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August 3, 2003 Mail

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I do send out some odd email, and receive equally odd email in return.  Here I will print some of it, with, now and then, my responses.   Before I post anyone's writing, I will ask your permission to post your comments and whether I should use your name or not, or use an alias you wish to use.
What makes people laugh?  Just what is funny.  What are we to make of Bob Hope now that he is gone?

When Bob Hope passed away this week the emails about him flew back and forth. 

I made the mistake of sending my friends Hopeless - Did Bob Hope ever say anything funny? in which the sour British political critic Christopher Hitchens says not so nice things about Bob Hope (Friday, August 1, 2003 in SLATE.COM).

What did Hitchens say?  Some of it...

To be paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny is not a particular defect or shortcoming in, say, a cable repair man or a Supreme Court justice or a Navy Seal. These jobs can be performed humorlessly with no loss of efficiency or impact. But to be paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny is a serious drawback, even lapse, in a comedian. And the late Bob Hope devoted a fantastically successful and well-remunerated lifetime to showing that a truly unfunny man can make it as a comic. There is a laugh here, but it is on us. 

This is comedy for people who have no sense of humor and who come determined to be entertained and laugh to show that they "get it."  Hope had a huge vault of material, much of it mercifully unused, that was amassed by "researchers" and cross-indexed by subject. The great thing, for him, was to be able to bang on the existing funny bone by daring, say, to make a gag out of Reagan's notorious propensity for naps.

It's true that Hope had a mobile face and could twist it to look suggestive or leering (though he wasn't in the same class as Benny Hill or John Cleese in this respect). The idea that all women are attractive, not especially thigh-slapping as a concept in itself, can often work with audiences who are very easily pleased and whose members don't want to be left out of the general mirth. The sexlessness of Hope's routines, however, was just another clue to their essential conformism and cowardice.  Eye-rolling and wolf-whistling are among the weakest forms of crowd pleasing that we possess.  And Hope never stretched or challenged an audience in his life.  For him, the safe and antique moves were the best, if not the only.  The smirk was principally one of risk-free self-congratulation.

The quick reaction from Atlanta - "Did Christopher Hitchens ever say anything worthwhile?  I actually liked Bob Hope.  I've always thought he was (most of the time) funny.   I heard his daughter say that one of his last lines was to his family gathered around his deathbed.  After someone asked, 'Pop, where do you want to be buried?' he paused, then shrugged and said, 'I don't know, surprise me!'  Not too shabby for a 100-year-old."

And for someone else in Atlanta -

I'm suspicious of a Brit's take on what is comedy.  Dry wit is more a specialty of the British, but I can relate many of the complaints he has about Bob Hope to the generally bland humor of Monty Python that while not a pure failure of comedy, isn't really all that funny, despite the laugh tracks applied to the Flying Circus episodes.  These complaints are a culturally centered difference of taste like British food - i.e. boiled
sausage, dark beer the temperature of cow spit, and pickled onions. 

I've worked countless hours with Brits and it is the difference between us that is interesting and sometimes funny.  Don't get me wrong, I like dark beer not too cold, and the occasional pickled onion is good and I've watched plenty of Monty Python and have seen all their movies and enjoyed them, but have never used them as a standard of excellence to which Americans should aspire.

Hope's style is based in vaudeville and that's not really applicable to today's culture and short attention span.  I give the man respect, despite his support of the Viet Nam war (I feel he was mostly supporting the guys doing the lousy job).

The last big job I did there were three Brits on the crew and three other Yanks.  I asked the question "What do you call a pretty girl in England?   A visitor!"  The Yanks laughed, the Brits looked pissed.  See what I mean?

Another voice weighed in

Yes, but this example obviously enters an area beyond mere humor.  A year or two ago, a Swede I knew asked, in that funny accent that sounded like he was speaking backwards, "You know what you call someone who speaks several languages? Multilingual. And what do you call someone who speaks two languages?   Bilingual.  So what do you call someone who speaks only one language?  (pause)  An American!"   We both laughed.  But he, of course, laughed louder and longer than I did.

So we got around to what people laugh at, and I did send across Wilfrid Sheed's A Hope for Posterity - Don't let anyone tell you Bob Hope wasn't brilliant! that SLATE published a day after they posted that Hitchens piece.

...yes, he was indeed a great comedian in the movies but that, thanks to his long life, he also had time to be an extremely bad oneon radioand after that time still to be a mixture of both, as he turned America's military commitments into a species of vaudeville circuit, where he could do bits of everything he knew to packed houses and laugh-starved audiences that were government-guaranteed not to go anywhere. (If he was a superpatriot as well, good for him. It means, if so, that unlike Maurice Chevalier he would never have performed for the Nazis even had they asked him charmingly and flattered him and recited his best lines and then, of course, offered him a stable of first-class blondes.)

Sheed says it was the movies with Bing Crosby where you must look for Hopes talent -

One can list the ingredients forever without capturing the magic. But at least two words must be said about Hope's preternatural sense of timing. It is a great subpleasure of the Road movies just to watch two top musicians of the syncopated era bopping lines and bits of business off each other because in the sense of using one's tongue as a dueling sword, Hope was indeed a natural at verbal humor, so long, of course, as someone else wrote the actual words. The true miracles came, though, when Hope acted by himself and managed, by some sleight of psyche, to play both Abbott and Costello, going in a split-twinkling from the slicker with his eye on the main chance to the half-wit with the gargantuan weaknesses, and making it all work with understatement and a seamless line of chatter.

I didn't send along Bob Hope: Court Jester by Marty Jezer (August 1, 2003 in CommonDreams.org)

It contains this

... But there was a kind of hollowness in Hopes performance, a desperation (self-acknowledged) to get that laugh; humor treated as if it was a commodity. What precisely was his talent? Who was the man? As a monologist, Hope told other people's jokes. As a movie actor, he played just one role, that of a wisecracking coward who leered at but never got the girl. He was not a physical comedian like, say, Chaplin, Red Skelton, or Michael Richard ("Kramer" on Seinfeld). He was not a great comic actor, like Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Rowan Atkinson, who can inhabit a character and make him or her funny. He was not conceptual like the great Ernie Kovacs or Andy Kaufman, who created comedy out of surreal situations. Nor was he madcap, zany, and over-the-top like Robin Williams who in his public persona seems instinctively funny.

Inoffensive and superficial, Hope's comedy did not explore, challenge or protest anything serious. It spoke to a phony reality, an era of niceness that didn't exist. As a comic, he was a company man, ingratiating himself with whoever held power, the jester in the court of the king. If all that comedy is meant to do is make us laugh, Hope and his writers produced an excellent product. But we know, because of the creative brilliance of so many other American comedians, that laughter has the power to rattle our bones, open our senses, stir out minds, move us personally, and shake the world.

Well, that's putting a big burden on comedy.  We will see how the conversation continues.