did topical jokes, designed to be tossed aside and replaced by others on tomorrow's hot topic. This was in contrast to his peers, whose endlessly polished routines had to endure unchanging over the long years they toured the circuit. That skill made Hope the perfect comedian for the new media of radio and TV, which chewed up material (and personalities) at a manic rate. We were properly awed by his motormouth profligacy. We knew he had a million jokes on an equal number of topics: Eleanor Roosevelt, Crosby's golf game, Los Angeles pedestrians, income taxes.