August 03, 2003
Passing (Or Failing?) The Hitchens Challenge

Christopher Hitchens has amused some and offended others with his vicious obituary of Bob Hope. (Can we say he put the 'bit(u)' in 'obituary'? The joke doesn't work very well in print.)

I found this challenge interesting:

Quick, then—what is your favorite Bob Hope gag? It wouldn't take you long if I challenged you on Milton Berle, or Woody Allen, or John Cleese, or even (for the older customers) Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl. By this time tomorrow, I bet you haven't come up with a real joke for which Hope could take credit.

I don't watch a lot of standup and never have, but as a matter of fact I couldn't recall a single joke by any of these if you put a gun to my head, with two exceptions: if you gave me an hour, I could come up with two or three by Woody Allen, and right off the top of my head I recall one and only one by Bob Hope. That may not be much, but the only time I can recall watching him at all was fifteen minutes of a USO show in what must have been Gulf War I. So what was the joke? A one-liner about a man who "majored in Animal Husbandry in college -- until they caught him at it and expelled him".

It's the kind of obvious joke that has no doubt occurred to many independently, and I can't honestly call it a great one, but I still remember it twelve years after I heard him tell it, and that ought to be worth something.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 03, 2003 06:29 PM

The animal husbandry joke is an oldie but goody. I first heard it on a Tom Leherer album (An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer) recorded in 1959. Still, Bob Hope wasn't a joke writer. He was an entertainer. And he did a lot to entertain people who really could use it, especially our troops in hospitals overseas.

One suspects that Hitchens was just cashing a check on his "the guy who savaged Mother Theresa" reputation.

Posted by: Geoffrey Barto on August 4, 2003 05:01 AM

Bob Hope, like Charles Schultz, outlived the period when he did his best work. Both became institutions, and easy to attack for that reason.

Posted by: John Thacker on August 5, 2003 02:23 AM

Hitchens is really attacking Hope for not being a kind of comedian that didn't exist for many decades after Hope's day. No, Hope wasn't the cutting edge of humor but I still find his Road pictures enjoyable. He embodied a style of entertaining that looks easier than it is. He'll be missed long after Hitchens isn't.

Posted by: Robin Roberts on August 5, 2003 10:52 PM

As I've commented elsewhere, Hope was not so much a comic as a wit. Jonathon Winters is a comic - and try to remember a joke of his!

Illustration - in several of his movies (Mr. Hitchens is perhaps to have seen them even on TV), as he was turning away from the camera to walk off-scene he would mutter "There's a joke in there somewhere..."

Now, is this a funny joke you can tell like the next day, like Henny Youngman's shtick? No. But it seldom fails to crack me up six and seven decades later.

Bob Newhart had great routines, like the King trying to understand Sir Walter Raghleigh's explanation of tobacco. Bill Cosby has lots, like visiting the dentist. Perhaps this is the only type of humor Mr. Hitchens understands - I hate to think what he would make of Jack Benny's "... ... ... Well!"

Posted by: John Anderson on August 6, 2003 03:31 AM

Hitchens is perhaps too young to have

Posted by: John Anderson,again on August 6, 2003 03:32 AM

I remember a great Jack Benny joke. A thief stops Jack and threatens, "Your money or your life!" Benny stands there seemingly unmoved. The thief repeats, "Well, what's it gonna be?!" Mr. Benny says, "I'm thinking! I'm thinking!"
... A classic

Posted by: Frank DiSalle on August 7, 2003 12:15 AM

I'll bite...I liked where he did the "conflict between cowardice and lust" schtick in many of his movies. Jack Lemmon also did this quite well.

I also enjoyed when he would break the fourth wall.

Posted by: Sweet Lou on August 7, 2003 07:32 PM

I spent nine years in the Air Force, but was lucky to never be posted anywhere so isolated as to rely on the USO for entertainment. But I know people who spent years in pleasure spots like Thule, Greenland, and I greatly respect Bob Hope for getting out to the troops wherever they were.

I'm glad for his example proving that a successful comedian doesn't have to be a self-destructive neurotic, I think I'd have liked him as a person if we'd ever met, and his movies are as good as any from that era, but as a standup comic he left me cold. Perhaps it was Bob Hope's resemblance to my grandfather the insurance salesman? Or that every comic in the world had borrowed extensively from Hope's best stuff before I was even born? I am normally easily amused, but when Bob Hope was standing on the stage and running through his well-prepared routine with flawless timing, I would finally laugh a little only because I felt the old guy deserved something for trying so hard. Maybe it was the "trying so hard" part...

Posted by: markm on August 10, 2003 12:54 PM

How many boring self-promoting contrarians does it take to change a lightbulb? Ask Hitchens... he ought to know, even though he is consistently in the dark.

Posted by: m novak on August 13, 2003 05:55 AM