Interview: Richard Zoglin, Author Of 'Hope' Hope was a comedy trailblazer, but in his twilight years he alienated young audiences with his political views. "He had, unfortunately, stuck around too long," says Hope biographer Richard Zoglin.

The Rise And Fall Of Comedian Bob Hope

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's only recently that I began to appreciate Bob Hope. When I was coming of age, his comedy seemed dated and, worse yet, often offensive in its sexism and homophobia. As my guest Richards Zoglin puts it, by the time Hope died on July 27, 2003, two months after his hundredth birthday, his reputation was already fading, tarnished or being actively disparaged. He had, unfortunately, stuck around too long. A year before Hope died, The Onion ran the headline, "World's Last Bob Hope Fan Dies Of Old Age." But Zoglin thinks that if you examine the entirety of Hope's career and view his achievements from a distance, it's clear that he was the most popular entertainer of the 20th century, having achieved success in every major genre of entertainment. Zoglin has written a new biography called "Hope." He's the author of a previous book called "Comedy At The Edge: How Stand-up In The 1970s Changed America." Richard Zoglin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RICHARDS ZOGLIN: Great to be here.

GROSS: I want to start with what is my favorite Bob Hope scene that I think might be yours, too. And it's also the scene that made him a star. It's from the 1938 film "The Big Broadcast Of 1938," in which he sings a really lovely and also heartbreaking duet with Shirley Ross of the song "Thanks For The Memory" and a song that became his theme song. Would you set the scene for us? We're going to hear, not the recording of it, we're going to hear the actual song from the movie. Set the scene for us about what's happening as they sing this.

ZOGLIN: Sure. Bob Hope is a radio broadcaster, and he's on a transatlantic race - a big transatlantic liner - and he discovers that his ex-wife - one of his three ex-wives is actually on the boat with him. They get together in the ship's bar, and they kind of gently reminisce about their failed marriage and then very naturally sort of slide into the song "Thanks For The Memory."

GROSS: So this is Bob Hope and Shirley Ross. We're actually going to pick this up in the middle of the song because I want everybody to hear the ending of it. So this is from "The Big Broadcast Of 1938."


SHIRLEY ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) Thanks for the memory of Gardens at Versailles

BOB HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding, singing) And beef and kidney pie.

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) The night you worked and then came home with lipstick on your tie.

HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding, singing) How lovely that was. For the memory of lingerie with lace.

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) Yes, and pilsner by the case. And how I jumped the day you trumped my one and only ace.

HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding, singing) How low - lovely that was.

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) We said goodbye with a highball.

HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding, singing) And I got us high as a steeple.

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) Did you?

HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding, singing) But we were intelligent people.

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) No tears, no fuss.

HOPE AND ROSS: (As Buzz and Cleo Fielding, singing) Hooray for us.

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) Strictly entre nous, darling how are you?

HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding, singing) And how are all the little dreams that never did come true?

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) Awfully glad I met you.

HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding, singing) Cheerio. Too-da-loo.

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding, singing) Thank you.

HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding, singing) Thank you.

ROSS: (As Cleo Fielding) Oh, Buzz - Buzz.

HOPE: (As Buzz Fielding) Darling, I know. I know, dear.

GROSS: That was Bob Hope and Shirley Ross from "The Big Broadcast Of 1938." My guest, Richard Zoglin, is the author of the new book "Hope" about Bob Hope. That is just so beautiful, and I always feel like he's never given enough credit for his singing. That was really lovely. So what did that scene do for him? Is that - that scene made him a star?

ZOGLIN: That scene did make him a star. He appeared - that was his first movie in Hollywood. He came to Hollywood fairly late. He was 34 years old. You know, many of his other contemporaries were already big stars. Bing Crosby, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny were already movie stars. Bob Hope was just getting there. This film was starring W.C. Fields. There was also kind of an all-star cast; Martha Ray was in it. All other people - most of the other people were bigger stars than Bob Hope. Bob was the newcomer but he, who was the emcee of the shipboard entertainment, and he really stood out in the film.

