Bob Hope had just finished rehearsal with three Chinese comedians who will guest star on his three-hour China special on NBC this fall, or daring mix of song, dance and wisecracks in a land where comedy never was king.
"The Chinese comics are getting such a kick out of it, because they've been out of the business a long time," Hope said. "One was in jail for seven years and the other had to work as a doorman."
Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping has not been invited on to do a soft shoe, but Hope has other plans for destroying the last vestiges of China's grave and somber revolutionary image. He walks about town swinging a golf club, an unknown device in the land of Ping-Pong. He trades quips with Art Buchwald on the spot where thousands once rioted.
In Tienanmen Square, he does a Gilbert and Sullivan takeoff at the summer palace once burned by British troops and lectures former Red Guards at Peking University on the secret of getting a laugh. Chairman Mao liked to talk about contradictions, but he never saw anything like this.
"We got Big Bird flying in this week for the show. You know, from Sesame Street," Hope said."The idea is I'm going to the zoo to see the pandas. I pass by a cage and there's Big Bird. He yells, 'Hey, get me out of here. I lost my passport.' We got a whole routine about them trying to fatten him up."
"We had a little trouble explaining this to the Chinese," said production coordinator Marcia Lewis. "They wanted to put Big Bird in a cage full of condors and other dangerous things. We had to explain there was really a man (Carroll Spinney) inside the bird suit."
Hope, with the help of writers Gig Henry and Bob Mills, is borrowing shamelessly from old movie routines. But of course the Chinese don't know that. The Chinese comics, playing bellhops, bring Hope's bags up to his suite at the Peking Hotel. One is straining under the load. "Sorry, that's my makeup," says Hope. Another bag flies open, and hundreds of Ping-Pong balls fall out. "Well, they said I could get them wholesale," Hope says.
Hope begins to try to teach them a golf stroke, provoking Chinese puzzlement and mirth. "Eight million dollars for lessons and they have to laugh," he says. Hope hits the golf ball, shattering his hotel window. The manager, in suitable Mao jacket, rushes in but not before Hope has handed the club to one of the bellhops and pointed him out as the culprit.
In a brief trip to Shanghai, Hope watched two Chinese comedians do some of their own material. It was a dialogue full of broad humor about a census taker interviewing a man with far more children than the party approves of. "They were a standout," Hope said. "I don't care where you are, the timing always stands out. Mr. Li and Mr. Yuan, they did Laurel and Hardy."
After more than a week here, Hope said he is used to not being recognized. "It's a rest, it's a great cure for the big head," he said. The motion inspires one of the sketches for the show, a meeting between Hope and a very dour Chinese working in Tienanmen Square.
Guide: "This is Mr. Bob Hope, famous American comedian."
Worker: (cold stare) "Umph."
Hope: "Would you like to hear a joke?"
Hope delivers the joke, big punch line.
Guide: (to Hope; "He's part of our friendship program."
The script also calls for a Hope appearance at Peking's famed Democracy Wall, where dozens gather each day to read wall posters commenting on Mao or detailing personal grievances against the government. There has been some suspicion in recent weeks that the government no longer takes the wall very seriously. The sketch, approved by government officials, tend to confirm that.
Hope appears and puts up a huge poster advertising himself in a movie, "The Road to China."
"I'd like a few laughs," he appeals to the Chinese crowd. One of the Chinese comedians runs up and deftly draws a mustache on Hope's photo.
In an effort to close the recognition gap, Hope brought with him two of his vintage movies, "Monsieur Beaucaire," (1945) and "Son of Paleface" (1950). "They king of frown on that second one because of Jane Russell and the big knockers," Hope said. He said the Chinese might still let their audiences see "Monsieur Beaucaire," a spoof on an old Rudolph Valentino, who also isn't well known here.
Chinese television crews, guided by producer-director Bob Wynn, are going all over Peking and Shanghai to record pieces for the special, but much of the time will be taken up by a gala concert scheduled for next week.
The show will include Crystal Gayle, Shields and Yarnell, Peaches and Herb, and Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing with a Chinese ballet, company.
Hope said he had been trying to come to China since 1973. Henry Kissinger had advised him to write to the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Ottawa, but he forgot to include the word "People's" in the address and it was routed to a Taiwan office instead. "Since January I had all my friends working on it, writing letters and recommending me, but then the reply came back from the Chinese, 'What is Bob Hope going to do to entertain the Chinese?' So we didn't get a favorable response until I thought of having a forum with the college students here on humor," Hope said.
Hope has done shows in Moscow, Casablanca and Tokyo, but this is a bit different. In his three-minute dialogue on the show, Buchwald tells Hope: "You have to come to China, it's a status thing. You can't live in Washington now and say you haven't been to China. I just had to come to hold up my head."
His performance safely preserved on tape, Buchwald later remarked: "Hope's rather frustrated because he's not too well recognized here. We did that dialogue surrounded by TV equipment and a big Chinese crowd. Then Hope finished and he walked away.
"All the Chinese stayed to look at the equipment." CAPTION: Picture 1, Bob Hope and a golf club attract a crowd in Peking, by UPI; Picture 2, Bob Hope with Art Bunchworld in Peking's Tienanmen Square, by AP