Monday, February 20, 2017

Hope: Entertainer of the Century: A Review

Zoglin, R. (2015) Hope: Entertainer of the Century. Simon & Schuster, New York.

In the nearly fifteen years since his death at age 100, I venture to say that the name Bob Hope is slowly being forgotten.  I'm old enough to remember Bob Hope specials, even his last USO tour during the First Persian War.  If he is remembered, it is with a certain disdain, a relic who was both politically incorrect and politically repulsive to the current leading lights of laughter.  With left-wing comics Bill Maher, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell, and Jon Stewart ruling comedy, Hope's brazen conservatism is essentially the final nail of the coffin of his reputation as a comedy master. 

Richard Zoglin would have a long argument with you on Hope's legacy and importance.  Hope: Entertainer of the Century is an impeccable biography of the all-around star who found success in every field of entertainment he entered: vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio, and television.  Hope's fortunes (financial) were assured, but his fortunes (career and reputation-wise) faded thanks to a mix of time and Hope's own inability to stay with them.  Hope: Entertainer of the Century covers both Hope's public and private life, one that was filled with sex, ego, and pettiness, but also one that had kindness, generosity, and shrewd management.

Leslie Towns Hope (Zoglin insists that the more traditional "Townes" spelling is wrong, even when Hope did it) was an immigrant, born in England but who was brought along with the rest of his family to join his father in Ohio.  He was a bit of a scrapper, not one for school (Zoglin uncovered that Les, as he preferred to be called, had even done a stint in juvenile correction school), but one who loved his family.

Encouraged by his mother, who loved playing her piano, Les started entering dance competitions and soon built up an act with other partners, who for various reasons, didn't stay long.  Still, Les Hope kept plugging away at showbiz, and soon he was working his way up the various vaudeville circuits, from regional to national.  He also started honing his comedy skills, where it was his quips, not his dancing, that got the attention. 

Already at this point, Zoglin would argue, Hope was creating a new style for comedy, one that didn't depend on what had gone on before in vaudeville (comedy duos, ethnic stereotypes, or standard jokes).  Instead, Hope started doing more topical humor, tailoring quips for the regional audiences.  As a side note, Hope was among the first to not try any ethnic humor, his Midwestern manner being an odd fit to try anything ethnic, though he tried once with such awful results he never ventured into it again.

As his career kept building, Hope indulged his other great passion: women.  He had a secret first marriage, and his marriage to Dolores Reade (born Dolores De Fina) is shrouded in mystery.  Despite a wide-ranging search, no marriage license or wedding photo has ever been found or produced.  Zoglin argues that as a devout Catholic, Dolores would not have 'lived in sin' for long, so the likelihood of a Church-sanctioned wedding must have happened, but when, how, and under what circumstances no one outside Bob and/or Dolores knows.

Hope, for his part, continued his rise in showbiz, and after a failed first attempt finally got into the movies at a relatively old age of 34.  Not a splash at the beginning, it was The Big Broadcast of 1938 that bolted Hope's career: not the movie itself, but its theme, Thanks For the Memory (a title which most people erroneously refer to as Thanks For the Memories), which he lucked into to be his signature song.

Out of his movie success came radio, where Hope became a pioneer: having to create a whole radio show out of whole cloth versus other radio comics like Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, who already had definitive personas.  Hope's humor was also unique in that it was more down-to-earth, more the 'everyman' than a particular type like the cheapskate Benny or cerebral Steve Allen.

Hope managed his career smoothly, open about using writers (whom he wasn't the most generous with and whom he expected to be on call 24/7).  His radio and film career built up, and eventually a "Bob Hope" type emerged: the brave coward, one who appears courageous but turns chicken at first sign of danger, who pursues women but crumbles when he manages to get a response.

This of course was different from Bob Hope in real life, who had no problem getting almost any woman into bed (if it is believed, among his conquests were Ethel Merman and Doris Day, the latter never commenting on this curious liaison).  What Dolores knew, or wanted to know, is also unknown.

The Second World War was Hope's finest hour.  A man who didn't have any great angst, he thrived on the live crowds and threw himself into entertaining the troops (having done a wide variety of charity events for years prior).  Hope was undeterred, crisscrossing Europe and Asia to find an audience (even if sometimes troops would rather get home than get Hope).

After the war, things slowly changed, but Hope didn't.  He didn't become an ideologue until the Nixon years, and his support of both Nixon and the Vietnam War, along with his mocking of the youth movement in his various USO and television specials, began to sour larger groups of audiences.  His film career began to fade, and his specials became the like man himself: more rigid, more scripted, more cautious, and finally a sad parody.

