Saturday, April 11, 2015

Abandon Hope

This week I finished reading Richard Zoglin’s dogged biography of Bob Hope, titled simply, Hope.
I’d been eager to get my hands on it ever since the reviews started appearing in the press, though it’s hard to explain why. I’m not a fan of Hope’s comedy (apparently no one is anymore, a state of affairs Zoglin hopes to rectify), but I do enjoy show-biz biographies, specifically those dealing with old timers from the last century. I’ve read books on Sinatra and Bing Crosby, for example, though I almost never listen to their music. I’m also a student of comedy, a holdover from my youth, when I thought I was funny.  Learning that I’m not was a long, painful lesson, but I figure if someone like  Bob Hope can be succeed trough sheer determination, the rest of us hacks  have a chance.

Zoglin tries mightily to clear a place for Hope in the front rank of the great comedians. He doesn't quite succeed. None of the material he quotes stands out, and the chapters on Hope’s peak years, which Zoglin says lasted from about 1940 to 1960, are the least interesting part of the book. Mostly, they rely on a barrage of data, primarily box office grosses, Hooper ratings, and Bob’s growing personal fortune. Far more absorbing are the early chapters on Hope’s hardscrabble childhood and vaudeville career, and the later descriptions of his protracted and very public decline. Paradoxically, Hope's greatest legacy might be that he inspired Johnny Carson and David Letterman to retire gracefully. 

Zoglin’s insistence that today’s comedians owe Hope a debt for essentially inventing the modern topical monologue isn't convincing, either. Hope may have been the form’s earliest practitioner, but who would ever return to his Pepsodent or Chrysler shows for a tutorial?  

I can’t add too much too the reviews that have already been published (see especially Frank Rich in the New York Review of Books), except to point out one of Zoglin's more bothersome stylistic tics. In his attempt to be even-handed – both to acknowledge Hope’s shortcomings and insist on his achievement – he writes sentences whose structure may be abstracted as “It wasn't … but,” as in “It wasn’t a very good movie (or TV special, or live performance), but it made a lot money (or got high ratings, or was well- attended, or Bob was good in it).”  In symbolic logic, this would be expressed as Not P, but Hey, C'mon, Q.

It begins unobtrusively, in the chapters on Hope’s early success:

The gag lines had more snap than wit, but Hope delivered them with crisp self-assurance, and faster than anyone else on the air.

Then, as the litany of movies and TV specials and USO tours expands, one more and more frequently comes across constructions like this:

In truth, Hope got away with plenty of old jokes – tired, knee-jerk gags about Gleason’s weight and Benny’s cheapness and Crosby’s many kids – and his material was often second-class. But throughout the 1950s his TV popularity never flagged.

And, in its late, epic form:

The shows themselves were growing increasingly leaden: tired gags, corny sketches, with Hope looking more disengaged and cue-card-dependent than ever. Variety, reviewing his 1989 special from the Bahamas, chided Hope for “permitting his team of writers to throw together such a generally dismal  collection of excuses for gags and uniformly horrible skits which could have been bettered by a reasonably talented high school sophomore.”

At this point I was actually steeling myself for what I would find after the paragraph break:

Yet the shows were big moneymakers for Hope.

Reading Hope, the question I kept asking myself was, if Bob Hope employed so many first-rate writers, as even the least sympathetic reviewers acknowledge, why are the jokes so forgettable?

No comments: