As someone who was honored to have been among Bob Hope’s last group of writers, working on his TV monologues and personal appearances from 1983 until he stopped performing a decade later, I wouldn’t be surprised if we receive a phone call from him in a day or two. He’ll have settled into his new surroundings by then, and he’ll want us to write a few jokes about the place.
He might start out his monologue, “It took a lot of courage for me to arrive here with my golf clubs. Imagine me showing St. Peter I’m a golfer, and then trying to convince him I never told a lie.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s planning to team up with Bing Crosby for The Road to Heaven.
While there’s little I can add to the eloquent tributes to Hope’s life and career that have been pouring forth since news of his death, I can observe that if his career had been legislation it would be known as “The Comedy Writers’ Full Employment Act.” He had a special bond with his writers and hired dozens through the years, not because he couldn’t be funny on his own, but because he had so much respect for his audiences he wanted as many jokes as possible to choose from.
And he wanted jokes that were relevant. By the time Hope arrived in a city for a show, his writers would have waded through voluminous research about that location and he would hit the stage armed with topical local humor the audience could relate to. It was this conscientious attention to detail, this desire to give his audience the full measure of his consideration, that separated him from many other comedians.
Hope’s legendary devotion to his writers became apparent early on. Sherwood Schwartz, a Hope radio-show writer in the 1930s who later created Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, tells about a sponsor’s representative visiting the studio to warn Hope, with his writers present, against doing so many one-liners. He admonished the comedian to develop a character like Jack Benny, adding that if he continued to rely on jokes his ratings would drop.
According to Schwartz, Hope, a former boxer, grabbed the man by his lapels, pinned him against a wall and said, “I do what I do. That’s me. And these guys in this room give me the material that makes me good. Now get out.” Most employees can only wish for such support from their boss.
Hope connected with each writer in a particular way, and with me it was politics. He knew I was contributing speech and humor material to the Reagan White House and later to George Bush, and would occasionally call to ask how things were going, or to share Washington gossip and political insight. I learned he was a much shrewder political observer than he ever let on in public. In 1988, with Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis leading then Vice President Bush by 17 points, Hope told me Dukakis would lose. He said that Dukakis’s dour personality would eventually be his undoing, which is exactly what happened in his second debate with Bush.
Hope’s humility shone through that same election year, when he phoned to say he wanted to pass along some thoughts to the Bush camp but a campaign staffer wouldn’t return his calls. I said, “But Mr. Hope, surely you could pick up the phone and get right through to the vice president yourself.” Hope replied, “I don’t want to bother him.”
Hope’s own wit was as sharp, if not sharper, than that of his writers. When a writer with a stuttering affliction explained he missed a meeting because he was at the hospital while his wife had twins, Hope said, “Twins, huh. Apparently you don’t just stutter when you talk.”
When Hope assigned the same joke topic for a personal appearance that he had requested the week before, a writer asked why the comedian couldn’t just use the old jokes. “Because,” he fired back, “I’m paying you with new money.”
A classic Hope story has the phone ringing at a writer’s home at 2:00 in the morning, with the call answered by the writer’s wife. When Hope asked to speak to the writer his wife said, “But Mr. Hope, he told me he was going to be with you tonight.” After a brief pause Hope came back with, “Oh wait a minute;’ here he comes now.”
The assignments his writers poured our hearts into was crafting jokes for Hope to use when entertaining the troops, something he did for the last time during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. No paycheck could top the gratification of writing something that gave a few moments of pleasure to men and women in the military who were thousands of miles away from home at Christmastime.
While my head told me this sad day was inevitable, my heart wouldn’t let me anticipate it. Now that it’s here I can only be grateful for the opportunity, along with his other writers, to help this great American make the world laugh. We will forever thank him for the memories.
Mr. Hope, we’ll have a few jokes ready for you, just in case you need them up there.
— Doug Gamble wrote for Bob Hope from 1983 to 1993. He is currently a director of the Washington-based White House Writers Group.