Theater Talk: Hope, the Man Who Invented Modern Comedy

>> The drama of the decline of Bob Hope and staying on too long on the world stage… >> RIEDEL: Brilliantly told. >> …in that book is so beautifully handled and so touching. And I cried a couple of times for him. And me. [Laughter] He could not let it go. >> "Theater Talk" is made possible in part by… >> I may need smelling salts. I just looked in the wings and Bob Hope is standing there. >> Oh, there he is. [Applause, orchestra plays] >> From New York City, this is "Theater Talk." I'm Susan Haskins. >> And I'm Michael Riedel of The New York Post. And, Susan, I am in love with show-business lore and legends and show-business figures, and I love biographies about great show-business icons. And I have read an absolutely superb book about one of my heroes — Yes, I confess it. I'm a Republican, this is why I loved him — Bob Hope. I grew up with Bob Hope. I never missed an NBC special as a kid growing up. And I met Bob Hope once at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, and it was the highlight of my life. Bob Hope is the subject of a terrific new book called "Hope," by a fine writer and a good friend of mine, Richard Zoglin. Welcome to "Theater Talk," Richard. >> Great to be here. >> And just to, I guess for comic relief, Dick Cavett is here because he… he knew something about Bob Hope and he knows something about comedy. >> HASKINS: He knew Bob hope, and he was friends with Bob Hope. >> Why did you cut that introduction so short? >> CAVETT: Met him first in Lincoln, Nebraska, and last on my show, and the gap between still seems incredible to me. I have a hearing aid, and it sounded like you said you were a Republican. [Laughter] >> It's true. No, all right, I was Fourth Graders for Ford. All right, and I was a page at the Dallas Convention, '84, when Reagan was recrowned, renominated. And we were in, I think it was a Trammell Crow hotel. Now, I think it was the Wyndham Hotel. >> CAVETT: It's important. >> Yeah, I was like 15 or 14 years old, and I'm walking through the lobby, and Bob Hope comes in. He's wearing this — I kid you not — he's wearing a pants suit. A light pink, light blue striped pants suit, and he's walking his dog, and his dog has the exact same pants suit on. >> Get out of here now, and we will finish this show. >> It's true! >> You want to know how I met the great Bob? >> HOSTS: Yes. >> [Imitating] "Hi, this is Bob 'Boxing Gloves' Hope." I met him in Lincoln, Nebraska, the obvious place. He came there with a variety hour. A friend of mine and I went, knowing that it would be a film. It couldn't be Bob Hope in Lincoln. 'Cause we'd just seen him in "Monsieur Beaucaire." And they had a lot of variety acts, intermission. We didn't know what intermission was. We started to go home. We came back, and the second act started, and we thought, more jugglers and magicians and dogs. "And now the star of our show, Bob Hope!" [Mimics fanfare] God, and he walked onto the stage. We were at sort of an angle. He seemed to be coming straight toward us. And my friend Lyle Burke said, "Jesus, there he is!" [Riedel chuckles] Nothing but air between us. He was hilarious. Ran around to the stage door afterwards. He came down some steps. And I said, "Fine show, Bob." I was in junior high. And he said, "Thanks, son." And the next day I told all my friends I'd been chatting with Bob Hope. Years later, I look in the wings, yes, he's there. He's coming out on my show. I told him that story, and he said, "Hey, was that you?" >> Well, when I met him, I said, "Oh, Mr. Hope, can I have your autograph?" And he said, "You're too young to be a Republican." >> Which is a great line. And I love — You know, Bob didn't always need his writers. That was a great ad-libbed line. >> How glad I am that you said that. I used to get in fights on the playgrounds, when kids would say, "Bob Hope can't ad-lib," right after his radio show. "You know, he has these things called writers, and they write down jokes, and he reads them into a microphone." >> It's true. >> And I said, "You're full of…" ordure, probably, in fifth grade. >> You told me several lines. And Larry Gelbart said to me, you know, "Bob was always funnier than his monologues." Bob, in person, was funnier than his monologues. >> Isn't that something? From Gelbart. >> Gelbart, yeah. >> Let me ask you, Richard. The obvious question, of course. I mean, Bob Hope, for many people, is ancient history, represents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and a lot of stuff that — like my left-wing crazy Commie friend Susan doesn't want to think about anymore. Why were you interested in researching this man's life and bringing him back to, restoring him, I think, the way you have done with this book? >> Well, first of all, I grew up loving his stuff, too. I watched those road pictures over and over again. I loved him. I, too, was in that generation that kind of turned off to Bob Hope because of Vietnam and that difficult time. But, you know, I always thought he ought to be looked at aside from all the political baggage. Plus, I did this book on standup comedy called "Comedy at the Edge," about standup comedy in the '70s, and I used to ask