Fans used to complain that DC Comics had misleading covers but this one sure was accurate: "America's Favorite Funnyman." Bob Hope was
that, and he held the title far longer than anyone else ever has or will. I haven't really cruised the Internet much since I awoke to the news that
he's passed away but I'd wager every current events/news website is making that point, probably under a banner that says "Thanks for the Memories."
The obits were prepared long ago, and about all I can add to them is to recall a few times I had the honor — and he sure made you feel like it
was one — of being in the presence of Mr. Robert Hope. He also made you feel like he excelled at being Bob Hope; that he knew precisely who and
what he was, and that it was who and what he wanted to be: A very big, very busy star but eminently approachable in spite of the fact that you
couldn't get near him. I felt this instantly the first time I met him...in, believe it or not, the bargain basement area of a May Company department
It was the one at the corner of Pico and Overland in West Los Angeles, a few blocks from where I then lived. It was January of '75 and
Hope had just published The Last Christmas Show, a book about his overseas tours to entertain the troops. He was appearing at the store to
sign copies and I was thinking of going, not so much to see him in person as to get an autographed book. But I figured the line would extend to
around Bakersfield and I didn't want one that badly. As it happened, it was pouring rain that morning and it suddenly let up around a half-hour
before the time of Mr. Hope's signing. "Aha," I thought wrongly, "There'll be a very low turnout."
So I threw on my raincoat and walked up to the May
Company, all the time pondering what Bob "Mr. Topical Monologue" Hope might say
or do. At the time, Olympic swim champ Mark Spitz seemed to be the
punchline to every joke so I imagined Hope saying something like, "I wouldn't
say it's wet out there but on the escalator up, I passed a halibut, three salmon
and Mark Spitz."
When I got there, I went up to the third level, where the line snaked all around the floor — hundreds and hundreds of people waiting for him. I decided
not to wait in it. The signs said he was appearing for an hour and there was no way even "Rapid Robert," as some called him, could sign books for all
those folks in that time. (Some people had already purchased and were holding three or four copies.) He was due in twenty minutes so I decided to wander the store and return when he arrived to catch a glimpse of the man and — and
this interested me more — see how he'd handle that huge crowd.
I went down to the store's basement where they sold cheap art supplies.
I'd been there about two minutes when some doors behind me flew open and an entourage of men stormed in from the parking garage. In the center
of the group, flawlessly attired in a pale blue-grey suit, was Bob Hope. And by dumb luck, I was standing between him and the elevator to which they
were leading him.
As if I mattered in the least, he walked up to me and shook my hand.
Then he took note of my damp raincoat and said, "Hey, looks like it's wet
outside." How had he not noticed that on his drive there? In reply
to him, I threw my line: "I wouldn't say it's wet out there but on the escalator
up, I passed a halibut, three salmon and Mark Spitz." He laughed...and I
guess I thought, "Hey, I just made Bob Hope laugh."
Before I could grasp the significance (if any) of that, Hope's men
swept him into the elevator and he was gone. I wasn't entirely sure he'd ever
been there. So I sprinted for the escalator and managed to make it up to the book-signing area just as he was arriving. The line of buyers broke
into applause as he strode effortlessly to the front table and picked up a little microphone. "Hey, I wanna
thank you all for coming," he said, and everyone laughed because he sounded just
like Bob Hope. "Boy, it's wet around here," he continued. "On the escalator up,
I passed a halibut, three salmon and Mark Spitz." Everyone laughed again. Even I laughed
a half-second before I realized: Hey, that's my line.
(It is perhaps worth noting that we all laughed in spite of the fact that we all knew he hadn't taken the escalator. It worked in the
joke, and that was what mattered. There's an oft-quoted story about Hope appearing once in England and telling a joke where the punchline was
something like, "They went to a motel." The audience howled even though at the time the word "motel" was largely unknown in England. An American
journalist who was present asked one of the people who'd laughed if they knew what a motel was. The person said they didn't. The journalist asked
them why they'd laughed then. The reply was, "Because we know he's funny and it seemed like the end of the joke.")
At the May Company, Hope sat down and began signing books and I suddenly decided that no matter how long I had to wait, I was going to
get one. It took about ninety minutes — longer than the announced time of his appearance but still a lot less than I'd have guessed, given how
many people were ahead of me.
They had it down to a science: One of Hope's helpers gave you a slip of paper on which you were to write what you wanted Bob to write.
The helper would then look at it and edit it down or make you rewrite it to keep it brief or to remove things that Bob didn't want to write. They'd
then pass your book to Bob with it open to the signing page and your slip placed just above where he signed, and he'd sign. The assistants were in
control and they kept it moving so swiftly, you were almost afraid to try and say something to Hope. It disappointed a lot of people who'd come,
hoping to exchange a few words or perhaps get a photo ("No pictures," the aides scolded) but you had to marvel at the efficiency: A ton of books were
sold and signed, and Bob didn't look like the bad guy for not engaging you in a leisurely chat.
