As a script writer for Bob Hope and worked with him almost daily between 1977 and 1992. During that time I observed him in countless situations, doing what he knew best --- SELLING BOB HOPE. He didn't remain on the top of America's popularity charts for generation after generation by chance. Right from his beginnings in vaudeville, he realized that he had a product to sell --- himself. How did he go about this? What did he learn to do that made agents sign him, movie producers hire him, networks air his specials and audiences like him enough to return time and time again for more of the same?
Here is what I observed over the years --- an approach to selling that you can start using right now to keep your own products and services in constant demand.
1) KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE (in your case, your potential customers). Bob Hope never appeared on stage anywhere that he hadn't thoroughly researched his audience in advance. By the time he walked on stage to the strains of "Thanks for the Memory," he knew the members of the audience intimately -- their politics, customs, habits, likes, dislikes, even their local scandals!
Before we wrote comedy material for his overseas military shows, we first studied reams of background material on each base or ship where Hope was scheduled to appear. When Bob told his first joke, the audience immediately identified with him as one of their own. How else would he know all those intimate details? The names of all the sleazy bars off-base where everyone loved to hang out -- names and idiosyncrasies of the officers in command? -- even nicknames of notorious members of the platoon, battalion or ship's crew. Bob realized instinctively that the young GIs in his audiences would become his potential fans back home after the wars were over --- the ones who would keep him on television regularly for over forty consecutive years.
In 1978, when we journeyed to Perth, Australia to do a two-hour special opening the Aussies' new 8300-seat entertainment center, we had spent weeks poring over every detail of Australian life -- from the local weather, wildlife, industry, food and recreation to its history, ethnic makeup and language. By the time Bob strode on-stage, he sounded like he'd been living Down Under all of his life. From his very opening line, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Once you can achieve that, selling anything is easy.
2) PERSONALIZE YOUR PRODUCT: During my 17 years on the road with him, I observed Hope perform for all strata of society -- from captains of industry to union workers, generals to enlisted men. And in every case, he succeeded in making the audience identify with him. He was friendly and non-threatening. He was that favorite uncle who was always welcome and whose company everyone enjoyed. After awhile, the product he was selling -- Bob Hope -- literally sold itself as he collected lifelong fans and admirers. People felt they knew Bob Hope as they know any member of their own family. And it's easy to sell anything to a relative, isn't it? It's interesting to note here that, during all of my years gallivanting around the globe with him from Sydney to Peking, London to Stockholm, I never saw him turn down a request for an autograph. It would be like refusing a favor for a relative, and who could do that?
3) MAKE YOUR NAME AS FAMILIAR TO PEOPLE AS THEIR OWN: Bob has admitted to interviewers that he invested the most money during his career on two things --- fresh comedy material for his act and publicity. Top gag writers were engaged to make sure he'd always have a steady supply of the best jokes money could buy and publicists were hired to make sure the seats would be filled with folks anxious to hear them. Over the decades, quotes by Bob Hope appeared in all the major columns from Walter Winchell to Drew Pearson to Louella Parsons.
Of all the major stars of his era, Bob Hope maintained as warm a relationship with the press as anyone in the history of show business. He almost never turned down requests for interviews and was available for press conferences whenever asked. No surprise that the press treated him favorably with kind words and often glowing reviews for over 75 years.
4) PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE: Whenever we had a television special scheduled to air, Hope spent his every waking hour thinking of ways to advertise it. He'd give countless phone interviews to local TV critics extolling the delights of the upcoming extravaganza; listing the guest stars, describing the sketches and even telling some of the jokes! On the Friday before any special was scheduled to air, Hope appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" accompanied by a tantalizing video clip. After a while, Johnny resented Hope using his show as a billboard, But since Hope had been with NBC since his Pepsodent days on radio, there wasn't much Johnny could do about it. Whether they'd decide to tune in or not, Hope was determined that, come hell or high-water, people would KNOW ABOUT THE SHOW.
If, after the Neilsen ratings had been posted, a special failed to garner the audience he had expected, he would , blame himself for not promoting the show more effectively. (God forbid that our clever jokes may not have been all that funny.)
Bob Hope has been gone now for six years, but the very mention of his name generally elicits a warm, respectful and happy response. Why? Because he was extremely talented (a given) and made sure that the attitude he projected was always positive and friendly. He knew his product intimately and he succeeded in selling it to generations of Americans for over seven decades. Emulate Bob Hope and your sales, too, can soar.