each of the guys that I interviewed — from George Carlin to Steve Martin to Jerry Seinfeld — I would always ask them who their influences were, who they grew up with, who they loved. Nobody ever mentioned Bob Hope. Not once. >> CAVETT: Wow! >> And that was so astonishing to me because I believe he really invented their art form. When you think about it, I'm trying to see — I really looked into who really founded standup comedy. There was Vaudeville comedians before Bob Hope, but they were very different. It was Bob that said to his writers when he started on radio in 1938, "You know what? Read the papers and give me some lines out of the papers." Or stuff that's happening in his real life. >> Revolutionary idea in comedy. >> But Will Rogers… As you make the point, very interestingly, I think, in this book, Will Rogers had the folksy kind of topical stuff, but Bob Hope brought the urbanity, the sophistication. >> And the Vaudeville rhythms. The fast pace and everything. >> He has fabulous diction. He never blows a line. >> Really amazing. You hear him so much on radio, how little he stumbles. So much so that when he did make a little stumble, he would always make a point of it. Because it was so rare. >> Yeah, I heard him say, "That was a lady tha– mi– or something sideways like that," he said. [Laughter] >> There was a line. It was probably written, but I remember some radio thing where he says — She said, "Oh…" Some cute girl's on the radio and she says, "Oh, Bob, you're such a ham." And he says, "Right now I'm bacon." >> I think I told you this one, Richard, but he came to Lincoln and played a golf game with some Republican friends, of course, and he loved the golf course. And I didn't know it. And the next day, a snotty little kid said, "How come you didn't see Bob Hope?" And I said, "Bob Hope?" He said, "Yeah. And a kid said to him…" Because he was wearing a flowing Hawaiian shirt… the kid said to him, "Hey, Bob, your slip is showing." Hope said, "So is your father's." I didn't get it for about a year. [Laughter] >> But, Dick, let me ask you. You're not exactly a Republican, I would say. >> Not entirely, no. >> Did you ever turn on Bob Hope? Was there a period where you thought, "I'm going to turn on this guy because he's Nixon's friend"? >> Turn against him? No. Never. I understand, I knew he was a lifelong Republican. I knew he felt that this country had given him everything he could have wanted and more. He was a patriot in the old sense. And he, like so many, were wrong about the war we got our butt kicked in. And, 'cause it was his habit to go on and defend — I think Kennedy gave him a medal. >> RIEDEL: Clinton loved him. >> CAVETT: I asked Mort Lachman, his producer-head writer, once, "Who does Bob like?" He said, "Bob likes any politician, any movie star, any sports star, any Vatican biggie, anybody who's a big influence." >> ZOGLIN: Generals. >> Well, you write about, Richard, his childhood, but he came from England. He was dirt poor. >> Yep. He struggled. He struggled in Vaudeville. You know, when he got into show business, it took him a long time to make it. >> He started performing on the street to bring money. There were seven brothers, going back to his childhood. >> That's where he got that work ethic, and that he had to really work at it. Nothing came overnight and easy to Bob Hope in show business, and wow, he was, you know, a workaholic. >> One of the countless thrills of your book — if I may say that with you sitting here — is the way you take us, in each of his media — from Vaudeville to theater to television to movies — an impossible ego — >> RIEDEL: And TV. >> And television, and go straight to the top. His television career was largely crap, but his monologues were fabulous. I was even in one of those deadly sketches, but let that pass. >> ZOGLIN: Were you? I didn't see that one. >> At the New Orleans World's Fair in a baseball locker room. And I loved seeing him as he always did, when he came on in a costume. He didn't just come on and start the line. He'd be like a model, moved around so you could see his costume. And then he started. And, ah, gee. That was "a dream come true," but that's such a cliche. But what a comedian in terms of technique. >> But, Richard, I wanted to ask you, where do you think… I mean, having traced his life, going back to his parents, his upbringing — where does that Bob Hope sense of timing come from? Where does it come from and how does it develop? >> I guess it developed in Vaudeville when he had to entertain — >> But even before Vaudeville, there must have been something in the family. >> ZOGLIN: The timing? >> The timing family. >> He always used to talk about his father was a very funny guy. But I always think that's sort of a cliche. I'm not so sure, you know, how true that is. I think it's a kind of — >> His father was sort of a happy drunk, wasn't he? >> Yeah, he was. He was an alcoholic. Interestingly enough, Bob was never really a drinker. And several of the brothers were big drinkers, so, amazing that he avoided that. >> You couldn't have the work ethic Bob Hope had if you were a drunk. >> HASKINS: No, that's from the mother. >> I think timing is a pointless thing to talk