Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Sound Off Against Bob Hope

Last week, we mentioned Fred Allen’s ill-fated TV venture “Sound-Off Time,” one of a number of early ‘50s TV efforts where producers saddled viewers with a revolving group of hosts. And, in the case of “Sound-Off Time,” routines and humour that just didn’t work. The show debuted on October 14, 1951 and NBC replaced it the following January 13th with “U.S. Royal Showcase,” which promised to pair young talent with old.

Allen brought down the curtain on the final broadcast but he didn’t appear on the first one. NBC decided the biggest drawing card it had was Bob Hope. Hope has been huge in radio, Hope had starred in movies but—more importantly—Hope hadn’t failed on TV like Allen. But he failed on the debut of “Sound-Off Time” in the eyes of one of television’s most caustic newspaper critics.

Bob Hope was an institution for years, even as his TV specials devolved into little more than appearances by Brooke Shields and football cheerleaders, while his eyes heavily stared at cue cards laden with old jokes dressed up in topicality as a laugh track approved. But it wouldn’t have been nice to point that out; he was an institution after all. But John Crosby had no qualms about taking shots at Hope-as-institution in 1951. Crosby could be sarcastic, Crosby could be dismissive, but rarely did he seethe with anger in print like he did about the Hope’s performance on premiere of the long-forgotten “Sound-Off Time.” Mind you, there was no love lost between the two. Hope sued Crosby in 1950 for calling him a “gag pirate.”
Triumph of Publicity Over Art 
NEW YORK, Oct. 19—AT THE opening of the new “Chesterfield Sound-Off Time”, conceivably the most awkwardly titled television show around, Bob Hope was discovered, after an opening barrage of jokes, under a dryer at a beauty parlor.
Toward the close of it, Mr. Hope was waltzing around, a prize ring with Jack Dempsey, who used to behave rather differently in that environment.
In between the beauty parlor opening and the closing waltz, Mr. Hope minced about the stage like an elderly chorus girl waved a limp hand at Dinah Shore, and leaped into Hy Averback’s arms.
This is entertainment? Never did I think I’d see such an exhibition on a coast-to-coast television network performed by one of the nation’s top comics.
WHAT HAS GOT into Hope, anyway, with all this posturing and strutting and wiggling of hips and waggling of hands?
If he’s trying to suggest what I think he’s trying to suggest, then it isn’t funny and it sure doesn’t belong in people's homes.
Even after a cooling-off period of roughly 24 hours, I feel strongly that Hope's first show was the most appalling demonstration of unabashed vulgarity I’ve ever seen and, believe me, kid, I’ve seen plenty.
I doubt that the darned thing would have been permitted at Minsky’s. The Minskys, I’m sure, would have turned it down, (a) because it was in the worst possible taste, (b) because the jokes (Bing Crosby’s waistline, Bing Crosby’s money, Dagmar’s bust) weren’t very funny even when they were new, (c) because Hope, who once was a very skilled comedian, is relying, almost exclusively on the hip wiggle as his comedy technique.
IN ADDITION to the waltz and the hair dryer, Hope engaged in a kissing and necking contest with Jerry Colonna over Dinah Shore, a nice girl who shouldn’t have to put up with this sort of thing.
Apart from a magnificently expert rendition of “Hello, Young Lovers” by Miss Shore—the one bright spot—that comprised the half hour.
I’m optimistic enough to think there must have been a lot of people at NBC and also at the advertising agency who shuddered during the rehearsals of this terrible thing. But no one, I guess, can gainsay Mr. Robert Hope, who has got a little too big to question.
The growth of Mr. Hope from entertainer into a sort of national institution, immune from serious criticisms, is a fascinating study in self-promotion, well worth a monograph by scholars of American culture. It started during the war when the comedian first entertained, then almost took sole possession of the armed forces. It was almost unpatriotic not to listen to the Hope radio show which, incidentally, was a lot better show then.
But, over the years, the Hope radio show became increasingly mechanical and more and more unfunny. It maintained an illusion—and not a very good one— of funniness only because of the racket set up by the studio audience.
But this noise has ceased almost entirely to be laughter. Now the jokes are greeted by thunderous applause, a rather odd way to express amusement. The applause is about as spontaneous as a street demonstration in Moscow. It’s nurtured and encouraged and all but coerced out of the audience by stooges and by various tricks of timing and inflection which are regrettably as infallible as that little rubber hammer a doctor uses on your knee joints. And all across the nation, millions of people, trained like Pavlov’s dogs into slavering at the proper moment, are conned into thinking something pretty special is taking place.
Sleazy Jokes
Or are they? I don’t see how Hope’s sleazy anatomical jokes can stand up long in comparison with the bright young comics who are springing up on television. Herb Shriner, for example. After a bout with Mr. Hope, Shriner is a fresh, clean breeze from Indiana. His humor has point and meaning; it is the product of acute observation rather than a filing cabinet. Even as a technician of comedy, this young man with his effortless delivery is now recognized by the professionals in his own trade as one of the masters.
Either as a technician or as wit, Hope is no match either for Shriner or Sid Caesar or Wally Cox, all youngsters who have worked hard at their trade. Still he rates all the hullabaloo, a triumph of publicity over art.

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