Yet for all the irreverence in the Hope–Crosby volleys, they lack an anarchic comic edge. When Hope approached Neil Simon in the early 1970s about securing the film rights to The Sunshine Boys for him and Crosby, the playwright’s rejection was telling. Simon wrote to Hope that his title characters, feuding ex-vaudeville partners, were based on the old team of Smith and Dale. “Not only are their appearance, mannerisms and gestures ethnically Jewish,” Simon explained, “but more important, their attitudes are as well.”
In reality, non-Jews have often starred in The Sunshine Boys on stage, starting with Jack Albertson in the original Broadway production. The “attitudes” Simon found missing in Hope and Crosby had more to do with comic sensibility than ethnicity. There’s a certain vanilla smoothness to their shtick, even when their characters are in jeopardy; the tone is the antithesis of the high anxiety of a Sunshine Boy or Marx brother. When the Los Angeles Times proclaimed Hope “the world’s only happy comedian” in 1941, it was meant as a compliment, but many of Hope’s brethren would have found the very notion of a happy comedian a contradiction in terms. (…)
A monologue from Hope’s early 1960s television heyday yields few laughs compared to other stand-up routines of the same vintage that are cheek-by-jowl on YouTube. But there is something about the whole Hope package that is arresting even so: a tightly disciplined musical gift for rhythmic verbal stylization, a cocky physical posture, an almost demonic will to entertain that is, as Zoglin writes, “an affirmation of the American spirit: feisty, independent, indomitable.” A Hope performance is as precise and ritualistic as Kabuki, really, and mesmerizing right up to the point that you find yourself tuning out the words.
I notice that Rich, being a Democrat, neglects to mention probably the one bit that keeps Hope alive — as it were — on the right side of the web:
However, Rich is very good at the paradox of Hope’s appeal when he was alive: It wasn’t what he said so much as how he said it.
(In this sense, Hope arguably overpaid for the jokes provided by his staffers, whatever the cost actually was…)
When Hope toured England, one local observer sat dumbfounded as a British audience laughed loudly at a Hope punchline that ended with the word “motel.”
There are no motels in England.
However, the observer concluded, this was Bob Hope; his cadences were so familiar that even a foreign audience “knew” when it was time to laugh. They were responding to tone, not content.