about, quite frankly. >> RIEDEL: Good timing. >> May I drop a name? Jack Benny. And one show, just as we were going off, said, "They always talk about your timing, your timing. Can you tell us?" He said, "You know, kid, I don't know what the hell they're talking about." I said, "Well, what is timing to you?" And he said, "I say the line the way I think it should be said, when it should be said." And if you don't have that instinct, you can't learn timing. You can't learn to count to three. >> Except in your book, though, you say Bob honed his… for lack of a better word, Dick, "timing," in Vaudeville. In front of live audiences. Taking their measure. >> And part of it was confidence, too, that he could wait for the laugh. You know, he… He had to work to different audiences and kind of get the feel of different audiences and how long it took for them to get jokes and stuff. And I think, you know, Vaudeville, you know, just a guy who has to constantly work to stay afloat in Vaudeville. You've got to just constantly be sensitized to every audience and to what's happening elsewhere in Vaudeville. And, you know, he would borrow things. He would steal things. He would just do anything he could. >> But another person could have gone through all those things and with no instinct, not gotten any better. >> But one of the things I find fascinating, though, about this book — because in a way it's bigger than this man — he was somebody who understood the business of show business. How to build himself up as a brand name. >> Fabulous career management. I think you say "micromanaged" his career somewhere in the book. >> He did, and he was also the first brand guy. He branded himself in a way that no other Hollywood star, I don't think at that time. He wasn't just Bob Hope, star of movies and radio. But he wrote books, starting very early on, before he was practically just come to Hollywood, and he already wrote kind of a jokey autobiography. And then his book about World War II and these were best sellers. He wrote a newspaper column in the late '40s. He, of course, had a golf tournament named for him. And how many stars have their own logo? I mean, with the line-drawn profile, with the chin and the nose. >> I had said to you earlier that in reading your book, I did wonder, because he, from very early on, managed this squad of writers and this business, and I said to you, "well, here he was raised by this mother, while the father was off drinking the paycheck and all this." This mother has seven sons who she managed, were brought over by herself in steerage to America. And I wonder if he wasn't looking at how this mother managed all these boys and kept this operation going. >> CAVETT: Seven little Hopes. >> That's a very interesting observation. You know, maybe so. He certainly learned from his mother. >> HASKINS: What do you think, Dick? >> He learned from his brother, too — one of them, especially — who, out in California in the early days, said, "You know, it seems to me that this land between Beverly Hills and all these cabbage farms till you get to Hollywood will be valuable someday." And he got some. >> He bought most of it. You were around him. I mean, when Bob Hope arrived for whatever, taping a TV show, was it like the president had arrived? Was the entourage, was he…? >> When he came off the elevator, the place lit up. I mean, it was just that dazzling personality, that fabulous personality. He's a handsome man, too. He said, "Don't say that. I've got to keep the nose jokes." But he was a presence you could feel. >> Was there an entourage around him when you saw him? >> No. He would come in in a Burberry coat, and I held it once and laid it aside for him. And I went through the pockets. There was a package of Certs. And then after the show, I followed him down the stairs after saying goodbye to him. And I watched him walk out into 30 Rock and go around the corner like one shot in "The Third Man," and then I thought, he's gonna walk through and people are gonna recognize him or not. One day, I'm innocently watching Dave Letterman, and Bob said… Mr. Hope said… [imitating] "Hey, I'm taking Dick Cavett to the Army-Navy game." I didn't know it. That's in your book. >> ZOGLIN: That's in my book. >> CAVETT: He did take me. >> But did people recognize him on the street? He couldn't go anywhere without them. Like me, a little kid Republican, you know. >> He knew how to walk in airports, you know, he would walk fast, and he would say hello to everybody, but he moved. >> And he'd have a hat on, usually. >> But now, there's a dark side to Bob Hope. And you describe, for example, someone said, "He never apologized, he rarely said 'thank you,' and had an essential coldness to him." And he doesn't sound like he was the best father. >> RIEDEL: Or husband. >> In this man's book, he walks into his own home and one of the kids says, "Hi, Bob Hope." [Laughter] >> I mean, you are an internationally famous TV star. >> CAVETT: Oh, easily. >> Yes. Does that come with the territory of being so famous that you become, on some levels, distanced and aloof and have to, you know…? >> RIEDEL: Swat them away? >> Yeah, and squire around babes and ignore your family — is that part