The following article was published on April 17, 2003, as part of Variety’s Legends and Groundbreakers series.
They’re known as Bob Hope’s “army.” The reference is not to the GIs Hope entertained over the years, but to the squads of gag writers who keep him supplied with a never-ending stream of jokes. More than 100 writers have worked for Hope, including notables like Larry Gelbart of “MASH” fame; “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz; and the late Norman Panama, a prolific screen scribe and director. More than a million of the original laugh-getters, alphabetized by subject matter, are kept in filing cabinets in Hope’s home in Toluca Lake, just north of Hollywood. A duplicate set resides in the Library of Congress in the nation’s capital.
Though known for his nimble timing, his sixth sense of what makes an audience roll with laughter and his adroit way with an ad lib, Hope never felt comfortable coming up with his own jokes, hence his reliance on writers.
“He became the modern Will Rogers, in terms of using the headlines for laughs, but Will Rogers wrote his own jokes,” observes Hal Kanter, who came up with funny lines for Hope movies and radio shows in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Hope’s habit of ruthlessly whittling down his joke list to just a handful is why he’s always depended on so many writers — a dozen at a time for his radio show.
Mort Lachman, who wrote for Hope for 28 years starting in the radio days and through Hope’s years emceeing the Oscars, says he and other Hope writers of his day referred to themselves as members of the Double-Cross and Circle Club.
“All of us wrote jokes for everything, from the opening monologue, to the Jerry Colonna segment, to the guest star spot. Then we’d ‘throw it over the gate,’ or deliver them to his house,” he says.
“Hope read every joke, and put a check next to the ones he liked. Then he’d go through them again and put a second check next to his favorites. Finally, he’d circle the jokes that he thought would get the biggest laugh. And those were the jokes he’d try out in a live rehearsal” several days before each week’s show. New jokes might then be requested, which he’d incorporate just seconds before he’d go on the air.
Writing for Hope was always grueling. “When you signed with Hope, you signed for 24 hours a day,” notes Mel Shavelson, who was one of the original writers on Hope’s “Pepsodent Show,” which launched in 1938 and soon became the most popular on radio.
Hope constantly phoned his writers, often in the middle of the night or sometimes just before he went on the air, imploring them for fresh material.
“Many times he’d be on the road and he’d call to ask for a joke tailored to where he was performing,” says Gene Perrett, who wrote for Hope television specials in the 1980s. “He’d never say, ‘Hi, how are you,’ he’d say, ‘Thrill me,’ which was the signal for us to start reading him jokes.”
Hope is loath to cut ties with writers, even after they’ve gone on to bigger and better things.
“Even when you were no longer under contract to Hope, he was unabashed about still calling and asking for jokes,” Shavelson recalls. Although he became a screenwriter for Danny Kaye and Clark Gable and was president of the Writers Guild of America, West, from 1985-87, Shavelson says Hope was still cajoling him for one-liners into the early 1990s.
Kanter puts it succinctly: “When you once work for Bob, you work for Bob for life.”