Bob Hope ruled NBC, with only Johnny Carson being anywhere near his equal.  However, whenever Hope wanted to promote something, Carson had to give him time on The Tonight Show.  Carson, more withdrawn and moody, didn't gel with the generally bon vivant Hope, and Carson hated how scripted their 'spontaneous encounters were', to where if Carson skipped a question Hope would answer it anyway.

Bob Hope, once nicknamed 'Rapid Robert' for his quick-fire monologues, would not give up the limelight.  As he entered his 90s, he stubbornly insisted on doing his TV specials, where it was getting harder and harder to hide his advancing age, poor eyesight, and hearing difficulties.  Hope, to the end, wanted to be the center of attention, even if it was accidental.  When Dolores, who had given up her singing career to be Mrs. Bob Hope (and where despite the ability to Bob would not put her in his specials until very late in his career), made a 'comeback', Hope's hearing caused him to virtually shout when she sang.  Even worse, he would loudly order Dolores to stop being romantic with him after her set.

Given that at least until his 60s or 80s (I can't remember which), he had no problem being romantic with other women, it seems all so unfair.

In the end, after meeting his goal of living to 100, he died a couple of months later in 2003.  By that time, Bob Hope might have been an institution, but one that fewer and fewer remembered (his death merited one page in Time Magazine, but that of 'third-best Beatle' George Harrison got the cover).  Zoglin argues that Bob Hope had simply lingered too long: the prepared obituary for The New York Times had been sitting there so long that the author of the obituary himself had been dead three years).

I figure that many people nowadays do not know who Bob Hope is, or why he matters.  Zoglin's brilliant biography brings Hope back to life, showing us both his comedic brilliance and the hard, sometimes unfeeling man he was.

I say sometimes because Hope was more complex than 'selfish comic'.  Hope could be unpleasant (such as an early stunt where he would make paper planes out of his writer's paychecks and send them floating down, a practice he quickly dropped once it made the rounds).  He had no qualms about not just seeing other women on the side but forcing others to be party to such antics (in one incident Zoglin compared to a real-life The Apartment, he cajoled a young writer to let him have the key to his apartment for an assignation, leaving at the arranged time). 

However, Zoglin tells a story that reveals another side of Bob Hope.  Hope, unlike other stars then and now,  would reply to almost all his fan mail, adding personal touches, particularly whenever a soldier or his/her family were involved.  In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated (and Hope's popularity diminished), he got a letter from a friend of a seven-year-old girl he had posed with for a cystic fibrosis campaign.  The letter detailed that she was dying and that if he could write to her it would mean so much. 

Bob Hope replied, and not just with a form letter, but with a brief note that even threw in some humor at his expense (opening with, "Remember me?").

Hope was complex and complicated, at times self-centered, even vain.  He was also, Zoglin would insist, a true genius: not just in comedy, but in the art of career management.  He set up Hope Enterprises to further his career, always venturing into new media when given the chance (he didn't run away from television when others were terrified of it).  He invested wisely in real estate (though bristling at reports of exactly how wealthy he was).  He brought an intimacy between himself and his audiences that made him appear approachable, even if he wasn't.

For all the disdain Colbert, Maher, Silverman et al may have towards Hope's politics, there would be none of them if not for Hope.  He set the standard of the modern late-night talk show: the monologue, the skits, those were all from Hope.

Bob Hope should not be forgotten or relegated to a small place in comic history.  Apart from Woody Allen, no major comedian/comedienne mentions Bob Hope.  With Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Richard Zoglin gives us the whole Hope: brilliant, petty, easy-going and difficult.  Bob Hope was a true comedic genius.

With luck, Hope: Entertainer of the Century will spark a revival to restore him to his rightful place in comedy.

Bob, Thanks For the Memory...


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Binge: A Review

Oakley, T. (2015). Binge. Gallery Books, New York.

According to the back flap of Binge, the author, Tyler Oakley, is both a 'pop culture tastemaker' and 'an Internet icon'.  The logical question therefore might be, "Who is Tyler Oakley"? 

A more pertinent question should be, "Why should anyone outside Tyler Oakley's circle genuinely care what he thinks on anything?"  By his own admission, he doesn't have the skills that would normally vault someone into a sphere of influence: he doesn't sing, he doesn't act, he doesn't dance (though he's given them a crack in his high school days).  Oakley's claim to fame is the way most Millennials gain fame: he is on YouTube.   In his various YouTube videos, he follows, or perhaps leads, the Millennial march into oversharing, discussing everything that pops into his little head with nary a thought as to whether everything that pops into his little head should be discussed.