of it? >> It can. It can be too hard to handle. The constant recognition is a dreadful bore, but great fun for the first two weeks. And after that, it can make you as unpopular in the business as — oh, just to make up a name — Danny Kaye. [Laughter] >> CAVETT: I mean his initials are "Danny Kaye." I don't want to say his name. >> But, you know, I think it was a combination of his English sort of reserve and a just lack of introspection. He was just a guy — He didn't want to talk much about himself or think much about himself, so people who even were close to him didn't feel like they knew him very well, and there might not have been much to know. >> Somebody said, "Deep down inside Bob Hope, there is no Bob Hope." >> That's good, and I loved when you pointed out — I didn't know this — that Johnny Carson got sick to death of his coming on the show every time he had something to plug, walking in in the middle of while the guest is on, doing eight gags and leaving. And Mr. Woody Allen said to me, "Cavett… do you think you could get him to talk on a show? He swaps gags." And I did. >> You did the best of anybody. >> And I'd say things like, "How did you get that scar?" >> I lived in Bristol and I protected my dog one day and I got hit with a rock right there. And it's still there. A little indentation there. >> He talked like a person — which he could do wonderfully — Yet at one point he gave an answer, and then he said, "Hey, would you rather have a gag on that?" And I said, "No, no, no." >> But didn't he become a… I don't want to be too "meta," as the kids say, but didn't he become a prisoner of Bob Hope, the creature he created, that everything had to be a gag? >> Yeah. He felt that he was a public figure. He was more public than anybody. And he just felt he constantly had to support that image. >> Why does this happen? Here's a man we talked about who was a great ad-libber, who, in the early career, could ad-lib anything, you know. "Oh, Bob, you're a ham." "Now I'm bacon." Whatever it is. Why, then, does he have to be surrounded by a battery of gag writers? >> Well, I don't know if you know, he taped his monologue for Friday on Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, Thursday. And had writers write new stuff all the time. But yes, he was a man who, when he reached up under a miniskirt of one of his stars boarding a plane and she turned around and said, "You can't do that," he said, "Read your contract." You knew he could handle almost anything. >> Yeah, but why — >> Having to do so much material, constantly traveling, you know, five and six concerts a week sometimes. And plus his TV shows. He just had to have that barrage of material. But he was comfortable enough that he knew that he could ad-lib on top of it if he had to, and he did, a lot. But, you know, going on talk shows and stuff. He was of the old school. You write stuff and you go on. The idea of what we're doing — spontaneous conversation… >> Well, Susan wrote all my gags, which is why I'm so good on the show. Now, we've been plugging this book, but there's this other… >> Oh, my God, now the show starts! >> …rather slim tome, I have to say. My God, look at… You haven't changed a bit, Dick. >> Those are my Times columns, another wide selection of them. There may not be a line in there as popular as the one about Sarah Palin in the first book, which was, "She seems to have no first language." [Laughter] Read Mel Brooks' blurb. It will only take a second. It's on the cover. >> On the cover. >> Yeah. >> No, it's on the back. "The best bathroom reading ever written. Each story takes just the right amount of time." [Chuckles] >> By the way, for the reader who must buy this book before they do "War and Peace" or the Bible, in my eyes, the drama of the decline of Bob Hope and staying on too long on the world stage… >> RIEDEL: Brilliantly told. >> …in that book is so beautifully handled and so touching. And I cried a couple of times for him, and me. [Laughter] >> ZOGLIN: Thank you. >> He could not let it go. >> RIEDEL: Why not? I mean, his life around in front of the camera, life around the microphone? >> Yeah. I think he was so driven. This was a guy who thought all the time about his career. This is why he had a kind of impoverished personal life. All he was doing was managing his career all the time. Growing up with the kids and he was running off every Christmas and so forth, and he just couldn't imagine a time when he wasn't on stage, managing that career. >> You talk about when they forced him to take a vacation, that he went up to Canada and tried sitting out in a boat and throwing a line out, and somebody said, "He had to come back. I heard the fish don't applaud." [Laughter] And he couldn't take it. He couldn't do it. Not for long. >> He'd get ready to go to Europe or something on a trip in the early days, and then he'd book himself in Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlantic City on the way to New York to catch the boat. >> Is that what Jay Leno was like? I mean, in a sense that there's somebody — >> He seems to be addicted to performing and happy to do it. Joan Rivers. She sought love from audiences. And I stepped in front of an Army audience