GROSS: Now, your previous book was about the history of stand-up comedy. Did that book lead to your new book which is all about Bob Hope?

ZOGLIN: Definitely. My book was about stand-up comedy in the '70s actually or the generation that came after Lenny Bruce, from George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, Steve Martin, that whole generation up through Jerry Seinfeld. When I interviewed most of these people, the ones who are still around, and asked - I would always ask them who their influences were, who they grew up listening to. And if they didn't mention Lenny Bruce, because they all consider themselves in the Lenny Bruce rebel comedy generation, they might mention, you know, some of the old-timers, the comedy classic comedians from Groucho Marx, maybe Jack Benny. Nobody ever mentioned Bob Hope.

It was very strange. And it made me realize how off-the-radar he was. For, you know, many reasons, he had sort of slipped away from a generation, largely because of Vietnam I would say, and they didn't really find him relevant. And I thought that was really unjust because, in my opinion, when I look back at stand-up comedy, I always was wondering, who kind of started stand-up comedy? And I really think you have to say it was Bob Hope. The kind of stand-up comedy that we think of today that most comedians do. And that is comedy that is about something. The comedians who preceded Bob Hope in vaudeville were mostly doing packaged vaudeville-style routines. Think of Burns and Allen - people with a partner. They used to do ethnic gags or something.

Bob Hope, when he came along - when he came on the radio in 1938 - all the other radio comedians, too, had their own little comedy worlds or their character. Jack Benny was the cheap guy. Bob Hope didn't have that. So he knew he had to build his show out of jokes. And he told his writers to read the papers, come up with lines, you know, of what's happening in the world or what's happening in Bob Hope's life - his golf game or his friendship with Crosby or something. And this whole idea of having standup comedy week after week that actually drew on the outside world was, believe it or not, something new. And that, of course, is what every standup comedian does today pretty much.

GROSS: Well this would be a good opportunity to actually listen to one of his very early radio broadcasts in which he did an opening comic monologue. So this takes us back to November 8, 1938 - Election Day. And I think it's maybe, like, his fourth broadcast in this series of his Pepsodent radio shows. Back in those days radio shows had one sponsor and the name often incorporated - the name of the show - often incorporated the name of the sponsor. And Pepsodent, the sponsor, made toothpaste.


GROSS: So I thought instead of just starting with the opening monologue, we'd start with the opening theme song, which is a Pepsodent version of "Thanks For The Memory." So here's Bob Hope, recorded in November of 1938 on Election Day.


UNIDENTFIED MAN #1: The Pepsodent Show, starring Bob Hope.


UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) We're glad we found you in for now we can begin. Bob Hope brings you his life review and smiles are here again.

HOPE: (Singing) I thank you so much, and welcome you all to our fun shop. While we manufacture the laughter, it's Pepsodent sales that we're after, to make your smile the more worthwhile. How do you do, ladies and gentlemen? This is Bob Hope back again for the GOP - Good old Pepsodent.


HOPE: Tonight I'm just a lull between election returns. You know, there's been so many campaign speeches on the air lately, I turned on my radio last night, and it handed me a cigar.


HOPE: And what those politicians say about each other, it sounded like they were doing their Christmas wrapping early.


HOPE: Well, Election Day is almost over, and I'm pretty tired. My uncle ran for office in Eagle Knob (ph), California and I've been voting all day.


HOPE: But it doesn't pay to be honest. I voted 12 times today, and I only got paid for 10. When my uncle got through voting, the ballot box was so stuffed it had to take six bicarbonates of soda.


HOPE: My uncle isn't exactly crooked. I'd say he was sort of a pretzel with skin.


HOPE: When he was running for office last year, he said he'd do the public good, and when he was elected, he kept his word. He did them good.

