Hope's jokes strike current chord

Sunday, June 1, 2003

— Looking for a little levity in troubled times? War, terrorism and stock market slumps have been unlikely fodder for decades' worth of reassuringly goofy jokes. The Library of Congress has a half-million of them, courtesy of Bob Hope.

"I don't understand terrorists," Hope quipped 10 years before the Sept. 11 attacks. "How could anyone get so angry, so involved, so worked up about anything? ... I mean outside of golf."

Another vintage riff begins, "The airlines are really getting security-conscious. You can still fly, but they won't tell you where you're going."

And today's investors can relate to Hope's humor from 1966: "Three of my stocks went off the financial page, into the help-wanted section.

"What bothered me was the speed of the drop -- I called my broker last week and his busy signal cost me $8,000."

Hope, who turned 100 on Thursday, is no longer up to performing, but his jokes still stand at the ready at the nation's top library.

Visitors can touch a computer screen to sift through digitally scanned images of more than 85,000 pages of jokes, some with Hope's penciled notations, all indexed by subject.

They are the virtual contents of Hope's famous "joke file" -- rows of filing cabinets lovingly maintained in a fireproof vault next to his North Hollywood home.

Hope donated the 500,000 or so jokes, and memorabilia dating back to his vaudeville days, for an exhibit that opened three years ago in the library's Jefferson Building.

The jokes are the work of more than 100 writers employed by Hope. He performed many on radio or TV or in live appearances; others didn't make the initial cut but were set aside for future reference.

Hope's file covers enough subjects and moods to whip up a timely act anytime -- whether it feels like morning in America or an overcast late afternoon.

Indeed, the archive proves that if you stick with comedy long enough, even topical jokes can be dusted off and replayed every few decades. Another tax cut or tax hike, war against inflation or real war is sure to come along.

And few subjects, it seems, are too serious for another golf joke.

"The way you dispel your fears is to laugh at them," said Randolph-Macon College professor M. Thomas Inge, who studies comics. "It restores a kind of healthy balance in our perspective."

Although many of Hope's jokes tackle up-to-the-minute anxieties, they are "a very traditional, conservative, safe kind of humor," Inge noted.

Like this one: "Everyone's nervous these days. Ronald McDonald has hired six bodyguards, and that's just to protect his buns."