once, at Killeen, Texas fort, whatever it is. And they applauded me, and I was an unknown comedian, and the jolt that hit your face, I realized Bob Hope's addiction. And right after the war, an old writer I worked with on the Paar show said, "You know, after the war, Bob was just at loose ends. I had to drive him to colleges," before this was fashionable, "so he could get another big audience fix." >> ZOGLIN: Right. Those audiences, that adulation, and also the sense that he was really bringing something that those men needed. >> There's a wonderful moment in your book, though, which I think really — we discussed Bob Hope and maybe there is no Bob Hope there, and we can never know it, but I think beautiful scene where he's performing in the north of England, and a troop of guys, they walk 10 miles to see Bob Hope. They get to the theater — Well, you tell the story. >> Yeah. Bob was going to miss them, so they found out, they walked 10 miles to see one of his shows. They got to the show out in some, you know, the moor, in the middle of the moors, and it was an indoor show and it was full. And they couldn't see him. So they sadly started trudging back, the 10 miles back. After the show, Bob heard about it, grabbed his troupe, hopped in a couple of jeeps, caught up with the guys, and did a show in the rain for the guys out in the middle… >> Remind me if I told you this, Richard. It's interesting, about micromanaging his life, his health, his movements, his career. I said to him once, you know, "Traveling that time and the food is so awful and you get to these countries…" [Imitating] "Hey, you know what I do? We take a trunk load of stewed fruit. And when I was young and in Vaudeville, all the actors went to the worst greasy restaurant. Actors always do. And," he said, "I didn't do that. You know what I did?" And you have to say "no." "I followed middle-aged ladies until they went to their lunch, and they would go to these nice tea rooms, and I ate there, and I saved my stomach that way." >> RIEDEL: That's because his… His partner, he thought, died of food poisoning. >> He really died of tuberculosis. But Bob always attributed it to food poisoning, because he was throwing up or whatever. And from then on, he stayed away from the greasy spoons and he ate in tea rooms. >> He was already eating for getting to be 100. >> ZOGLIN: Amazingly healthy guy. >> A physical phenomenon. I rode with him in a car once from NBC to something else, and he said, "Okay, here I go." [Whispering] "Bob's asleep." Five minutes. >> He was notorious for being able to sleep, drop off. >> RIEDEL: Then he could wake up and ready to go. All right, before we leave, do you have a favorite Bob Hope laugh line, gag, joke, a Bob Hope line? >> Well, you have to say the most famous, and probably one of the best, is certainly the Academy Award, the famous opening of the Academy Awards. "Welcome to the Academy Awards, or, as it's known in my house, Passover." >> Your timing's okay. Dick? >> That's my favorite also. Yeah. "We call it at my house Passover." And then he'd get this huge laugh — watch his monologues so you can see — and then he would do a little weight shift and get another laugh. That was a technique I… I've learned and imitated from him. But anything that started with, "Hey, I wouldn't say Crosby's fat, but…" You know. What does he order at the bar in the Yukon in trying to look tough? Is it the milk? >> He orders lemonade. That's the other, from "Road to Utopia." He and Crosby are coming in, trying to impersonate roughnecks, and they go to the bar and Crosby orders a bottle of Rotgut, and Bob says, "I'll have a lemonade." Everybody turns and looks at him and he says, "In a dirty glass!" >> CAVETT: That's my favorite. >> RIEDEL: That's it, all right. The book is called "Dick Cavett: Brief Encounters." >> CAVETT: What's that got to do with Bob Hope? >> May I also say about Dick Cavett that now PBS is running the play "Hellman v. McCarthy," which… >> Thank you for knowing that. >> I watched it again. I had a wonderful time. Theater Close-Up series has — You can go to PBS, you know — what do you call it? Where you watch stuff when you want to — and it's there. >> Or type in "Hellman v. McCarthy," and in the monologue that I do, as if it were years ago, I do Bob Hope and his shifting his weight and getting another laugh, and it works. >> RIEDEL: The book is "Hope." A terrific biography of Bob Hope by Richard Zoglin. Not only a great biography, but also, I think, a very good social history of America, because Bob Hope, in many ways, touched on all that was the 20th century. >> It's a book that you want your friends to go home so you can get back to reading it. >> Can't beat that. Richard Zoglin, Dick Cavett. Thanks for being our guests tonight on "Theater Talk." >> Our thanks to the friends of "Theater Talk" for their significant contribution to this production. …plus public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency; and the Theater Development Fund's Technical Accessibility Program, which helps provide closed-captioning. >> We welcome your questions or comments for "Theater Talk." Thank you, and good night.

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