Wednesday, Aug. 6
What did it feel like to be Bob Hope?
“You feel invulnerable,” said Dave Thomas, the 54-year-old founding member of the legendary comedy troupe Second City, and the pre-eminent impersonator of Bob Hope for the last 20-odd years. “You have to adopt his confidence and you know you’ve got the gags. These gags are going to kill because I know how to make them kill. You’re kind of bulletproof.”
A week after his subject died at age 100, Mr. Thomas, the man who played the beer-besotted Doug McKenzie in the 1983 Canadian sendup Strange Brew , called The Observer from Los Angeles to talk about it. It was the first time he’d spoken with the press since Hope’s death, and when he went into his “Bob Hope” voice, taking on that familiar helium lilt, smirking through the phone line as if on an old radio show … it was eerier .
“How about that Al Qaeda? Aren’t they somethin’?” he said.
He was imagining Bob Hope in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, where he said the comic surely would have entertained troops had he not been hobbled by age. “It’s great being here in Tora Bora, where a mujahadeen family of five can get a luxury cave for five dollars a day.”
“Jihad? That’s Arabic for ‘I’ll believe anything these crackpots tell me.’”
Mr. Thomas was demonstrating the Hope delivery, the boom-boom-kick of his bad-joke rhythm, which he has done hundreds of times since the late 1970′s. Back when the cast of SCTV-Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis-was looking for parodies to skewer the stupidity of TV, out-riffing Saturday Night Live with its acid takes on pop culture, Mr. Thomas set his sights on the man whose monologues he knew intimately from childhood, whose winking presence towered over everybody like a totem of everything American-a perfect foil for countercultural abrasion. And after years of parodying Hope, Mr. Thomas, born in Canada, became intimately entangled in his subject-to the point where Mr. Hope even invited his part-time doppelgänger to perform monologues for him in the later Hope specials.
The first Bob Hope skit Mr. Thomas did was of a golf game in the Middle East with Menachem Begin and Yasir Arafat. “They were playing golf with Bob Hope while trying to negotiate a Middle East peace settlement,” he recalled. “It combined the two aspects of Hope, golf and war.”
SCTV writer Brian Doyle-Murray, brother of Bill, helped him write the material, and the day of the performance, the impersonation still very shaky-”I didn’t think I could pull it off,” he said-the makeup artist, Beverly Schechtman, transformed him with a wax nose and a crucial suggestion.
“I needed a chin that jutted out,” he said, “and she said, ‘Why don’t you stick your jaw out?’ It was like the key that unlocked the impersonation for me.”
And it became legend. At first, Mr. Thomas’ Hope was a cold, self-absorbed hypocrite, a flashpoint for everything the Baby Boomers rejected about the World War II generation. “Most of the things I did were based on shows he did,” said Mr. Thomas. “I didn’t have any background information.”
He said his best Hope piece was a parody of Hope’s visit to China, when he had actually done a monologue with a Chinese interpreter.
Mr. Thomas’ Bob Hope transformed over the years-it got more accurate, spookier. Even Hope’s friends recognized in Mr. Thomas the Bob Hope they knew. Things got really weird in 1981, when SCTV hired Jeff Barron, one of Hope’s own joke writers.
“I was getting real Bob Hope jokes,” said Mr. Thomas, “and hearing about the real Bob Hope.”
Shortly after, Mr. Barron introduced Mr. Thomas to Hope in Toronto. Hope loved the China parody! After that, “I started to bump into more people and they started telling me stories and I met his friends and they started telling me stories. It got to the point where it had real Bob Hope shit in it.”
The act also changed Mr. Thomas’s feelings about Bob Hope. When Steve Allen came to Mr. Thomas wanting to interview him for one of his books, saying he had “captured ‘the essential coldness of the man’-that set off alarm bells for me. I said, ‘Don’t attribute that to my stuff.’ I begged off. I didn’t want to talk about it.”
Later, Hope’s publicist, Ward Grant, summoned Mr. Thomas to Hope’s house in Toluca Lake. Hope was in his 90′s then, and when Mr. Thomas arrived, he was sitting in front of a large vanity mirror, lost in his thoughts. “I said, ‘Hi Bob,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Hi Dave. What are you doing here?’ ‘Well, Ward said you wanted me to come over …. ‘ ‘Well, what do you want ?’
“Rather than getting into it with him, I said I wanted to see the picture he had of General Patton pissing in the Rhine,” said Mr. Thomas. “Then he lit up. He jumped up right away.” Hope showed him the photograph-the only copy not owned by the Patton estate-plus hundreds of others, pictures of Old Ski Nose with astronauts, starlets and four ex-Presidents-the whole Road to the 20th Century, right there. “It was amazing,” Mr. Thomas said.
One of Mr. Thomas’ last encounters with Hope was in 1993, at the comedian’s 90th birthday NBC special. Before the show, Hope was perusing the monologue meant for Mr. Thomas, thinking it was his own. When he told the producers, “‘You gotta change this line,’ they told him, ‘No, no, that’s Dave Thomas doing you.’ He said, ‘Well, change it anyway!’
“I had Hope punching in my monologue!” marveled Mr. Thomas. “It had come full circle. From the inside, I lost my satiric edge.”
Mr. Thomas gave it one last turn on the Jiminy Glick Show in 2001, with former SCTV colleague Martin Short as the fat, scabrous guest host. Mr. Thomas did a withered 99-year-old Hope.
Hope : “I just thought I’d come on and plug my special.”