GROSS: So that was Bob Hope recorded in 1938, one of his very first radio broadcasts in his series of radio shows. My guest Richard Zoglin is the author of a new biography of Bob Hope called "Hope." So, you know, listening to that - listening to Bob Hope's early stand-up, you know, on the one hand, I really appreciate what you're saying as him kind of inventing a certain type of topical standup comedy. Some of the jokes sound kind of funny, some of them just sound really dated or just kind of, like, not that good (laughter).

ZOGLIN: Yeah. Well, there's still a lot of vaudeville in that routine. That's fairly early on. All the invented stuff about his uncle - he didn't have an uncle who ran for office. He probably wouldn't have done that kind of joke 10 years later. But the whole idea of at least jumping off of the election - imagine Jack Benny or Bergen and McCarthy talking about the election. They just wouldn't do it. Bob was the only one doing that on radio at that time.

GROSS: And you said, like, he didn't have a comic persona like some of the other radio performers of the era. At what point did he start to create his persona?

ZOGLIN: The writers started to create it for him close to the beginning, and it took a season or two to develop. You know, he was cheap. He chased after women. He was always making jokes about the glamour girls in the movies at the time, whether it was Hedy Lamar or Madeleine Carroll or whoever. And then, a lot of little quirks of his personality - the writers would start to work them in. They claimed that they were basically just reflecting Bob's real personality. The cheapness was really there. There was a bit of an ego. And he was known as a guy who chased women. So they put that in. They created a character, but it was very close to Bob's real character.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Zoglin, the author of the new biography of Bob Hope called "Hope." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Zoglin. We're talking about his new biography of Bob Hope, which is called "Hope." You describe Bob Hope as the first comic to acknowledge that he hired writers. I was surprised to hear that.

ZOGLIN: Yeah. Well, he did. He talked about his writers. He used them, of course, when the jokes didn't go over. He would use savers - what they call in comedy, savers. He would make a crack about the writers. And I think it was part of his technique of enlisting the audience on his side. He was very upfront in acknowledging that he was an entertainer doing jokes and that part of the fun of it was sort of getting inside him, you know, his anxiety of performing well. And when he didn't perform well, he would talk about the writers, and the audience laughed even harder at those jokes.

So the comedy sort of worked at two levels; here was a guy telling jokes, and here was a guy making a joke out of himself telling jokes, trying to tell jokes, trying to entertain an audience. And I think that was something pretty new in comedy, too.

GROSS: He - you also say he worked with more writers than anyone else in radio. Can you talk a little bit about how he used his writers and how he selected jokes?

ZOGLIN: Every week, he and the writers would come up with five or six different topics. It would be the election, or it would be, maybe, a Hollywood divorce or something or maybe Bob playing in a golf tournament. And they would work in pairs usually. He often had eight or 10 writers, and they may be in four or five pairs. They would go off on their own - they didn't work together - and they would all write a dozen or 15 or even 20 jokes for each topic. And then they would give them all to Bob. So he would have, you know, a hundred or 200 jokes - possible jokes - for each show. And he would sit there with the writers now, and he would read through them all. And he would do checks on the ones he liked. He would do a run-through of the show. If it was a Tuesday night show, they would do a run-through on Sunday night in front of a live audience. They would test out the jokes. They would throw out the ones that didn't work. They would rewrite some of the ones to make them better. So it was a very polished show by the time it got on the air on Tuesday night. The other reason he needed so many writers was he had so many jokes. He was the fastest comedian on radio. They called him Rapid Robert at that time. Nobody else did so many jokes, you know, in a half an hour radio show.

GROSS: The playwright John Garrett told you a great story about having dinner at Bob Hope's house. And this has to do with his writers. Would you tell the story?

ZOGLIN: He talked about having dinner with the Hope family. They would sit around, the whole family - there were four kids and Dolores and Bob, and I'm not sure if anyone else was around the house that particular day. But he said the dinner would start and suddenly from all the doors around the dining room would walk in a series of people with cue cards, and they would be cards with jokes on them. And while they were eating, Bob would look at the jokes and nod yes or say no to each joke. And this was what you did at dinner at the Hope house.