Oakley, in various essays, does so, giving us his thoughts on everything from sex (among his favorite topics) to his high school days (where he would get sex), his early work experiences (which inevitably led to more sex) and the constant surprises of his life as a YouTuber (one of those being, surprisingly, not sex, but on how fickle a fanbase can be).  Oakley, however, doesn't make a case as to why HE in particular should be heard.  Apart from a few moments where we can see genuine hurt and joy, where we got a bit of Mathew Tyler Oakley, Binge seems a trifle calculated, as if it isn't a real revelation into Oakley's life but a continuation of how he is on YouTube: cheery, irreverent, and willing to have lots of laughs.

This may be how he is in real life as opposed to YouTube life (and I figure he'd argue there's no difference between Tyler Oakley: YouTube Icon and Tyler Oakley: After Dark), but again, Binge won't answer the more important question, not 'Who is Tyler Oakley?' or even 'Why is he famous?', but rather, 'Why should he be famous?'

In various chapters we're told what are embarrassing stories that I was told would be 'hilariously sidesplitting'.  I didn't laugh while reading Binge.  My reaction instead was one of slight puzzlement as to how someone so young (he's a mere 27 at the time of this writing) can insist his views, his experiences, can be of such importance to anyone whom he isn't personally connected.

Sometimes though, my reaction was slight repulsion.  Of particular note is the appropriately titled section Fecal Matters, which starts out "Over my lifetime, I've had an interesting relationship with poop".  After regaling us with his various nicknames for the anus, he talks about how in his earlier days he had difficulty defecating.  As a Gen-Xer, though not one as filled with angst and apathy as most of my peers, I'm not sure how to read something like Fecal Matters.  It wasn't funny to me.  It was both bizarre and a bit disturbing.

Another section is Disney Princes; I should have mentioned off the bat that Tyler Oakley is gay.  Nothing wrong with that, we're all free to live our lives however we wish so long as no lives are actually being taken or abused, but Oakley does remind me of that quip, 'the love that dares not speak its name is now the love that won't shut up'.  Hence, Disney Princes, where Oakley marks down his Top Twelve Princes in Disney animated films according to how attractive he found them.

One of them, Eric from The Little Mermaid, loses points because he killed, "the best Disney villain of all time, the drag queen that is Ursula.  Unforgivable. RIP" (emphasis his).

Allow me to digress to say that when I saw The Little Mermaid, a.) I didn't think of sexually desiring any character, b.) I wouldn't know what a drag queen was, and c.) I think Maleficent and the Queen from Snow White are greater Disney villains.  Furthermore, while I can't say I know many gay men, the few I know don't talk or haven't mentioned their erotic fixations on animated figures.  I guess I could ask.

I suppose it's just because my viewpoint comes from someone older who didn't obsess about sex at age 12 (or obsess about it now).  That brings me to yet another chapter, Brace Yourself.  Here, he talks about how his parents made him get braces and that they took Oakley to have them tightened by dental students to save money (his family's poverty being something he mentions often).  At age twelve, he finds nirvana.  A quote:

"Dental students used poor kids like me as their practice dummies, and when I met mine, I was ready to surrender all control.  My student was tall, handsome, charming, and had muscles bulging under his scrubs.  He had to be more than a decade older than me, but that didn't stop me from thirsting".

Already fantasizing about living a life together with this dental student, his body finally allowed him to taste a touch of temptation.  Tightening braces requires the person to spit, so in his own words, "I did what any twelve-year-old flirting with a man twice his age might do--I licked his fingers".

The dental student quickly pulled his hands from Oakley's mouth, asked (perhaps nervously) if he needed to spit, and when told no, kept going.

Again, be it me, but at age 12, I wouldn't have known what the concept of flirting was, let alone flirting with anyone twice my age or wanting reciprocation from someone twice my age. 

The entire essay, one of the shortest, was one I found rather uncomfortable.  The idea a twelve-year-old would 'thirst' for an adult, male or female, dream of a life together as the closest thing possible to 'wedded bliss', or flirting with a man twice his age is, well, I leave it up to you to decide what you think of such things.

Most of Binge follows in that vein: Oakley discussing his favorite things (sex), absolutely mundane things (one section revolves about what he'd do if he were Beyoncé for a day, another on holidays he'd get rid of), and the rigors of being a YouTuber (mentioning other people I've never heard of, whom I figure are famous via YouTube).  It even shows him to be a bit of a diva: one section is about how he threatened an employee over his Cheesecake Factory order, another when he threw his name around a Verizon shop, and one where he berated fans at a convention when they surrounded the bus he was in to sing him Happy Birthday (a song he doesn't care for).

