I’ve always been a sucker for comedy. In my system of values, a bad joke is better than no joke. In my hierarchy of heroes, there is no one braver (at least in the field of non-life-threatening occupations) than a stand-up comedian risking existential death every time he or she tells a joke.
In life, Bob Hope made me laugh. To indulge the sentimentality that was so much a part of his act -- thanks for the memory, Bob. His recent death, at age 100, leads me to reflect on the nature of comedy and the characteristics of comedians. Yeah, I know, comedy is made for laughter, not for critical commentary. Right! So, if you decide to stuff this column and play a Marx Brother video or tune-in to John Stewart’s nightly Daily Show instead, go for it.
Bob Hope was an important comedian in the history of show business rather than a brilliant performer in the history of comedy. Moving from vaudeville to radio to movies and television, he helped create the persona of the stand-up comedian, skewering the headlines with zingy one-liners. But the jokes were rarely, if ever, his own.
Many comedians, even the great ones, have writers. Most comics have to work their shticks and hone their craft. Bob Hope was totally dependent on a full-time staff of writers and he worked them hard, even demanding that they provide him with one-liners for private social engagements like dinner parties. What sounded to his audience at these occasions as spontaneous banter was, in fact, prepackaged lines. Hope’s craft was as an editor, knowing which jokes would work at what time. He also had a relentless delivery. If one joke bombed, he’d hit the audience with a dozen more, some of which were bound to get a laugh.
But there was a kind of hollowness in Hope’s performance, a desperation (self-acknowledged) to get that laugh; humor treated as if it was a commodity. What precisely was his talent? Who was the man? As a monologist, Hope told other people’s jokes. As a movie actor, he played just one role, that of a wisecracking coward who leered at but never got the girl. He was not a physical comedian like, say, Chaplin, Red Skelton, or Michael Richard (“Kramer” on Seinfeld). He was not a great comic actor, like Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Rowan Atkinson, who can inhabit a character and make him or her funny. He was not conceptual like the great Ernie Kovacs or Andy Kaufman, who created comedy out of surreal situations. Nor was he madcap, zany, and over-the-top like Robin Williams who in his public persona seems instinctively funny.
Hope was famous for making fun of politicians. In the 1950s this was considered proof that our democracy worked. No small accomplishment considering what was going on elsewhere in the world: we could laugh at our leaders! But Hope’s political commentary, like his social observations, never cut deep, never dealt with real issues, were meant to tickle the funny-bone, not excite the brain. Politicians liked being “insulted” by Hope. It gave them the aura of Everyman, and they trusted that Hope’s barbs would not be pointed.
Hope is celebrated for entertaining the troops. His vaudeville shows were no doubt great gifts to scared kids risking their lives in faraway places. By the time of Vietnam, however, his style of humor was passé. Did the troops love him for his shtick? Or for the sexy actresses who always shared his stage?
The 1960s transformed comedy, as it did everything else. Bob Hope was the “house” comedian of fifties’ America. He did not cut deep and shock his audience into recognizing the hypocrisies of the time. Safe and non-controversial, his humor assumed that there was nothing amiss in the country.
In the late 1950s, a new generation of comedians came to the fore: Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, and Shelly Berman to name a few. Their subject was social and political reality, what was happening behind the headlines, and in the bedrooms, boardrooms and backseats of our lives. Bob Hope got laughs from sexual double entendres. The new comedians spoke about real relationships, which, because they were “real,” included sexual situations. In making everyday experience the subject of humor, these comics gave Americans permission, and a language, to talk about what was bothering them. Time Magazine, mounting a defense of Bob Hope’s humor and Bob Hope’s world, dubbed them “sick comedians.” Their “sicknik” humor, Time said, “represented a personal and highly disturbing hostility toward all the world.”
The world was changing and comedians were on the cusp of that change. In totalitarian states, people who question authority are often dismissed, hence marginalized, as having mental problems. But who or what was sick: comedians or society? As Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanist psychology, was soon to ask, what is a healthy reaction to racism, poverty, totalitarianism, and “the husband who wants his wife to remain a child?” Maslow’s answer, written in Toward A Psychology of Being, was, “It seems quite clear that personality problems may sometimes be loud protests against one’s psychological bones, of one’s true inner nature. What is sick then is not to protest when this crime is being committed.”
Inoffensive and superficial, Hope’s comedy did not explore, challenge or protest anything serious. It spoke to a phony reality, an era of niceness that didn’t exist. As a comic, he was a company man, ingratiating himself with whoever held power, the jester in the court of the king. If all that comedy is meant to do is make us laugh, Hope and his writers produced an excellent product. But we know, because of the creative brilliance of so many other American comedians, that laughter has the power to rattle our bones, open our senses, stir out minds, move us personally, and shake the world.
Marty Jezer has more to say about the “sick comedians” in The Dark Ages: Life in the U.S. 1945-1960. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at email@example.com.