GROSS: So the writers would hold up the cue card and Bob Hope would read them on the cue card?

ZOGLIN: Bob would read it and say, yeah, good or no, throw it away. And they'd throw the card aside, and he said - I kind of doubt this was every dinner at Bob Hope's house. But this was - maybe it was the day of the show's run-through or something, and Bob was always busy. Bob was always running around from meeting to meeting. He was always late to dinner, and here was a way of getting something done during dinner. He was going over the monologue.

GROSS: So Bob Hope starts in vaudeville, goes on to perform on Broadway. He gets his own radio show, and then he starts to make movies. The radio show and his first movie are in 1938. And one of the things he becomes famous for in the movies is teaming up with Bing Crosby in their road movies - "The Road To Zanzibar," "The Road To Morocco." Had they already worked together in vaudeville?

ZOGLIN: Bob worked with Bing for the first time in 1932 at The Capitol Theater in New York. Bing was already a big recording star, and Bob was asked to emcee a show that Bing was going to do at The Capitol Theater. They actually - to entertain themselves, they just decided to do some bits together on stage, just some funny little, silly little comedy bits together. And they worked so well together, they really loved working together. They then didn't see each other for five years because Bing went back to Hollywood where he was making movies and Bob stayed on Broadway for another five years.

When Bob went out to Hollywood in 1937, he got friendly again with Crosby on the Paramount lot. And they were - you know, became good friends. They entertained together again at Del Mar Racetrack where Bing was a part owner. And Paramount executives saw their act on stage together and said, hey, these guys might work together in a movie. So they geared up a movie that ended up being called "Road To Singapore." This came out in early 1940, and it was just terrific. It was the highest-grossing film for 1940, in a year with a lot of big Hollywood films.

And just - the audience responded instantly to the chemistry of the two of them on screen together. They were relaxed, informal, they seem to be friends, you know, authentically, not just movie characters. The movie was so much fun that it launched a series. Nobody thought it was going to be anything more than a one-shot when it was made, but it became the first of what was probably the greatest buddy series in movie history.

GROSS: It was a buddy series, but there was interesting combination of, like, pals and rivals.

ZOGLIN: Oh, yeah. There was a relationship between them that they developed over the movies that was great. Bob was kind of the patsy, the nervous guy, the guy who chased women but never got them. He was always afraid. His sort of cowardly character was really developed there. And Bing was the cool customer, the schemer, the guy who always got the women. So there was this comradery, but this rivalry. It had tension, but it had real affection. It was just a terrific combination.

GROSS: Let's hear a scene from the movie the "The Road To Morocco" with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and this is, like, the opening scene. The premise is that the two of them were stowaways on a boat. And I think this is during World War II. So they're stowaways on a boat. The boat explodes probably because Bob Hope had been smoking in the powder room, you know, where the ammunition was. So the boat explodes. In the opening of the movie, Hope and Crosby are together in the middle of the ocean on a flimsy life raft with no food and no water. So Bing Crosby suggests that they flip a coin. Bob Hope loses, and Bing suggests what it is that Bing Crosby just won. So here's the scene.


BING CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) Oh, Junior, we got to face it. We may be days and days and days without seeing a ship or land. We're going to get hungry, mighty hungry.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) What do you mean get hungry?

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) We'll toss a coin. What's the date?

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) 1910.

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) Pretty close, 1911. Well, that's the way it goes - somebody loses, somebody wins.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) OK. So you win the nickel. See if you can find any white meat on that Buffalo.

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) I got a TL for you - we toss for something much deeper than that. I remember a story once about two fellas like us, castaways. They tossed a coin, too. They figured there's no use both of them starving.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) Well, naturally.

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) The fella who survived used to tell his grandchildren about his pal's sacrifice.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) That's great. Wait a minute, what pal's sacrifice?

