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They put words in Bob Hope's mouth

They were Bob Hope's joke doctors, his gag men. And sometimes it meant being on call at all times of the day or night.

Hope was liable to phone suddenly from some city, wanting jokes to play off the day's headlines. When he called back, half an hour later, he didn't even say hello. You picked up the phone, and there was his voice.

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"OK, thrill me," he would say.

Sherwood Schwartz, who would later become well-known for creating the situation comedies Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, wrote for Hope's Pepsodent Show on radio beginning in 1936, a job that paid him $50 a week - not bad for a Depression-era salary.

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The key ingredient in writing a joke for Hope, says Schwartz, was brevity.

Schwartz would later write for another comedy giant, Red Skelton, a performer with a notorious dislike for the men employed to feed him funny lines. Hope, says Schwartz, wasn't that kind of boss. But then, how could he be? By introducing topical one-liners to a mass audience, Hope relied heavily on his writers to keep his engine fueled.

They were people like the Schwartz brothers (Sherwood and Al), Mort Lachman and Norman Panama in the early days, Gene Perret and Martha Bolton in later years. There was a certain drill to being a Hope writer: You called in to his secretary, got the topics for the day, sat down and wrote jokes.

And if Hope was on the road, the writers had to be especially ready. They might get a call at 2 a.m. from overseas, Hope having neglected to factor in the time zones.

"Sometimes you'd hear him breathing on the other end of the line, so you'd want to call him back," said Bolton, who began writing for Hope in 1983. Bolton remembered how, after an earthquake, she and her husband, a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, got a call at home - from Hope, needing earthquake jokes.

The jokes were his currency, but out of anyone else's mouth they wouldn't have been worth as much. To Schwartz, Hope's gift as a comedian was his timing, his rhythm - the way he could signal to the audience when to laugh. And, unlike other comedians, Hope wasn't interested in building to the laugh. He just wanted to get there, and fast.

"[Jack] Benny had small jokes leading up to the big one. Bob never learned that," said Mel Shavelson, one of Hope's early comedy writers. "He wanted big, big, big jokes, always."

"He introduced topical comedy to the entertainment world," Shavelson said of Hope. "Before that, you went to vaudeville, and if you were a hit you played [the same material] for a year."

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Hope's approach to humor hit its stride when he landed his radio program in the late 1930s. That gave him a showcase, a national audience, for his brand of topical one-liners. But for this he needed a staff of writers, and the joke men on Hope's Pepsodent Show came and went; if you didn't produce a usable joke in three weeks, you were gone, Schwartz remembers. Hope, meanwhile, acted as editor and taskmaster.

"I started [writing for Hope] in 1947, and I was fired for the seventh time in 1975," joked Lachman.

When writer Fred Fox left on his honeymoon, Hope asked him to send back 20 jokes a day. Fox was incensed, but he sent the jokes anyway, and Hope returned the favor by offering a week in his Palm Springs house to Fox and his new bride.

"He was not only good to work with, but when you got to know him, he became a friend," Fox said.

Not that his writers were always enamored of him. Hope's well-known stinginess is encapsulated in the story that on payday, he would stand on a landing above his writers and float their checks down to them as paper airplanes, in effect making them scramble for their money.

All these years later the writers remember this with a laugh. Part of the greatness of Hope, they say, is that he knew the value of good writing, even if he didn't think he should have to pay a premium for it.

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"He always wanted good material, and then when he got it he wanted better material," said Perret, who began writing for Hope in 1969.

Though the jokes had to be topical, the humor wasn't meant to sting. His political jokes arrived not as punches to the gut but as glancing blows. Hope, a patriot, a man who left his most indelible mark performing for U.S. troops all over the world during wars and in times of peace, was hardly the stuff great political comics are made of.

As Perret put it, he "left the deeper stuff to the Mort Sahls of the world."

Asked to sum up Hope's greatness as a comic, Perret said: "I thought his projection, which sounds like an esoteric thing to say, but if you sit in a room and Bob Hope speaks, everyone pays attention. He was willing and had the courage to wait for the laughs. He'd tell a joke and wait. And he'd sneer; that's where that came from. Of course, he worked so fast sometimes he didn't have time for that. But if he knew he had a good joke, he'd stare them down and wait for them."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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