When I was interviewing comedians for my 2008 book Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, I asked nearly everyone I interviewed — comics like George Carlin, Robert Klein, Robin Williams, and Richard Lewis —what older comedians had influenced or inspired them. Many cited Lenny Bruce, the founding father of their rebel generation. Some gave credit to other groundbreakers like Jonathan Winters, or harked back to old favorites like Jack Benny or Groucho Marx. No one ever mentioned Bob Hope.
That struck me as an injustice, because Bob Hope essentially invented their art form. To be sure, there were stand-up comedians before Hope in vaudeville. But they mostly did packaged jokebook routines, or repartee with a partner. When Hope got his own radio show in 1938, most of the top comedians on the air were immersed in their own comic worlds—think of Jack Benny, the tightwad with his money vault and a butler named Rochester, or the comic interplay between George Burns and Gracie Allen, or Edgar Bergen and his uppity dummy Charlie McCarthy. Hope had no ready-made character or repertory company to draw on, so he told his writers to mine the daily papers for material. He did jokes about Presidential politics, Hollywood gossip, California weather, as well as his own career, travels, golf game and Hollywood friends. Hope's topical monologues were something almost entirely new, and they became the model for virtually all stand-up comics who followed, as well as a template for the monologues of every late-night TV host from Johnny Carson to Seth Myers.
Yet this and Hope's many other achievements seemed to have been largely forgotten. His reputation, for much of a generation, was irretrievably damaged by his support of the Vietnam War, and later by his long public decline, as he continued to perform well into his dotage. I felt that all this needed to be rectified with a major biography − Hope: Entertainer of the Century.
As I pursued my research, I realized that Hope was a show-business pioneer in more ways than I even realized. He was one of the savviest businessmen in Hollywood, among the first stars to set up his own production company and take ownership of his own material — providing a model for the production deals that are now de rigueur for every major Hollywood star. He was Hollywood's most innovative self-promoter and brand builder: along with achieving top-rated success in virtually every branch of pop entertainment — radio, movies, television, live concerts — Hope wrote bestselling books, penned a newspaper column, hosted a major golf tournament, and even starred in a comic book.
Perhaps most important, he became a role model for public service in Hollywood. During World War II he was one of many stars who traveled overseas to entertain U.S. troops. Unlike most of the others, he kept on doing it after the war — establishing a Christmas tradition of bringing his gags and gals to American soldiers wherever they were stationed around the globe. This, along with his tireless work for charities of all kinds, set a standard that the show-business community could not ignore. Hope showed that stars have an obligation to do more than just sign autographs and buy oceanfront estates in Malibu. They can use their celebrity to give back, to work for worthy causes, to take a role on the public stage. They may not realize it, but activist-stars like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna, owe a debt to the man who made it safe for Hollywood celebrities to be taken seriously as public citizens: Bob Hope.
Richard Zoglin is a contributing editor and theater critic for Time magazine. His book Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America is considered the definitive history of that seminal era in stand-up comedy. Zoglin is a native of Kansas City, Missouri, and currently lives in New York City. His late wife, Charla Krupp, was the author of the bestselling books How Not to Look Old and How to Never Look Fat Again.