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) I don't know. You should have eaten more oatmeal when you were a kid. You're kind of scrawny. There's no (unintelligible) there. I don't think you'd do me more than a week in this, and there's no icebox aboard.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) Jeff, you're losing your buttons. You mean you'd eat me, without vegetables?

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) Calm down now, calm down, Junior. I'm not going to do anything right away. I might not do anything for a week or so, not until I get desperate.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) Oh, Jeff, you wouldn't like me. Once I bit my tongue, and I tasted awful. Help. Jeff...

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) Turkey, look. Look, am I seeing things?

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) What?

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) Look here - land.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) What is that over there?

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) Land.

GROSS: Yeah, so luckily they find land, and Crosby doesn't have to eat Hope.


ZOGLIN: That makes me laugh still just hearing it. It was somewhat improvisational because there was no adlibs in the road pictures, but they would kind of take the script and then just build on gags. They would bring in their own writers to sort of try out different gags and do them on the set and just see what worked. And there was just so much, you know, chemistry there that was - they were terrific.

GROSS: Richard Zoglin will be back in the second half of the show. His new biography of Bob Hope is called "Hope." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Richard Zoglin, the author of a new biography of Bob Hope called "Hope." Zoglin calls Hope the most popular and most important entertainer of the 20th century. Whether you agree with that appraisal or not, it's indisputable that he had a huge impact on popular culture through his movies, radio and TV shows, entertaining the troops and hosting the Oscars more times than anyone else. When we left off, we were talking about Bob Hope's on-screen relationship with Bing Crosby in the seven "Road" movies they made together, in which they were buddies and rivals.

What was the relationship like in real life? And was it anything like it was in the films?

ZOGLIN: You know, it they were friends, and they loved working together, but they were not close friends. They were very different personality types, not - they were clashing in a sense - not in the way they were in the movies, but in this sense, Bob was someone who loved being famous and loved being out there as a star. And he loved talking to fans, and he was basically a happy guy. Bing was a much more ambivalent about his stardom, I think. He was more reclusive. He didn't like the Hollywood scene. He moved up to Northern California halfway through his career. And he didn't like showing up at things. There was a famous Friars Club roast for Bob Hope in the late '40s, and every major, you know, comedy star from, you know, Milton Berle, George Jessel, et cetera, were there on the dais. Bing was supposed to be there, and he didn't show up. And I think that bothered Bob little bit.

So at the end - and at the end of his life, you know, (laughter) Bob confessed to a colleague. He said, you know, in all the time I knew Bing and his wife - his two wives - he says, they never once invited me and Dolores to dinner. You know, I think there was a little - a slight bit of resentment there. And I think, also, Bob envied Bing in the early years, particularly. Bing was more successful, and Bing was a smart businessman. Bob learned a lot from him. And I think that there was a little bit of a rivalry, and maybe some of that rivalry is reflected in the "Road" pictures. It was rivalry of a different kind. But, you know, the bottom line was they loved working together. They kept trying to work together, even to the end. There were seven "Road" pictures. The last one was made in 1962 and probably shouldn't have been made 'cause it wasn't very good. And up - they still were trying to make yet another "Road" picture in 1977, when Bing died. So any team that, you know, enjoys working together that much is pretty great.

GROSS: Why don't we hear them sing together? And we'll listen to something from the soundtrack of "The Road To Morocco." Remember, they start as stowaways in the - in a boat. They end up stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean, and they wash up on land and take the road to Morocco, (laughter) where they're in, suddenly, a very exotic place. And they're - in this scene, they're riding on a camel, taking the path with the sign on it that says "Road To Morocco." So here's that scene with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.


HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) You think we've got enough gas?

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) I got a carburetor cut down to nothing. Where do you suppose we are?

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) This must be the place where they empty all the old hourglasses.

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) I think this is what's left after I clean my spinach. Hey, look.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) Could've thought of another way to get us here.

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) Here we go again, Junior.


HOPE AND CROSBY: (As Orville Jackson and Jeff Peters) (Singing) We're on the road to Morocco. This taxi is tough on the spine.

