Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"What A Lot Of It Is All About"

I read this story early in my career and it gave me a foreshadowing shiver.  I may have posted about it years ago, but it is still gnawing at my innards.

Through circuitous connections, a fledgling comedy-writing team procures a meeting with long-time and still beloved comedian Bob Hope, a veteran, popular-with-the-masses joke-spewing machine in continual need of replenished material. 

Selling jokes to Bob Hope would an enhancing feather in their caps, the proverbial “Big Break”, opening doors to further, hopefully more suitable comedy-writing opportunities.  (The writers were, after all, college graduates, and pedestrian “Bob Hope jokes” were not exactly their métier.)

At their first meeting, Hope provided them with generalized areas he wished them to pursue for their freshly minted one-liners and sent them away, the deal being that he would pay for whatever material that he used. 

The fledgling team raced away, nervous but excited, and confident they could handle the job.  I mean, this wasn’t (then comedian) Woody Allen they were writing for.  It was Bob “recycles-leering-jokes-about-Jane Russell-into-leering-jokes-about-Raquel-Welch” Hope.

The two neophyte writers immediately set to work accumulating a series of gags.  Although fully cognizant of Hope’s tone and rhythm, they were eager to expand his boundaries, injecting their own intellect and originality to produce jokes that would not only allow the comedian to score but would reflect how brilliant they were,  rather than just the latest generation of hacks. 

In their minds, they were producing “pure gold.”

Once finished, they submitted their jokes, and began counting their yet-to-be-received remuneration.  Shortly thereafter, they were summoned to Hope’s Toluca Lake mansion, arriving with expansive, anticipatory grins on their faces. 

Let the adulation begin!

“Boy’s it’s not me,” was Hope’s minimalist critique, meaning the jokes they had concocted, although possibly funny, did not suit his longstanding comedic M.O.

Rather than being cut off, however, the writing duo was instructed to try again.

They had aimed too high, they decided.  This time, they would deliberately “dumb down” their one-liners, designing them to be less “clever”, and therefore more in sync with the pedestrian requirements of their employer.  The new jokes would not exactly be stupid – they were incapable of doing that even if they wanted to – simply more accessible to Bob Hope’s mainstream audience. 

Less “haute cuisine”, more Burger King.

“Missed again, boys” was Hope’s evaluation of their second submission.  Since he was not required to pay them for material he didn’t use, having nothing to lose and probably thinking he was doing them a favor, Hope dispatched the duo again, to see if they’d have better luck hitting the target on the third go-round. 

The young writers were furious.  They had demeaned themselves, not to mention wasted precious writing time, toiling for a comedian they did not even respect.  Frustrated and upset – and also convinced they would never be able to succeed at this enterprise anyway – the aspiring comedy writers lost their minds and proceeded to produce – mostly for their own satisfaction – a vicious parody of what they perceived as the “Bob Hope Comedic Genre”:  Simple-minded.  Obvious.  Insulting to anyone with a brain.  And exaggerated in the extreme.

By now, they did not care about the job or the out-of-touch Bob Hope thought of them, or even how this prank might damage their yet to get started careers. 

They just simply wanted their revenge.

The material was submitted and they awaited the response. 

Finally, they were summoned to Hope’s big house for what they were certain they would be a tongue-lashing and a dismissal.  The comedian sauntered into the room, and uttered a terse, “says all that needs to be said” reaction:


Lessons Learned?

Comedy writing is harder than it looks.

There is no place for snobbery in show business.

You do what your boss wants or you don’t get paid.

You may think you know what you’re doing but a surprising amount of the time you don’t.

You finally find their “voice”, but it costs of your own.

“Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?”


“Do you realize this is actually a good job?”

The answer is:

“All of the Above.”

And if you master that terrain, you’ll make a comfortable living as a comedy writer.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

The same is true, of course, of many other kinds of writing, particularly journalism, where the part of Bob Hope is played by your editor. Your story is exactly why, some years back, the contention was made that the writers of the UK tabloid The Sun could easily produce The Guardian - but the Guardian writers would not be able to produce The Sun.

It's long been my observation that audiences - even an audience of one with a checkbook - are very sensitive to contempt being directed at them.


Canda said...

To me, Bob Hope's delivery was 50 percent of the reason his jokes worked. He also had a very definite
comedy character - vain, lecherous and cheap. People also forget the great work he did in films.

Hope was of another generation, but it was what we call the Greatest Generation, those who lived through the depression, fought World War 2, and came home and created the world many of us grew up in during the late 1940s and 1950s. Nuclear families, hard work and patriotism was often a hallmark of that group. They didn't need comedians to be "clever". They enjoyed laughing with Bob.

I think anyone who wrote for Hope should be proud of it, and not disrespect it.