On the passing of Bob Hope, President Bush offered this succinct and fitting tribute: “Today America has lost a great citizen … Bob Hope made us laugh. He lifted our spirits.”
Sir Robert Hope, who held an honorary knighthood in Britain, was honored four times by the U.S. Congress and by every branch of the military. But it is the latter part of his presidential encomium that I want to elaborate on.
Comedy runs the gamut from Bozo the Clown to Dante's Divina Commedia, from the jester to the visionary. In thanking Mr. Hope for lifting our spirits, President Bush correctly located America's most honored comedian somewhere in the vicinity of the visionary.
It is a law of anthropology, as inexorable as the law of gravity, that we cannot lift our spirits. We can bow our heads, confess our sins, repent and amend our lives. And no one else can do any of these things for us. But we are entirely reliant on others to be gracious, thoughtful and hopeful enough to lift our sagging spirits.
Humor at its best has its eye on a higher plane. Otherwise, it could not elevate. It was the genius of Bob Hope never to allow us to remain glum or gloomy. He was bright, energetic and, as his name suggests, a man of hope. “Golf is my real profession,” he once quipped. “Show business pays my green fees.”
Hope was a visionary because he knew something about greener pastures. We know of another man, one who has earned the nickname “His Polishness the Hope,” who also knows the secret of combining humor with vision.
Once, when the Holy Father slipped and fell several steps on newly installed carpeting in St. Peter's Basilica, he had the presence of mind and readiness of wit to say: “Sono caduto ma non sono scadutto” (I have fallen, but I have not been demoted). Even when he falls (though not like a fallen angel), he lifts our spirits. He assures us that a fall merely recedes a rise. The very best of all humor is an anticipation of the Resurrection.
When he was the butt of his own jokes, Bob Hope made himself appear to be even more invincible.
Though a star of the silver screen, Hope never won an Academy Award. Yet he superlatively emceed the Academy Awards 18 times.
“Welcome to award night! In my house it's known as Passover.”
“This is envy time in the valley and I'm the Jolly Green Emcee.”
Losing apparently never really got him down. It merely armed him with better jokes. His message to us was that though we are all down, we are not necessarily lost.
A fall is not perdition. We can get up and go on.
He joked that he had so many movies rerunning on TV that he could change the dial and watch his hairline recede. He could laugh at his own failures and imperfections (especially his ski-jump nose), and all the while use his humor to enhance his image as both a human being as well as a humanitarian. He saw something, as does John Paul, that is larger than life. Don't let the bumps in the road get you down; the prize ahead still awaits us. Have hope.
G.K. Chesterton ended his Orthodoxy with a curious rhyming couplet: “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.”
Bishop Fulton Sheen thought that Christ was exhibiting a pretty good sense of humor when he renamed the man who thrice denied him, Peter, and then established his Church on the “Rock.” Biographer Henri Daniel-Rops found it easy to imagine Christ laughing mirthfully as he dandled children on his knee while they pulled and tugged at his beard.
God has given us the Pope and a man named Hope, both gifted with the genius of appealing to the sunny spots in the human heart. The best humor presupposes hope, lifts the spirits and gets us back again on the road of life (to Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco, Rio, Bali, Hong Kong or Utopia — sometimes known as Paradise).
Thanks for the memories, but even more for rejuvenating our hope in better things to come.
Donald DeMarco teaches philosophy at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.