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) Beats the bus, huh, Junior?

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) Beats me...

HOPE AND CROSBY: (As Orville Jackson and Jeff Peters) (Singing) ...Where we're going...

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) ...Why we're going. How can we be sure? I'll lay you eight to five that we meet Dorothy Lamour.

HOPE AND CROSBY: (As Orville Jackson and Jeff Peters) Off on the road to Morocco. Hang on till the end of the line.

CROSBY: (As Jeff Peters) I hear this country's where they do the dance of the seven veils.

HOPE: (As Orville Jackson) We'd tell you more, but we would have the censor on our tails.

HOPE AND CROSBY: (As Orville Jackson and Jeff Peters) We certainly do get around. Like "Webster's Dictionary," we're Morocco-bound.

GROSS: That's Bob Hope and Bing Crosby from "The Road To Morocco," a 1942 film. My guest, Richard Zoglin, is the author of a new biography of Bob Hope. They're singing together, which is really just, like, so much - so much fun. And I'm wondering if Bing Crosby felt that he was the superior singer and ever resented singing with Bob Hope, although I actually really love Bob Hope's singing. But, you know, Bob Hope starts as a vaudevillian. Bing Crosby starts as a singer. That was - that was always his thing.


GROSS: He was a singer.

ZOGLIN: Well, Bing - yeah, sure. And Bing always got the big ballot in the film. And they usually had a buddy number like that. I don't think there was any, you know - I think Bing was very comfortable singing with Bob. The other thing that's, you know, important to note in that number is the self-referential stuff - the reference to the censors, the reference - you know, meeting Dorothy Lamour. And that was new.

GROSS: ...Who's their star in the movie. She's the female lead.

ZOGLIN: ...Who is the costar. Yes.

GROSS: It's very meta. (Laughter).

ZOGLIN: So it's step - meta, exactly - stepping outside, breaking the fourth wall, talking about the film. You're seeing a film, folks, and we're actors. You know, that was something very new at the time. When you think - you have to think back to the 1930s' very stylized romantic comedies, which were very scripted - you know, "Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday," the Preston Sturges films. They were terrific films. They were very, very scripted in style - high style. You could never imagine those people. They were actors doing lines. But here were two guys who were doing lines, but they were also stepping outside of their characters and reminding you that they're actors and again, enlisting the audience in having fun and having fun with watching them do a movie. And all that self-referential stuff they carried out through the entire "Road" pictures, and that's what made them so fun.

GROSS: You know, the "Road" movies - parts of them are really fun. Parts of them are really cringe-y because they take place in places like Zanzibar and Morocco. And there's something so ethnophobic about them. I mean, they're really - all the exotica stuff - it's really kind of embarrassing to watch.

ZOGLIN: Yeah. Yeah. You know, you have to - it's true. They're somewhat racist. And the cannibals in Africa want to eat - you know, capture Hope and Crosby and want to eat them. And when you watch them, you know, dancing around like, you know, classic stereotyped, you know, African savages, it is a little cringe-producing. But you do have to get past some of that.

GROSS: Woody Allen and Conan O'Brien are two of the people who have referred to Bob Hope as influences. And I think influences in part on their own personas as not being this suave, handsome, macho guy.

ZOGLIN: Right, definitely. Woody Allen - probably the most famous acolyte of Bob Hope - talked, even in the years when Bob was not so favored by most comedians - you know, Woody continually said, this was the guy who influenced me more than anyone else. And that character - that kind of scared character, the guy talk - nervous, talking his way through, you know, bad times and scary times. That was Woody Allen's character in "Sleeper," in "Love And Death." He always said that he and Diane Keaton in those films were basically like Hope and Crosby - Keaton being the Crosby character, the kind of cool customer, and Woody being the Bob Hope character, the Nervous Nelly. So definitely that character - that resonates at least in Woody Allen films and lots of films. That kind of comic character - that's a very common comic character.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Zoglin. He's the author of the new book "Hope," which is a biography of Bob Hope. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just turning us, we're talking about Bob Hope. My guest Richard Zoglin is the author of a new biography of Hope that's called "Hope." One of the things that Bob Hope became famous for was performing for the troops, something he started doing very early on in World War II. How did he start doing it?

