A Tribute To Bob Hope: The Writers

A Look At Those Who Created Hope's Punch Lines

It’s the Bob Hope story, a parade of punch lines.

Judy Garland: Bob, why are men so crazy about sweaters?
Bob Hope: I don't know, Judy. That's one mystery I'd like to unravel.

For eight decades, Bob Hope was America’s non-stop, one-man joke machine – supported by a factory of writers who kept him with new material as he kept the country in stitches. Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports.

Hope got his first nationwide audience on radio. He had been a huge success in Vaudeville and on Broadway, doing the same shows with the same jokes night after night.

But radio demanded a new show every week, with all new jokes for the listeners at home, and Hope needed writers to write them. Mel Shavelson was one of the first.

"There were eight writers who came out to write his radio show," says Shavelson. "None of us had ever done anything like it before, and neither had Bob.”

In fact, Hope was the first radio comedian who even admitted he had writers.

Mort Lachman was the 13th writer Hope hired. Each writer had to come up with an entire monologue every single week.

“It was open warfare between us," says Lachman.

The monologue was Hope's bread, butter, and trademark. The writers churned them out, and Hope weeded them out.

“Fifty, 60, 70, 80 jokes you might write for that week's monologues," says Lachman. "He would check the ones he liked."

“The audience had to realize that these were brand new,” adds Shavelson. “These weren't coming out of anybody's files. This was not Milton Berle doing old jokes."

The Hope joke machine was a voracious monster. Wherever Hope went, so did his radio writers. They worked on all his films without credit, including the popular road movies with Bing Crosby.

“They did the road pictures almost like a radio show or a television show," says Lachman. "Crosby had his writers working, Bob had his writers working.”

“We each added maybe two jokes a page," says Larry Gelbart, who was only a teenager when he started writing for Hope in the late '40s. "He had a great number of jokes to pick from to spice up his part."

Hope took his humor to television in the '50s - specials that showcased his comedy with the likes of Jack Benny and Lucille Ball.

His talent for ad-libbing was featured, too - especially during tapings.

He wound up doing more than 500 shows.

Bob Hope: A lot of the other shows were held up because of the writers' strike. Personally, I have never had to depend on writers … No, no wait! Those white cards you see flipping in front of me are part of the air-conditioning!

And Hope's writers kept those white cards filled with fresh one-liners inspired by the morning headlines.

"I remember when Gen. Eisenhower announced that he was gonna run for president,” says Gelbart. “And I wrote a joke for Bob."

Bob Hope: Nobody knows this but I have really the information for ya on why he's running for president. It's the only way he can get out of the army.

He got laughs out of foreign policy in the '60s.

Bob Hope: I guess you've heard that the sale of American wheat to Russia is final. The papers were just signed by President Kennedy and Betty Crocker.

And in the '70s, he made inflation funny.

Bob Hope: I saw a sign in our market: "Special, 39 cents a dozen." I said, “Eggs 39 cents a dozen?” He said, no - raisins!

And along the way, from radio to movies, and movies to TV, the Bob Hope character held court. First, there was the walk.

"It was half a walk and half a golf swing. It was a saunter, it wasn't a true walk,” says Lachman. “And it was to show indifference, I think. Show casual, to show lack of fear."

And then there was the attitude.

"We took his basic characteristics and exaggerated them,” adds Shavelson. “In other words, he was chasing dames at the time.”

So, Hope became the ladies man, overly thrifty, a big braggart, and the world’s greatest coward in his movies.

“There really wasn't that much difference, I don't think, between the on-stage and the off-stage Bob,” says Shavelson.

In his prime, Bob Hope was number one in television and radio. He made 54 movies, and hosted the Oscars an incredible 18 times - perhaps the only time he ever got nervous.

“He was in absolute, in a frenzy of nervousness, hysteria, fear, all of that,” recalls Lachman. “And I would walk him toward the edge of the stage. And then the music would start up, 'Thanks For The Memories,' and all of a sudden, another man, confident and in charge of the whole world would walk out on the stage.”

Bob Hope: "Ladies and gentlemen, here we are again. Welcome to the Academy Awards, ladies and gentlemen. Or, as we call it in our house, Passover."

The Bob Hope story has at least a million punch lines. That's how many jokes were written for him over the years - so precious that he kept them all in a vault in his home. And he kept telling them as long as he could, as long as there was an audience.

"He was brash. He was, he seemed like this country,” says Gelbart. “The pace, the enthusiasm, the optimism, the aggressiveness, but passive-aggressive, vulnerable, but - by putting on always a brave front. If there is a Mount Rushmore of comedy, he'd be up there."