Write if You Get Work

Bob, as Wally Ballou, interviewing Ray, as the cranberry grower Ward Smith

Bob, as Wally Ballou, interviewing Ray, as cranberry grower Ward Smith

“If they like Bob and Ray, they’re OK.”

—David Letterman, on how to tell if someone has a good sense of humor.

Comedy, in addition to being hard, ages faster than unpasteurized milk. No one is a greater admirer of the best comic writers and performers of the past than I, yet I experience their work only with admiration, almost never with actual laughter. The one consistent exception is when I listen to recordings of Bob and Ray, the radio team of Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott, who passed away last week at the age of 92. (Ray died in 1990.) Bob and Ray crack me up.

The men were on the staff of a Massachusetts radio station when they teamed up in the late 1940s. At the start, and throughout their career, their stock in trade was a deadpan spoof of what was going out over the air. And at the basis of their comedy was a recognition (though, circumspect gentlemen that they were, they would never put it this way) of how much of the language of the airwaves was, at best, inane and fatuous; at worst, meretricious and debased.

There were three particular types of broadcast discourse that they satirized. The first was advertising — and in this they were following in the commodious footsteps of Will Rogers and others. The second was the particular formats of radio entertainment, notably the soap opera. The odd thing is that you could listen today to an episode of Bob and Ray’s long-running serial Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife (as the Bob and Ray website generously allows you to) and be thoroughly entertained by it, without having any sense that it was a dead-on spoof of an actual soap, Mary Noble, Backstage Wife.

In the third area they were pioneers, and their contributions are just as relevant today as ever. I refer to the extemporaneous or quasi-extemporaneous talk of broadcast personalities — news anchors, heads who talk about politics or sports or business, call-in DJs, reality-show hosts — which is ritualized, unoriginal, insincere, sometimes mindless, and almost always false. What’s worse, it never comes to a halt. The broadcaster’s dread of dead air is such that to avoid it, he or she will spew a string of words that individually have meaning, but collectively amount to utter nonsense.

Bob and Ray were around at the beginning of this glossy fake talk, and they skewered it brilliantly. Consider the beginning of one of their classic bits (which you can also listen to at their site).

Ray: Tonight we’re talking to Darrel Dexter, the Komodo-dragon expert, from Upper Montclair, N.J. Say, would you tell us a little bit about the Komodo dragon, doctor?

Dr. Dexter (Bob): Happy to! The Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard. It’s a ferocious carnivore found on the steep-sloped island of Komodo, in the lesser Sunda chain of the Indonesian archipelago, and the nearby islands of Rintja, Padar, and Flores.

Ray: Where do they come from?

Dr. Dexter: [Mystified pause.] The Komodo dragon, world’s largest living lizard, is found on the island of Komodo, in the lesser Sunda chain of the Indonesian Archipelago, and the nearby islands of Rinja, Padar, and Flores. We have two in this country that were given to us some years ago by the late former Premier of Indonesia, Sukarno, and they reside in the National Zoo, in Washington.

Ray: I, ah, believe I read somewhere, where a foreign potentate gave America some Komodo dragons. Is that true?

Dr. Dexter: [Pause.] Yes. The former Premier of Indonesia, Sukarno, gifted our country with two Komodo dragons — the world’s largest living lizards — and they reside at the National Zoo, in Washington.

Ray: Well, now, if we wanted to take the youngsters to see a Komodo dragon — where would we take the youngsters to see a Komodo dragon? …

I can never hear the word “potentate” without thinking of the Komodo-dragon expert.

As David Letterman (one of their comic heirs, along with Garrison Keillor and Bob Newhart) recognized, discerning listeners have always appreciated Bob and Ray and seen the seriousness underneath the comedy. Adam Gopnik wrote in 1990: “Their genius was to see before anyone else that the real rhythm of the media culture was stately, slow, and tirelessly attentive. Meticulous consideration of the blatantly absurd; calm interrogation of the thunderingly bizarre; fatuous cheerfulness displayed in the face of the outrageous; the syrup of cordiality poured on the whole range of human dementia — that was what Bob and Ray alone caught.”

Kurt Vonnegut, in the foreword to a Bob and Ray collection published in 1975, observed that their routines “feature Americans who are almost always fourth-rate or below, engaged in enterprises which, if not contemptible, are at least insane. And while other comedians show us persons tormented by bad luck and enemies and so on, Bob and Ray’s characters threaten to wreck themselves and their surroundings with their own stupidity.”

It’s very sad that Bob is gone, but somewhat cheering to know that his son Chris and his granddaughters Bridey and Abby are thriving in comedy. Moreover, 2,000 of his and his partner’s routines are available on iTunes, and many CDs are on offer at their website, so fans such as I will never not have some Bob and Ray to listen to.

Beyond that, there isn’t much to say, except to close with these great comedians’ trademark sign-off:

“This is Ray Goulding reminding you to write if you get work.”

“Bob Elliott reminding you to hang by your thumbs.”

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