The man who industrialized comedy
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 August 2003)

Few performers have changed their world as decisively as Bob Hope did, and few have demonstrated such shrewd persistence in managing their lives. When he died this past week, his descendants included an army of sweaty, desperate comedians working little clubs across the continent, trying to make it in stand-up. Hope's astonishing career was the foundation on which their improbable art form was built.

He didn't invent the comic monologue, but he refined it and placed it firmly at the centre of comedy. When he began as a vaudeville performer in the 1920s, spoken humour was a raw, chaotic frontier. He rationalized it and gave it form, and did more than anyone else to make stand-up the universal style. In radio, Hope created the opening monologue that sets the tone of a show and imprints the star's personal authority on all that follows. Over 40-some years, this format has sustained Leno, Letterman, and many others.

Bob Hope was to jokes what Henry Ford was to cars. (By a felicitous coincidence, the Ford Motor Company was incorporated in 1903, the year Hope was born.) Like any good industrialist, he knew how to rejuvenate his brand, moving it from vaudeville to radio to movies to TV, producing spin-off products for lesser industries (he wrote, or caused to have written for him, a dozen books). Under Hope's influence, comedy became industrialized. He adapted the assembly line to joke-production, and, like General Motors, set up divisions among his writers, creating in-house competition by assigning several teams to work on the same project. One of his best-known writers, Larry Gelbart, remembered the process as highly mechanical: "We fuelled the machine."

Hope knew that broadcasting would be harder than vaudeville. In vaudeville houses you could tell the same jokes over and over again, but one broadcast on network radio wore out dozens of jokes and created the need for fresh ones the next week. Hope was the first comic who admitted that others wrote his material. He started his radio show with a staff of eight writers and eventually about 100 of them passed through his stable. When he made the famous Road movies with Bing Crosby, he took his own gag writers over to Paramount to make sure he had good lines.

He understood from the beginning that he needed an exceptional product, a unique selling proposition. He wanted a comic persona, not elaborate or deep but predictable enough to be comfortable. He invented himself as an intriguing contradiction, a wiseacre burdened by insecurity. After creating that character, around 1930, he stuck with it to the end. He worked into his performance a series of little verbal dances around his jokes. He would deliver them with a tentative air, as if he feared they weren't all that good (often they weren't) and expected them to fail. If a joke died, he could laugh at himself, suggesting he knew all along that it was a loser. But if people laughed, he could be happily surprised. Tonight, in a dozen cities, comics will be working that same trick.

On his best days, he was a gifted actor with a feathery touch, much better in movies than those who know only his TV shows might imagine -- he's brilliant as the corrupt Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York in Beau James, and in The Facts of Life he and Lucille Ball give delicious performances. But he was at least as good a businessman as an actor.

Unlike most stars, Bob Hope accumulated more wealth than the studio bosses and network executives who hired him. By force of will and ingenious organization, he turned a million tiny jokes into a business empire. In late middle age, he was, as they used to say in Hollywood, rich enough to enter NATO. When he died, his holdings were estimated conservatively at half a billion U.S. dollars, and though luck was involved (the California real-estate boom helped) his wealth was largely the result of an approach to money that was both careful and imaginative.

He embraced, with uncommonly eager enthusiasm, the commercial principle behind the electronic media: entertainment exists to gather audiences for advertisers. In the 1940s, he not only shared the name of his radio program with his sponsor ("The Bob Hope Pepsodent Show"), he also made himself and the product inseparable by appearing in Pepsodent ads. His first autobiography, They Got Me Covered, was written as a Pepsodent premium, sold to the public along with toothpaste, 10 cents a copy.

Like Charlie Chaplin, Hope became a dogged collector of his own copyrights. He created a joke file, some 85,000 pages long, now all digitally scanned and indexed in the Library of Congress. He owned, among other things, the rights to many of his movies and to all of the 256 television shows he made for NBC from 1950 to 1996. He was a unique figure, the comedian as capitalist, an entrepreneur dedicated to exploiting his assets and magnifying their value. He'll be well remembered as a shaper of mass culture, but you could also teach Bob Hope Studies in a business school.

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