Thursday, June 4, 2015

On "I Never Left Home" by Bob Hope ***

Publishers Weekly's best-selling work of nonfiction for 1944 was this comic account of the comedian Bob Hope's visits to military units in Europe and Africa. Light reading, it reminded me somewhat of the best-seller from two years earlier about being a private in the army. In this case, however, the comedy is coming from someone who has been sent to entertain the troops, as Hope would do throughout his life.

The book is written in a way similar to the novels Jay Cronley and Carrier Fisher. This is a hard way to write, and I have immense respect for it. What I mean is that Hope essentially delivers the text as a series of jokes. Each paragraph is a setup that ends with a punch line. Sometimes, we might get a slightly longer setup, but it's rarely more than a page. The focus here is humor.

This wore thin for me, however, with respect to Bob Hope's book. This was for a few reasons. One is that after about age twelve, I was never much of a fan of the man's work. I remember watching his specials as a kid, being fascinated by them, because, well, it was television, but as I got older, I usually preferred to go play with a friend to sitting in front of the TV when Bob was on. His jokes often just didn't seem that funny; they seemed canned. And that is the case here. Another is that many of the jokes don't age that well. Often, they revolve around popular culture of the era. Seventy years later, they no longer have as much zing. That focus on popular culture also seems many times very insular. It's often funny when Hope jokes about himself. The self-deprecating humor is fine. But when he takes jabs at Bing Crosby and other friends, the jokes seem to expect us to care as much about his Hollywood friends and world as he does. Seventy years later, we don't.

As a propaganda piece, Hope's work certainly fits well. He often makes remarks about how great our military is or how much our nation's young men our sacrificing for us. In fact, his self-deprecating humor often revolves around his inferiority to such servants of the state.

Another major issue with the setup-punchline manner of writing, at least in this case, is that it's often hard to tell what is a joke and what actually happened. Hope was so intent on telling jokes that I found myself lost as to where on his tour and in the world Hope was or why it mattered.

That's not to say that there were some very engaging passages or some funny moments. I loved, for example, one anecdote/story/joke about his grandfather and him dancing. Hope's grandfather saw that Hope was getting tired and told him, "You're quite a bit older than you used to be. Take and break and I'll finish up for you."

And there's also a very touching passage about joke telling itself--perhaps, the most touching in the book. Hope talks about "toppers." That's a joke that you tell on top of someone else's, a sort of one-ups-man-ship. He talks about visiting hospitals and how he couldn't top a guy in a hospital bed. If you tell a joke there, and the guy has a better one-liner back, you let it go. I mean, how do you top a man who had got wounded serving your country, especially if he makes a joke about his own ailment?

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