Bob Hope died Sunday night at the age of 100, at his home in Toluca Lake, California. The announced cause of death was pneumonia. He was surrounded by members of his family, including Dolores, his wife of 68 years. At a press conference Monday, his daughter Linda said, “Dad had an amazing sendoff. All of the family was together with him, and he died very peacefully.”
His was, of course, a long and productive life. Bob Hope was most certainly the most successful and influential comedian of the past century, which means, of course, that he was the most renowned comic ever. He was one of the most famous Americans of his time, and people worldwide admired him not only for his impressive achievements in his chosen art form but also for his charitable endeavors.
Every comedian of any stature today exhibits Hope’s influence — the confident, cheerful puncturing of politicians’ and other celebrities’ pretensions was a Hope trademark that spread throughout the culture. The knowing pause and sly half-smile after a joke, giving it time to sink in and evoke a good laugh, was a comic technique that Hope made a standard in the comedian’s bag of tricks.
For radio, he invented a new kind of comedy program — combining topical jokes, comic monologues, skits, and musical acts — which remains the staple of TV talk and variety shows today. Hope’s wisecracking, smart-alecky commentary on daily events has long been the standard model for television comics.
In radio, television, and the movies, his willingness to break down the “fourth wall” between the performers and the audience gave comics a reliable way to achieve an unexpected bit of humor while establishing a stronger rapport with the audience. Finally, his meticulous craftsmanship in honing jokes until they worked just right — or as close as could be — brought the comic monologue to a new level of artistry that bore comparison with the works of print humorists such as Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman.
To achieve this, Hope employed a strong stable of writers and always acknowledged their assistance, something previous comics had not done. This creation of what might be called corporate comedy is now the norm on television and even in print, as in the comic fake newspaper The Onion.
Hope’s jokes, however, would not have worked nearly as well had he not been so skilled at conveying them. His poise onstage was exemplary and uncanny. If a joke went well, he acted as if that were only to be expected, perhaps raising his eyebrows a bit and flashing that knowing half-smile that always seemed about to break out on his rather handsome but decidedly eccentric face, accented as it was by his “ski nose.” If a joke flopped, he gave the same half-smile and eyebrow twitch and moved on. To stand onstage with no props, no sidekick, no kooky persona, and no music, just a finely honed collection of topical jokes, is an immensely difficult thing, and Hope cruised through the ordeal with quite astounding aplomb. That, in itself, was a fine lesson in self-control for us all.
His willingness to laugh at himself, as evidenced in the many jokes about his nose, golf scores, and, in later years, the ravages of age, further endeared him to audiences.
Hope’s confidence onstage was in great contrast to the vast majority of his movie roles, in which he typically played a coward, hustler, con man, or other such phony. He performed these roles brilliantly in dozens of comic films, many of them classics of the form, and his influence on comic acting has yet to be fully appreciated. Hope’s Road movies with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour are especially well-remembered and admired, and rightly so.
Talk-show host Conan O’Brien effectively summarized Hope’s cinematic achievement and influence in the NBC-TV special 100 Years of Hope and Humor: “This cowardly, back-tracking, fast-talking, slick character, to me, is probably the most imitated character and persona that’s in comedy.”
He was nothing like that in real life, of course. Hope gave generously of both time and money — more than $1 billion, according to his agent — to charity, especially in his personal appearances before America’s armed forces. According to an Associated Press estimate, he performed before more than ten million members of the military. Hope told jokes on World War II battlefields, in Vietnam, in Saudi Arabia on the eve of the Persian Gulf War, and on numerous other American armed-forces bases around the world during both wartime and periods of peace. He always brought his characteristic brand of knowing, optimistic humor, even to the direst venues, as well as a good mix of slapstick comedians, beautiful ladies, and music.
Importantly, he never pretended that the soldiers weren’t in danger, and this forthrightness, so typical of the man in his public life, helped put them at their ease. In addition, we should not underestimate the importance of the fact that a rich, famous man such as he would put himself in harm’s way for these soldiers’ benefit. Many acknowledge having drawn courage from his insouciant manner in the face of real danger. That this was in such great contrast to his film roles is an interesting irony and suggests some of the complexity of the man and his achievements.
Bob Hope was never a hipster, never a trend-follower, and there were times when critics and even audiences, the latter usually so faithful to him, no longer enjoyed his work. In his long years of prime performance, however, he was a trendsetter, superstar, and indeed a national hero. He was awarded an honorary knighthood in his home country of Great Britain, and received countless awards in the U.S., including one that he especially prized: his designation by Congress, in 1997, as an honorary veteran of the U.S. military.
“I’ve been given many awards in my lifetime,” he said at the time, “but to be numbered among the men and women I admire the most is the greatest honor I have ever received.”
Until his very last years, he was a bundle of energy, moving rapidly from stage to TV studio to golf course to charity events and then home to his family. Despite this hectic pace, which often took him away from them for extended periods, his four adopted children enjoyed life with their celebrity father. His daughter Linda recently said that Hope’s spontaneity lit up his four children’s lives. “He was, I think, more like one of the kids than like a parent,” she told CNN news host Aaron Brown. Hope’s granddaughter, Miranda Hope, expanded on that notion Monday morning: “Making people happy, bringing joy to whatever room he came into — I think that was his goal in life, and he shared that with his family as much as he shared that with the world.”
There is no denying that Bob Hope was an imperfect human being with the failings to which the flesh is heir, but that desire to spread joy is one he fulfilled with impressive plenitude. “All I can say is he sure made a lot of people happy,” the comedian’s 85-year-old nephew, Milton Hope, said today from his home in Aurora, Ohio, according to the Associated Press.
Now Bob Hope brings his wit and charm to the angels in Heaven. His multitude of fans will miss him greatly, but the personal and cultural legacy he has left behind will do quite nicely until we see him again. In the meantime, all we can do in return is to say, once again, “Thanks for the memories.”
— S. T. Karnick, editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor.