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COMIC OBSERVER BOB HOPE'S QUIPS HIT ABSURDITY OF THE HUMAN CONDITION.

Byline: Joseph Honig Local View

IN a city of bullets and bad taste, it may now be time to think about a frail 98-year-old man who, decades ago, helped his fellow Americans momentarily laugh at life's cruelties.

Bob Hope is approaching the end of a vast life. So many who could remember his greatness are already gone. That he was once a razor-tongued humorist without equal is a faraway memory.

In some papers and newscasts he is simply an aging comic known for conservative politics and long-ago television stardom. But Bob Hope is so much more.

The old man who spent last week in a Burbank hospital could be the architect of modern American comedy.

For before Bob Hope, stage and screen humor was awkwardly removed from real life. Yes, Will Rogers targeted politics and politicians. But while Rogers lambasted institutions, Hope humanized powerful names and faces before skewering them. And he did so without prejudice or malice.

Here was a guy who made a defeated nation smile at FDR's more outlandish notions for Depression-era relief. Hope took on Truman's temper, Ike's golf game and Kennedy's wealth. He unstuffed shirts and deflated egos with surgical precision.

Without Hope, there would be no Leno, Letterman, Sahl or Stewart.

But again, he is so much more. For Hope on screen was the first comedian to let audiences in on the jokes. Because he did so, they laughed twice as hard.

In the 1940s, Hope was as graceful a comedian as ever appeared in movies. He was a comic overreacher, what Woody Allen called ``a wolf in sheep's clothing,'' who made millions roar with cowardly, double-dealing ploys to grab money and women.

He understood that most of us fail in truly getting what we want. So we laughed at his shortcomings. We felt better about our own inadequacies.

Hope made the ordeal of being human into an absurdly funny predicament.

Teamed with Bing Crosby in their classic road pictures, Hope and his writers created subversive, hilarious ad-libs that confounded censors (also fair game for jokes). It is hard to believe, but Hope joked then about drug use, homosexuality and race in mainstream Hollywood movies. Some references were more veiled than others. But they were there.

The real greatness of Hope, however, may be his talent for touching such an astonishing breadth of Americans. He was simply most everyone's favorite comedian. Hope played to rich and poor, black and white, young and old.

True, his heyday was a much simpler time; we were a much less divided nation. Yet there was something about him that crossed boundaries of education, taste, religion, sex and ideology.

Growing up in Cleveland, this immigrant from England must have inhaled America. For he knew what we found funny and what was fair game. Hope wouldn't hit you when you were down, wouldn't make fun of misfortune. He only picked on those who could take it. He was no bully.

We not only laughed at Bob Hope, we admired him. We never questioned his motives or needs to spend years abroad, often in harm's way, entertaining American troops. We ignored stories about his marriage and private life. We allowed him to grow old and remain celebrated.

Until Vietnam.

It was Hope's misfortune to serve as front man for an unpopular, largely purposeless war that ripped America apart. He just couldn't seem to understand why this war was different from his others. Hope was labeled a right-wing comic. He didn't bother to argue the point. And then he just seemed to fade away, a retired show business legend who stayed close to his homes in Toluca Lake and Palm Springs. He needed aides to get around.

His wife, still vibrant, did a lot of the talking for him. She still does. But most of the words about Bob Hope's American life have already been spoken. They are his words, recorded on miles of film and tape, and they speak of a uniquely talented man who knew his audience as well or better than he knew what was funny.

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Photo:

Bob Hope, far right, along with costars Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in the 1952 film ``Road to Bali.''
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 9, 2001
Words:700
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