When it was my turn, I tried to remind him of our basement
encounter, hoping he'd thank me for the joke or something. He grinned and
said thanks but I'm not sure he had any idea what either of us was talking
about. He just had to keep the line moving. I went home, pleased to have an inscribed first
edition, proud that I'd gotten even those few seconds of individual attention in the basement...and
proud that I'd "written" something that fit Bob Hope so well, Bob Hope had used
it. I tried telling some of my friends about it but I wasn't a
professional comedy writer back then and they obviously didn't believe me.
Back then, I was occasionally spending afternoons at NBC studios in Burbank where I had an almost-legal way to get in. Once you were
in, if you acted like you belonged there and knew where you were going, no one ever stopped you from visiting tapings and rehearsals. In earlier
years, I'd spent most of my time watching Laugh-In tape but that show was over by '75, so I'd go watch The Dean Martin Show rehearse
(without Dean Martin) or watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (which sometimes even starred Johnny Carson). If Hope was there when I
was, I'd watch from afar as he taped a sketch for one of his specials. My most vivid memories of those moments are of him yelling at his eternal cue
card man, Barney McNulty, when the cards weren't in the right order or properly legible. Shortly after that day at the May Company, I was present
when he was on with Johnny. I think it was a Friday show and he was plugging his latest special, which was to air Monday.
Poaching on the set, I managed to see how it was done: About thirty seconds before Johnny introduced him, Hope strode into Stage 1 with
the inevitable entourage, perhaps even the same one. He was still reviewing a piece of paper with a couple of jokes on it as the band struck up his
theme song. Then he handed the page to an aide, walked out to tumultuous applause, and sat down next to Carson, who expertly fed him the questions
that elicited the just-studied jokes. The segment went about as well as such segments ever do, and my overall admiration was not so much at the wit
but at the sheer expertise in the delivery. Bob and Johnny were both utterly in control and things went precisely the way both wanted them to.
At the first commercial break, Hope stepped out and told Johnny's studio audience that they were so good, he had decided to ask them to
stick around after The Tonight Show was finished so that he could use them to tape the monologue for his special. The crowd almost gasped with
delight. Hope explained that the rest of the special had been recorded a week or two back but he always did the monologue at the last minute so it
could be more topical. He also explained that the stage we were in — Stage 1 — was his design. The steep rake was because when he was
performing, he liked to be able to look up and see as many laughing faces as possible.
Sure enough, not one person budged from their seats as the Carson show concluded. A different curtain was flown in for Bob to perform
in front of, and he took a few minutes to run through his cue cards with Barney McNulty. When all was in readiness, Hope stepped into position and
did the monologue three times. The first time through, everyone laughed a lot. The second time through, they laughed a little less. And the third
time through, they laughed more than the second time, because Hope began screwing with the wording and muttering things like, "We'll cut that one."
Johnny Carson was just off-camera throughout and at one point in the middle of the third take, Bob stepped over to him and whispered something that I
suspect was very dirty, and Carson got hysterical. Then Hope thanked everyone for sticking around — like they'd all done him a favor —
and he and the entourage disappeared. Again, my overwhelming impression was of efficiency more than inspiration. The following Monday night, what
aired was most of the first take with maybe five jokes cut, and perhaps one or two inserted from Take Two.
I met him one other time and actually got to talk to him. I was visiting the set of The Barbara Mandrell Show when he did a
guest appearance and one of the producers, Sid Krofft, introduced us. There was a lull in the taping and Sid, afraid I guess that Hope would get
bored or restless, shoved me into the breach to distract him. Actually, it wasn't necessary because there was a girl dancer limbering up near us and
Mr. Hope was a lot more interested in her legs and rear end than in anything I was likely to say. Nevertheless, I told him I'd just been reading a
book about Walter Winchell and asked him if he was ever going to make the long-rumored movie in which he would play the gossip columnist. He actually
looked away from the dancer's butt long enough to say, "Oh, definitely," though he never did. But at the time, he was sure he'd do the film and when
the dancer moved away, he started telling me what a fascinating son-of-a-bitch Winchell had been — though he chuckled when he told the
following story, which I'd already heard.
One of his first screen appearances was in a dreadful short comedy called Going Spanish. Shortly after viewing it, Hope ran into
Winchell who asked him how it was. "When they catch Dillinger, they're going to make him sit through it twice," the legend-to-be replied. Winchell
printed the remark in his column and the movie studio dropped Hope's contract, proclaiming they had enough trouble selling his films without him
knocking them in the press. I said to Hope, "Well, that sure hurt your career" and he grinned. He could grin because, I suspect, that was the last
mistake he ever made.