I learned this firsthand when I began applying these very principles to market a book I wrote about Hope’s relationship with his writers.
In 1999, I was contacted by a major cruise line -- one of the best -- and asked if I could put a presentation together made up of show biz stories. I had been recommended by a friend I played golf with who taught bridge on board cruise ships and knew I had spent almost twenty years writing for Bob Hope.
Crystal Cruises was looking for someone to kick off a series of theme cruises featuring former film and TV comedy stars called “Legends of Comedy.” They had already signed Jonathan Winters, Arte Johnson (Laugh In), Don Rickles and others, but were looking for someone who had been around back then, had stories, but wasn’t well-known. Of course I had hundreds of interesting tales and nobody had ever heard of me. Turned out I was their guy.
To show Crystal’s booker what I had, I suggested I send him a few sample chapters from a book manuscript I was working on recalling my life on the road with Bob that I planned to call THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Behind-the-Scenes Tribute to Bob Hope’s Incredible Gag Writers. I also suggested that I could illustrate my stories with video clips from the eighty-five specials I had co-written in the ’70s and ‘80s. Luckily, I had taped them all off the air on a Betamax machine which I’d bought back in 1977 and the tapes stacked in a carton were still well-preserved.
I had three weeks to put a show together. After reviewing the tapes -- 125 hours of them -- I realized I had a treasure trove of material that included appearances by Jonathan Winters, Don Rickles and everyone who had guested on Hope’s NBC specials between 1977 and 1992: George Burns, Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Glen Campbell, Pat Boone, -- as well as a list of film stars that included the likes of Jack Lemmon, Lee Marvin, James Coburn, George C. Scott, Howard Keel, Shirley Jones, Julie Andrews, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. And I had tapes of them performing! Next I had to choose the clips I needed -- the best from the lot -- and transfer them to VHS tape cassettes (Sony had retired the Betamax format in favor of VHS which had become the standard).
My stories and video clips complimented one another perfectly and were a hit right from that inaugural two-week shake-down cruise on the Crystal Symphony from L.A. to Maui to Auckland, New Zealand. Over the next ten years, my wife Shelley and I would provide the shows for Crystal, Princess and Celebrity visiting ports from Capetown to Buenos Aires to Rio -- the Panama Canal to Puerto Villarta to Anchorage. I’d often be asked “Do you have a book?” and had to admit that there was a manuscript that hadn’t been published. Yet.
Actually, the manuscript I had been working on continued growing during each voyage -- stories I had in my scripted material would prompt the recall of others I hadn’t included. As each year passed, and with cruise-after-cruise, that manuscript got thicker and thicker -- and was now in a much more complete form. Initially, the stories from the book had gotten me out to sea, but the shows ended up improving and filling in the gaps in my memory. A mutually beneficial payback.
In 2009, I decided to take time off from cruising to finally get my book published. I shopped it around and settled on Bear Manor Media owned by publisher Ben Omart who had created a company devoted to show business memoirs and the past eras of radio, film and television. THE LAUGH MAKERS was published on April 14, 2009. A short time later, I narrated an audio version which is now available from Audible.com. An e-version is available from Kindle.com. The book was included in Leonard Maltin’s List of “Top 20 Picks” of that year.
Now that I have a book, the shows have taken on a different character. No longer just a storyteller, now I’m a certified “author.” And in that role, I sell more books.
So I advise young authors I meet today to “think behind the scenes” -- to be aware that the research, expertese, and personal experience that were essential to the creation of their their non-fiction book is of great interest to their readers who are fascinated by what an author has to say about his work -- insights on how the book was written and what kind of thinking went into it. Remember that the interest your book generates on its own is magnified and expanded when you’re actually standing on stage in front of potential readers.
Quoting Vince Lombardi, Bob Hope might have said, “Marketing isn’t everything -- it’s the only thing.”
(Robert L. Mills is the author of "THE LAUGH MAKERS: A behind-the-Scenes Tribute to Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers" published by Bear Manor Media -www.bearmanormedia.bizland.com/id370.html Also available on Amazon.com and Barnes&Nobel.com)
An unabridged audio version read by the author is available at: http://teach.learnoutloud.com/Browse/Arts-and-Entertainment/Film_-Music_-Radio_-TV_-and-Pop-Culture/The-Laugh-Makers/33067