ZOGLIN: Well, when World War II broke out - first of all, even before World War II broke out, Bob was entertaining the troops domestically. He just suddenly - one day somebody suggested that he go down to March Field and entertain the troops there. We were bored, you know, that we were not in the war yet. And Bob went there and got just an amazing reaction. They just loved him. He could really connect with the troops. And when the war started, Hollywood banded together, and everybody felt they had to cooperate, you know, in the war effort. Some stars, as we know, enlisted, and the ones who didn't enlist volunteered to entertain at, you know, the bases around the country.

Finally, when the war started to turn in the Allies' favor in 1943, the USO was able to start sending entertainment troops overseas. Bob was doing his radio show. He wasn't one of the very first. But in the summer of 1943, he made his first trip over to Europe - Britain and the European Theatre and North Africa. And that trip was so amazing. And even - he took risks. He went into - three days after Patton had succeeded in conquering Sicily - three days after that, Bob Hope and his entertainment troop were there. And there was still bombing raids going on. They survived bombing raids. And the reaction of the troops - I mean, imagine you're a soldier, you know, fighting for democracy overseas at a time when, you know, really the country felt its existence threatened. This was - and to see a big Hollywood star show up, you know, days after you've been in battle. That was an amazingly powerful experience for the men.

GROSS: And performing for the troops really enhanced - deeply enhanced Bob Hope's popularity and got him the gratitude of so many Americans. And then during the war in Vietnam, he performed for the troops, too. But I'm not sure Bob Hope really understood how unpopular that war had become. And...

ZOGLIN: Right.

GROSS: ...Can you talk a little bit about those shows during the Vietnam era?

ZOGLIN: Sure. Well, you know, Bob had done his work in World War II and then started up again in 1948 doing Christmas shows for the troops - did it through the '50s. When Vietnam came along, he was - it was a routine. It was a yearly thing. At Christmas he would go overseas and his specials would be televised. He - again, he was like maybe a lot of people from that generation. He was from the World War II generation. He could not conceive of a war that the United States wouldn't, you know, pursue to victory, that wouldn't be backed by everyone the way it was in World War II.

He was at that point such a big star and such sort of Hollywood royalty. He was friends with every president from Truman - you know, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and he was in the inner circles. He was, you know, a star that was on the public stage in the way that no one else was. But he, I think, was not in touch with what was happening in the country. He was surrounded by his entourage, and he was, you know, whisked from show to show and he didn't really connect with the controversy that that war was creating. So Bob Hope started entertaining in Vietnam in 1964. At the beginning, the war was not, you know - it was sort of a little under the radar for most Americans.

GROSS: Yeah.

ZOGLIN: This was right around the time maybe the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. And, you know, we had quote, unquote "advisers" there. So this was just another kind of trouble spot on the globe that Bob went to entertain the troops. Little did he know that he would go there for nine straight years.

And, you know, Bob, when he went to Vietnam, he would pal around with the generals. He would entertain the troops, he would get cheers and he would go talk to the generals. And they would complain to him that the - you know, the politicians are hamstringing us, that sort of attitude. And Bob ingrained that attitude. So he went back home, and when he saw protesters - war protesters - he just couldn't understand it. This was just something new to him. And he was not in touch enough with what was going on in the country to really realize that this was a different kind of war, a different era. And so he sort of crossed a line from being a patriot - a patriot and a hero in World War II - to being a partisan and, of course, a very controversial figure during the Vietnam War.

