Steve Martin & Bob Hope
In 1978, in the midst of planning a special on the 75th Anniversary of the World Series, Bob Hope got a call from Steve Martin who told him he’d heard about the special, was a longtime baseball fan, and would like to offer his services as a guest. Steve was not only booked as a guest (he rarely did variety TV) but provided his own sketch for the show!
During my years as a script writer for Bob Hope in the 1970s and 1980s, I had the opportunity to work with Steve Martin only once, but his appearance on one of our specials made a strong impression. In 1978, the World Series was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary and the Los Angeles Dodgers had captured the pennant so Hope sold NBC on the idea of doing a two-hour special — back then called a “Big Event” — to showcase the Series.
To produce the show, he hired the hottest young sports producer-director in the business, Don Ohlmeyer, the wunderkind-protégé of ABC’s Roone Arledge, the creator of "Wide World of Sports." An athlete himself, Don had just formed his own production company and was well qualified to oversee the compilation of World Series clips, facts and statistics for the special.
In addition to Steve Martin, our guest lineup was solid and included Danny Kaye as co-host and appearances by Glen Campbell, Howard Cosell, Charo, the Muppets, and Cheryl Tiegs as well as Dodger luminaries Tommy Davis, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax and on-again, off-again Yankee manager, Billy Martin.
In the midst of planning our show, Hope got a call from Steve who told him he’d heard about the special, was a longtime baseball fan, and would like to offer his services as a guest. Hope was delighted, of course, because aside from "Saturday Night Live," Steve was relatively gun shy about appearing on network television; he had big plans for a movie career and TV guest shots were hardly major building blocks for that. But this one, he felt, was a special special. Plus, he knew Don Ohlmeyer’s reputation.
Hope was anxious to grab Steve because he’d appeal to a considerably younger audience than we were used to. Even better as far as we were concerned, he told Hope he had written a short sketch and asked if he’d consider including it. “Send it over,” he told Steve. “I’ll have the boys look at it.”
Ordinarily, if a guest wanted to perform his own material, Hope would consider it, but only on the condition that we be allowed to edit and add “Hope touches” where necessary. But when we read Steve’s script, we were ecstatic, though not surprised. It was a brilliant piece of work that utilized Steve’s talents as a magician. He had begun his career performing magic at Knott's Berry Farm and his "Great Flydini" was once called by Johnny Carson the “greatest magic bit” he’d ever seen on "The Tonight Show."
The sketch would make Hope look good, too. It involved a pair of vendors in the stands competing for business and opened with Hope, alone in the nosebleed section of the cheapest bleachers above centerfield, “So far from the diamond,” he laments, that “when it’s one-o’clock down there, it’s two-o’clock up here.” And sales have been so slow, he says, “I may have to go back to my old job — teaching.”
Enter Steve, dressed much like Hope and carrying what appears to be an ordinary sales tray supported by a strap around his neck. But he’s selling something else. “Elephant traps! Mouse ears! Elephant traps!” As Hope looks on in dismay, a fan comes up to Steve and asks, “Do you have any fright glasses?” Steve reaches into his tray. “Fright glasses, right here.” The guy puts them on and the eyeballs attached by springs bounce up and down. He moves off, delighted. Hope says, “How about that. I’m selling nuts and this guy is one.”
Another fan approaches Steve. “Do you have any giraffe leg-warmers?” Steve reaches into his tray and removes a pair of large, knitted socks. “Giraffe leg-warmers. There you go, sir.” A woman approaches both and asks, “Does anyone have a metal detector?” Hope says, “What kind of idiot would have a metal detector?” Steve pipes up. “I’ve got one!” Hope says, “That’s the kind of idiot!”
Steve removes a full-size metal detector and hands it to the woman who immediately begins using it. Hope moves over to Steve and says, “Mind if I ask you something?” Steve says, “Not at all.” Hope says, “Well, I’ve been working here all day and haven’t made a sale. You come up here with all this crazy stuff, and they can’t get enough of it. What’s your secret?”
Steve says, “Market research. I figured if people are willing to pay to sit this far from a ball game, they’d be willing to buy my crazy stuff.” Hope grabs some items from Steve’s tray — “Elephant traps! Get your mouse ears! Giraffe leg-warmers!” The crowd now engulfs both of them as they can’t wait on people fast enough.
The visual impact of Steve’s sketch was important to its success. How could anyone fit a metal detector into a vendor’s tray? It wasn’t an ordinary tray. Steve had rigged it so that, from the vantage point of the camera, it would only look like an ordinary tray. As he’d done for his "Great Flydini" routine, reaching into his unzipped fly to remove an egg, a rabbit, a dove and other unexpected items, he had performed a carefully prepared, well designed magic trick.
Steve's sketch (which had needed no rewriting) was a great addition to the show and demonstrated the unique comic talent that would later hold him in good stead on the big screen in classics like "Three Amigos!, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Grand Canyon." Even in 1978, Hope sensed how lucky he'd been to book Steve Martin as a guest.
Excerpted from THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Behind-the-Scenes Tribute to Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers (c) 2009 by Robert L. Mills and published by Bear Manor Media: . The book was chosen by Leonard Maltin as a “Top 20 Year-End Pick“ for 2009. Order online at: