Until I read Terry Teachout’s excellent essay, I had not thought about Bob Hope since I was a child. For a TV-obsessed kid like me (born in 1967), Hope was huge. And then suddenly, he was simply not part of the culture, at all.
Teachout is reviewing a new Hope biography, by Richard Zoglin that calls Hope the “entertainer of the century.” Why is it that Hope was phenomenally popular for much of the 20th century, but is now virtually unknown by people under the age of 60? Teachout says:
But Zoglin, for all his admirable thoroughness, inexplicably fails to emphasize the central fact about Hope and his career—one that not only goes a long way toward explaining why he was so successful, but also why we no longer find him funny.
Simply: He wasn’t Jewish.
What was missing from his style? Even though Hope was a first-generation European immigrant, there was nothing remotely ethnic about his stage manner. He was among the few successful WASP comics of his generation, and despite the fact that he hired such Jewish writers as Larry Gelbart and Mel Shavelson, the jokes they penned for him lacked the sharp ironic tang of Jewish humor that is to this day one of the essential ingredients in American comedy.
Bob Hope, Teachout says, was a “comfortable comedian: amusing but nonthreatening.” When Hope, on a USO tour of Vietnam, defended President Nixon, he was booed by some troops. That was when Bob Hope was over. Look here for the opening of his 1993 Christmas special, his last, when he was 90 years old. It’s just painful to watch, almost like Dick Clark’s post-stroke New Year’s Eve broadcasts:
Teachout’s judgment makes sense to me, but I wonder how Teachout would regard the success of contemporary comedians like Jim Gaffigan and Brian Regan. Both of them are quite funny, but also unthreatening. What about Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy? I’ve laughed at their stuff, but there’s nothing particularly threatening about it. Ron White, also one of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, works blue, which counts as “threatening.”
Or does the fact that it’s hard to think of many other first-rate contemporary comedians who are white and non-Jewish vindicate Teachout’s theory? Are those guys the exceptions that prove the rule?
On the other hand, they are all comedians whose sensibilities were formed long after Bob Hope’s time. They may not be threatening in the sense that Teachout means, but they are all quite watchable, whereas Hope is, um, hopelessly dated.
Has the ironic sensibility that was the defining characteristic of Jewish comedians in the Hope era become assimilated by all comedians now? I don’t know; I don’t follow current trends in American comedy. I do remember watching “Seinfeld” in Amsterdam once, and thinking, “How on earth do these Dutch people get this?” That is a deeply Jewish show, and a deeply American one — and there is no difference.
(By the way, I am reliably informed that Terry T. wrote the excellent headline for his piece: “WASP With No Sting”.)