GROSS: You know, Bob Hope is such an interesting figure, and, you know, speaking personally, there's things about Bob Hope's performances that I just love. And there's other things that I find just, like, so not only cringe-worthy, but kind of hateful. And I thought I'd play example of that. And this is from 1970. It's a Bob Hope special, and this is - I just want to prepare people - this is going to be very, very homophobic. And so this is Bob Hope in 1970, an example of why I think a lot of people grew up deeply disliking Bob Hope. Here we go.


HOPE: You know, a new movement - a new movement has appeared on the American scene. First women's liberation demanded the rights of women. Then the hardhats demanded the rights of men. And now gay liberation is demanding the rights of - whatever they are.


HOPE: Now we've got something else to worry about - sissy power.


HOPE: I want to tell you their leaders are really tough. They wear leather pantyhose.


HOPE: No, the gay liberation had a big parade in New York, and they floated down the avenue like Macy's Thanksgiving balloons. I'm not sure where the parade was. I think it was over in Queens.


HOPE: They actually tried to take over Alpine County out here in northern California. It's true. They had their own sheriff, and he looked real good. He had boots, chaps, buckskin jackets and pearls. And instead of handcuffs, he carried a slave bracelet.

GROSS: So that was Bob Hope from a Bob Hope TV special...


GROSS: ...Recorded in 1970. And that's just really horrible.

ZOGLIN: Well, it's tough to defend that, I know, I know. But, you know, he was an old-style comedian who used kind of standard comic targets. In the old days it would be the cheap Scotsman, and here it was the effeminate homosexual. And he just didn't realize - he crossed the line into, you know, real world political...

GROSS: But that's the thing, it's like it's not only homophobic jokes; it's like he didn't get it. And he didn't know that he didn't get it. And I'm thinking...

ZOGLIN: He didn't.

GROSS: ...Though at the beginning of our interview, you said that your previous book, which was all about comics who started performing in the '70s, including, like, Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Pryor, that none of them mentioned Bob Hope as an influence. And I think, like, that's maybe an example of why.

ZOGLIN: That is an example of why. And Bob Hope was the establishment. Bob Hope was friends with Nixon. Bob Hope was speaking out in favor of the war. Bob Hope was expressing that kind of backward, suburban, WASP kind of view of minorities, homosexuals, the women's movement. Even his comments on the women's movements were very condescending. He did a special in the '70s on the women's movement. And it was so silly, so backward. And, you know, the woman who was, you know, had some big office - political office - was, like, dusting the chairs in between her meetings. It was just awful. And he got mail like that from feminists. And it was - he was clueless at that time. And that was why - yes, that's exactly why that generation of comedians turned off to him.

GROSS: Is part of your goal with your biography of Bob Hope to rescue him from himself?

ZOGLIN: Somewhat. You know, it was sad for me to see those kind of things. And I cannot - I watched those specials from the '70s and the '80s and, oh, man, you know, they're not very good. Everybody - he got to be lazy. He got to - he was reading off cue cards and just not connecting with his guests or the audience. It was very mechanical. So, you know, I can't really defend that.

But, you know, I think that - I just feel he was such a major influence in the earlier years and that his style was adapted and changed by the people who followed but that you have to remember the founding fathers and the innovations that Bob made in standup comedy. And that even, you know - he was just a guy who got too powerful - too sort of big. He became royalty.

And he was, as I said, friends with all the presidents. Nixon took him into the White House to tell him - explain to him why he was invading North Vietnam so that Bob would go back out into the country and convey the message, to help sell the country on his Vietnam policies. And, you know, nobody else - nobody else in comedy, you know, had anything like that kind of public role. And it's hard to be a comedian and be part of the establishment because comedians their - you know, their job is to satirize and to poke fun at the, you know, powerful people. And this is something that Bob was one of the powerful people. So just as a comedian, he became less and less relevant.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us. It's been fun to talk about Bob Hope.

ZOGLIN: Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Richard Zoglin's new biography of Bob Hope is called "Hope." You can read an excerpt on our website, Coming up, Maurine Corrigan reviews a new e-book collection of writings by the late Laurie Colwin, whose work has achieved cult status. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.