My favorite Bob Hope story was told to me about a decade ago by Brandon Tartikoff, the late president of NBC Entertainment.
One of Tartikoff's duties during the 1980s was to go to lunch once a year with Hope at the comedian's Toluca Lake home and plan Hope's annual NBC special. Hope was beyond an institution at the network; he had been with NBC continuously since 1938 when he signed his first radio contract.
"Having a one-on-one lunch with Hope was intimidating in the early years of my tenure, but over time, I developed a kind of kinship with him," Tartikoff said. The much younger man even started stockpiling jokes weeks in advance of the get-togethers so that he could try to "one-up" Hope during their meal together. According to Tartikoff, though, he always "got flattened."
As they finished dessert at their last lunch together in 1990, Hope invited Tartikoff to his "inner sanctum," a room that housed a huge, walk-in vault.
"What's in there, Bob?" Tartikoff asked as Hope worked the combination. Hope was said to be one of the richest people in Hollywood.
"Riches, Brandon. This is where I keep my jokes." Inside were rows upon rows of alphabetized file cabinets. In the cabinets were manila folders full of typewritten jokes. Hope opened the "h" drawer and removed a folder labeled "horseracing." It was full of jokes about jockeys, bad bets and lame mares.
"The secret of my success, Brandon: You've been stockpiling a couple of weeks. I've been stockpiling since the beginning of time."
The beginning of television time, anyway.
Hope made his first television appearance in 1947 when there were only 170,000 television sets in the country. He was not as seminal a figure as Milton Berle or Sid Caesar, because they did weekly series, while Hope favored the format of specials or "spectaculars," as former NBC President Pat Weaver called them.
He was a fast learner in the medium. In the fall of 1952, Hope launched a monthly program called The Bob Hope Show, which ran until 1955. That was followed by The Chevy Show until 1959. In the 1960s, it was Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, a monthly mixed bag of drama, comedy and variety.
During the 1970s, Hope was the highest-rated performer on television, based on his half-dozen or so annual specials and his performance as host of the Academy Awards telecast. At the height of the Vietnam War, his specials achieved some of their highest ratings ever.
Early on, Hope established the format he'd hold onto: Lots of glamorous women, a sports figure or two, a couple of singers, and Hope doing sketches with all of them. Most of all, though, it was Hope: standing at the microphone in a suit, the heel of one hand repeatedly smoothing down the back of his hair, dealing rapid-fire one-liners.
He was the comedian as businessman, the comedian to vast middle-class consensus, which is the heartbeat of American television. That is what made him so right for the medium. His conservative humor might needle Washington, to use one of his favorite words, but there would never be anything in one of his specials that would attack or threaten the status quo the way a Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl might.
During that long-ago lunch with Tartikoff, the executive and the comedian went back and forth on which guests should appear in the next Hope special - the baby boomer network president wanted Jerry Seinfeld and Will Smith on the show, while Hope held out for Brooke Shields and Jack Carter. Sometimes, it seemed as though Shields was on every special Hope ever did, but that's just the way his taste in guests ran: young women with long legs and old comics who were not likely to upstage him.
My last conversation with Hope was that year, too. It was supposed to be a routine phone interview granted to publicize that year's special, but it turned out to be more when I asked Hope about an item in the news involving Millie, the dog of George and Barbara Bush. Hope, who was 87 at the time, began talking about Millie, but, then, started referring to her as Fala.
It took me a second to remember that Fala was the dog of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. I realized this at about the same time that Hope realized the trick of time that his mind had played on him.
"Did I say Fala? Geez ... " he started to say.
"No, listen, Mr. Hope, actually you anticipated my question, because I was going to ask you to compare Millie to some of the other presidential dogs," I lied, starting to really like and admire this man for the incredible range of his career and the work ethic that found him on the phone at 87 plugging television specials.
"Really? Well, yeah, OK, sure. Can you wait just a second. I'll be right back, kid," he said.
When he came back to the phone, he began firing off one-liners left and right about Fala.
For a long time, I wondered where Hope went during that phone break before coming back so sharply focused on Roosevelt's dog. Then I heard the Tartikoff story. I now have no doubt that Hope's rapid-fire delivery owed something to that vault, the drawer marked "F" - and the folder labeled "Fala."