Glick : “What is the special you’re doing?”
Hope : “We’re doing a big hundredth birthday special out at Edward’s Air Force Base where the government is going to set off a 20-kiloton bomb in my honor.”
The Observer asked Mr. Thomas if this was the end of his Hope routine, now that his subject was gone.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably. Rick Moranis wants me to do a one-man show on Broadway. I would never go to a one-man show , I would never do that. No way! Yeah, I think it’s retired.”
Mr. Thomas said he understood that comedy has a context, it loses its purpose with time, it changes with the culture. At first, he was angry that younger comedians didn’t genuflect to Bob Hope. “They’re dipshits,” he said of some young comedy writers. “You can’t be a comedy buff and not know about Bob Hope. That’s just stupid. To understand where comedy is , it’s good to know where it was …. “
Mr. Thomas caught himself.
“When I start talking like that, I start sounding like an old guy,” he laughed. “I work on SNL with young writers, and they don’t know the old stuff, but at some point you have to let it go. It had its day. Let it go.”
Today, E! presents True Hollywood Story: Joey Heatherton , about the jiggly go-go girl who performed on many U.S.O. tours with Bob and who SCTV immortalized as Lola Heatherton, often performing with Bobby Bittman on his classic TV specials. [E!, 24, 1 p.m.]
Thursday, August 7
Speaking of young writers at SNL , some young writers at SNL tell NYTV not to expect any parodies of Bob Hope in the upcoming fall season.
“It’s still too early, man,” said Leo Allen.
“It’s too painful,” concurred Eric Slovin, also an SNL staffer and Mr. Allen’s writing partner.
“Show some respect!” Mr. Allen added.
“When a man who is 100 years old dies,” said Mr. Slovin, “it takes 20 years before people can joke about it.”
“Nobody can even start to think about jokes about Bob Hope yet,” said Mr. Allen.
If Mr. Allen and Mr. Slovin sounded insincere, that’s “Slovin & Allen”-their touchstones are Steve Martin and SCTV , which minted Dave Thomas. They come from the anti-entertainer entertainer school, like everyone who ever worked on SNL . But on Sunday, Aug. 3, “Slovin & Allen” sat down in Mr. Allen’s studio apartment on West 56th Street to watch Road to Zanzibar , the 1941 Hope-Crosby–Dorothy Lamour movie that takes place in Africa in which Bob Hope gets chased by a guy in an ape suit, which Bing finds highly amusing.
“In the comedy world,” said Mr. Slovin, a balding 35-year-old, “I don’t think there’s so much awareness of the past beyond, say, the 70′s. People are fans of Richard Pryor and Monty Python and SNL in the 70′s.” Slovin and Allen created the SNL skit “The Falconer,” in which an off-the-grid wacko has a falcon sidekick, who unbeknownst to him, lives a fabulous A-list lifestyle while he’s away looking for food.
On stage, they do absurdist skits-two guys at a business seminar whose boredom devolves into shooting smack and masturbating one other-and faux-vaudeville bits that digress into off-kilter nonsense, like their version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”, where in place of “Who,” “What” and “I don’t know,” they use actual names of Yankees players-then they do it in French, and then in sign language.
They took out Road to Zanzibar and put it into the DVD player. “I think it will be boring,” predicted Mr. Allen as the opening credits rolled. “It’s not about anything. It’s just, ‘Bob Hope is funny and Bing Crosby is there too.’”
“But they’re really good,” Mr. Slovin insisted again, not entirely convincingly. “They’re just really good .”
About 30 minutes into it, while Bing was crooning and being carried around a jungle set by black natives, Slovin and Allen grew bored-the movie was ejected.
The next day, Mr. Slovin sent an e-mail.
“As soon as you left last night we ran to Kim’s Video to buy Road to Zanzibar . We watched the whole thing four times. We stayed up all night. Neither one of us had the confidence to admit that we liked it while you were there, because you seemed to hate it so much. You obviously didn’t get it. I’d explain it to you, but it’s very complex. Does sarcasm read in e-mail?”
Tonight, turn off the TV and go watch The Road to Morocco with Bob and Bing at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. Then go see Slovin & Allen at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Shop and compare. Then vote by writing firstname.lastname@example.org.
More SNL reruns if you want ‘em. [Comedy Central, 45, 5 p.m.]
Saturday, August 9
As Steve Martin once said: “Enough! Comedy! Jokes!”
Tonight, 48 Hours Investigates something very, very serious, people.
[CBS, 2, 8 p.m.]
Sunday, August 10
On the Sunday, Aug. 3, edition of The McLaughlin Group , founder and host John McLaughlin ended the show by calling Bob Hope, in his stentorian Brahmin-ese, a “great wit and a great pat -triot.”
If you feel like it, you can go to The McLaughlin Group Web site and rate each of the panelists on a scale of one to five, with five “meaning that you received enlightenment of a metaphysically profound nature never to be duplicated, before or in the future.” [NBC, 4, 10 a.m.]
Monday, August 11
Tonight, it’s the Party with Spike World Premiere , a showcase of programming for the new Dudes-R-Us channel. With rare appearances by Kid Rock, Pamela Anderson, Ice-T and Carmen Electra …. Make it stop! [TNN, 36, 8 p.m.]
Tuesday, August 12
7 The only way to cleanse thy soul of Kid Rock: Watch Images of the Armenian Spirit , about the 3000-year struggle of a people. Seriously, it’s good. [WLIW, 21, 8 p.m.]