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It's Been a Century of Hope and Laughter

May 26, 2003|Larry Gelbart | Larry Gelbart is a writer, director and producer.

May 29, 1903. Just born, Bob Hope enters from stage right -- England, that is. The minute Orville and Wilbur learn of his birth, they immediately go to work, inventing the airplane. That same year, Harley-Davidson turns out its first motorcycle; Henry Ford founds his car company.

Don't tell me history doesn't know what it's doing. The quickest, most kinetic comic who ever lived, Bob Hope was forever on the wing, either on the road to somewhere or coming back from 10 other places.

In the years I spent as one of the wits he paid to have about him, I traveled with the man on trains and boats, on luxuriously outfitted private aircraft or on bucket-seated Air Force transports.

I saw him put down at Kimpo Air Field in Seoul, South Korea, strapped in directly behind the pilot of a jet fighter. No matter the mode, no matter the mood, Hope was always ready to perform, always fresh, no matter how little sleep his writers were getting by on.

Comic heavyweight champ that he was, Bob Hope never smoked. If he had to so for a movie scene, he never inhaled. That might have proved injurious to the unique respiratory system that allowed him to exhale jokes. Not a total teetotaler, he could nurse a drink with the skill of an Olympic B-Girl.

His business smarts elevated him from the merely wealthy right up into nosebleed country. His longtime agent, Jimmy Saphier, once said Hope could have run General Motors. Clever enough never to crow about his wealth, Hope chose instead to do jokes about how rough paying income tax was, sounding like the average Joe, the billionaire next door.

Even though his bank account had accumulated many zeros, Hope worked as hard before his last audiences as ever he did in his Jurassic days in vaudeville; determined to give the people what they had come for: a laugh. And then another. And another, and another. And like this, a century goes by.

After four years of apprenticeship turning out scripts for other comedy shows ("Duffy's Tavern") and other radio comedians (Danny Thomas, Jack Carson, Joan Davis, Jack Paar), I went to work, at the age of 20, writing for Hope -- a four-season gig that seemed more as though I was attending a comedy college; one I got into on a joke scholarship.

A Hope writer, admittedly well paid, was correspondingly well worked. His staff of six cobbled together his weekly radio program (39 a year), his television "specials" (one every couple months or so), material for his personal appearances (numerous enough to splinter an abacus) and "punched up" two or three of his movie scripts every year, inserting enough jokes to sink the Bismarck (and occasionally the movie).

But, by God, you learned to turn the stuff out -- thousands of one- liners, some witty, some only half so; a monologue here, some dialogue there; guest spots, sketches, blackouts, rewrites -- working in tony suites at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome or in tinny Quonset huts in Nome. All the while, sharing the company of probably the most delightful man I've ever known.

Equally entertaining off-mike or off-camera, frequently even more so, Hope enjoyed making his writers laugh. Their approval meant a good deal to him.

The only awkward moment I have ever had in his presence was the time I brashly made a gratuitous joke about his nose. Not one for the script, but one to his face. He quickly topped me with one about my own, but it was clear that I had hurt his feelings -- his personal feelings, not the ones he had so painstakingly crafted for the public's amusement. For all his fame and wealth and success and popularity, I had forgotten there was a man under that nose. A man, it turns out, for the ages. And then some.

Perhaps longevity is the reward for the likes of Hope and his co-centenarian, the man we thought we'd never have to refer to as the late George Burns. Milton Berle, who didn't quite make it to the end of his 100-year dash, left us in the home stretch at 93. Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Phyllis Diller, youngsters in their 80s, they all seem to have been booked into our lives for the purpose of lightening our load by some higher power -- or is it just the William Morris Agency?

If blessed are the peacemakers, an occasional comic canonization for one of the laugh makers surely would not be inappropriate.

Like the best of his breed, Bob Hope knows that life without laughter is life without parole. Doomed as we are, we are doubly doomed without its restorative powers -- and so it has been, ever since the first boob realized that the prize for getting through the bare blink of problematic time that we're allotted on this Earth is to eventually be tucked in under six feet of it.

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