The Milwaukee Journal – Sep 27, 1942
Hope Gets No Help in Books
By Larry Feathers
HOLLYWOOD, Calif.—Thousands of town wits and barbershop cutups throughout the land aspire to the thrones of Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Fred Allen and other top comics of screen and radio—and all entertain the same idea how their goal can be achieved.
What to do? Simple! Start off by buying a large filing cabinet and cluttering it with old joke books. Then go through the tomes and “modernize” the antique puns. Thus, where a reference is made to horse car in Joe Miller’s classic volume, the fledgling craftily substitutes “trolley,” repeats the gag to himself—and has visions of wowing ‘em.
Nothing to it at all, according to youngsters who aspire to profitable laugh provoking careers. In fact, they firmly believe that Jack Benny and company get by today by pursuing exactly such methods.
“Just a lotta silly bunk,” says a rather successful young fellow named Lester Townes Hope, commonly known as Bob Hope. The idea that old joke books are prolific in producing modern humor is sad myth, according to Bob. Sure thing, he owns a joke book—shelves of them, in fact, but he shakes his head sorrowfully at the suggestions that they could produce a steady flow of film or radio material.
“I’m the original big staff comedian, I suppose,” Bob ventured on the set of. “They Got Me Covered,” which he is now making at the Goldwyn studio. “I not only work with lots of gag men, but I’ve got gosh only knows how many filing cabinets crammed with jokes. I think that’s what they call ‘em, anyway. Also, I’ve got a roomful of old joke books. Most of them were sold to me because I had been told, ‘all they need is a little modernizing.’
“Well, I always say, there’s nothing so decorative for a man’s room as walls full of books,” the comic went on. “I brought a few volumes down today just to prove my point. Let’s have a look and see if there’s actually any humor between these covers.”
Bob picked up a fat volume with ye-lately fond of cloves, he never eats but one at a time.’”
Mr. Hope gazed dreamily into space for a long time after reading that one aloud. At length he came up with the answer. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “Economical. One at a time.” Then he muttered, “It stinks!”
“Maybe,” the comedian mused, “this is an especially poor book to serve the purposes of the modern gagsters. Let’s look at this one.”
Here Bob blew a bit of dust from a volume entitled “Irish Bulls and Puns, 500 Gems of Modern Irish Wit and Humor.” This editor did not hide, as did the cowardily T. B. and T. C., behind his initials. No, sir he bravely indited his name, H. P. Kelly. He began his volume with what he must have thought the humdinger of his entire collection. Listen closely:
“Mike I saw a man fall from a roof on a wagon load of soda water yesterday.”
“Pat Killed, I suppose?”
“Mike No; he landed on the soft stuff.”
Mr. Hope at this point became strangely silent. He riffled through the Mr. Kelly’s classic, pointing to such deathless masterpieces as:
“Casey- Av all the close fisted would misers that iver oi see Dolan’s the worst.”
“Cassidy—Oh, ‘tis the family trait wid him.”
“I saw two Irishmen on a Broadway cable car yesterday. One said to the other: ‘Mike, yer clothes look pretty tough and seedy. Why don’t ye get a dacent suit of clothes?”
“‘Well’, answers Mike with almost a pompous confidence in his explanation, ‘there’s not a tailor in Harlem that kin measure me, I’m that ticklish.’
“NOPE,” said Mr. Hope, hurling this book back on the shelf with a loud slam, “I’m afraid it just isn’t that easy. I’ve got the books, I’ve got the writers—but things else again.
“I don’t know how you’d define it, of all, it takes a lot of experience, plain experience playing the tank….the Orpheum circuits, the night…everything from the ten-twenty…to the three-thirty Broadway shows. …you’ve had that—as Fred Allen, Benny, Ed Wynn and Abbott andCo have—when you’ve had that, brother, you begin to know what people will laugh at.
“I guess maybe it’s just knowing what people will laugh at, something you feel in your bones. Your writers and files can fetch a hundred suggestions a week, but a fellow’s got to know what to choose. That’s what does it. These books? I’m afraid not.”