When I say sex is a big deal in Binge, it isn't an understatement.  Let me refer you to his essay, Ten Cummandments.  Among his tips are to shave the armpits, not squeal like a fangirl when/during/after sex with Oakley (he states one encountered ended with him asking for a selfie, another Millennial invention I don't understand), and know whom you are actually having sex with.

I figure that is one of the primary difference between Oakley and myself: I wouldn't discuss my sex life with anyone, let alone everyone.  Further, I don't see a need to do so. 

However, there was one section that had me if not riveted, at least gave me a greater insight into Mathew as opposed to Tyler.  The One That Got Away, the longest of his essays, details his first great love affair with a man named Adam.  Adam said he was straight, but as time went on it took only one drunk St. Patrick's night to show that at least he was flexible.  As time went on, Adam came to admit slowly to himself and Oakley that he was gay and that he was in love with Tyler.  However, Adam was not ready to come out to his family, and Tyler respected first.

However, the push and pull of the relationship began to wear on Oakley.  Oakley wasn't ashamed of who he was (rightly so) but also knew that you shouldn't push someone to come out until they are ready.  Still, they were boyfriends, and this cloak-and-dagger business of having to hide their relationship from the world, especially as Oakley was gaining fame as an LGBTQ+ advocate, was making things impossible for Oakley. 

Eventually, they did break up, but a break up is hard no matter who you are or how old you are.  Oakley cried for hours, days on end, even contemplated suicide.  Eventually, with some help from the Trevor Project, he pulled through.

The One That Got Away was one of his best sections because it wasn't about something silly or superfluous.  It was about something I understood, about something deeper than a romp or his latest run-in with a famous (or at least somewhat known) person.  It was about the joy and pain of love, in its confused, confusing form.

Speaking of pain, there is one last section I'd like to tackle.  That is Pleasure and Payne, referring to his ups and downs with former boy band One Direction.  Now, again, while I know of them, and even have learned their names (Harry, Zayn, Liam, Niall, and Louis), I wouldn't know one from the other, but that's beside the point.  Being introduced to 1D by friends, Oakley because obsessed (part of being in his own words, a 'professional fangirl').  He promoted them on his social media, went on about them, and eventually got their good graces.

The One Directioneers (I think that's what the fans are called) soon embraced him as one of their own, a high priest/priestess in the cult of these former Britain's Got Talent participants (if memory serves correct), even chanting HIS name when spotted at a 1D concert, with Oakley getting swept into the mania by waving his ass at them while wearing his "Professional Fangirl" shirt. 

However, how fickle are fangirls, even professional ones.  After rereading Pleasure and Payne, it's still a bit murky what exactly happened, but from what I understand, one of them (Liam Payne, hence the title) retweeting something from someone who said things that were interpreted as homophobic, and Oakley, out and proud, tweeted Payne and expressed concern/hoped for clarification.

Payne took issue with this, tweeted that Oakley was never a real fan, and the Directioneers, lemmings to the end, went after Oakley.  The tweets against Oakley were harsh to say the least (things like #WeWantTylerOakleyDead and #RIPTylerOakleysCareer were probably the nicer things), so much vitriol slung that even Oakley was unnerved and pulled away from social media for a while.  Eventually he came back, stronger and more sure that one had to stand their principles no matter what...even if it meant getting cut off from five pretty British boys.

Lesson learned.   

Binge, I suppose, is interesting reading to those who think Tyler Oakley and/or his views are important.  He isn't going to discuss such things as what steps to take to disarm North Korea, how to improve American education or whether it's macaroni & cheese or cheese & macaroni.  As I finished Binge, I got some sense of who Tyler Oakley is: a person who likes to talk a lot about himself and how he meets famous people, can accidentally throw away expensive clothes used for some red-carpet event, and his early fixation with penises that continues unabated.

I just never got a sense as to why I, or anyone, really should care. 

It brings to mind something I heard on NPR, I think, a profile of Girls.  In the clip, Lena Dunham's character is shocked when her parents cut her off financially.  She protests that they shouldn't, using the idea that "I don't think I'm the voice of my generation.  I think I am a voice, of a generation".  I figure Tyler Oakley thinks if he isn't the voice of Millennials, he is a voice, of a generation.

Maybe next time, he can tell me why I, Generation X, or anyone not Millennial, should listen.

And we wonder how Mama Hillary lost...