Though I’ve occasionally written about topics outside of theatre and the performing arts, with this post I’ll be titling them as a distinct series, affording me the opportunity to stray wider in my writing while noting when I’m “off-topic.” So here’s the first “Etcetera.”
If I tell you that I fondly recall coming home from junior high in the mid-1970s and huddling up to my radio for the verbal entertainment found there, I hope you will be struck by the incongruity of the date and the medium of choice. There was a burst of nostalgia for radio comedy and drama in that era; one station that I could receive, if the weather conditions were right, scheduled classic shows like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Shadow weekly; radio veteran Himan Brown launched a new series of radio plays called the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (archived here), and even the countercultural satirists at the National Lampoon syndicated their Radio Hour, a precursor to their own stage show Lemmings and shortly thereafter, the debut of Saturday Night Live.
I loved them all, but the most intriguing were the evening drive-time broadcasters on New York’s WOR, Bob and Ray. They would chat, do segues to traffic and news reports and intermittently launch into decidedly off-kilter comic sequences. Those I remember best were the serialized “Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife” and “Garish Summit.” None of my friends at the time listened to this stuff and it wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered the cult of Bob and Ray, who, as it turned out, were in their final regular radio run as I listened, having started their careers in the late 40s.
In the just-published Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Person (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, $27.99), David Pollack provides the first biography of the duo, from their fortuitous pairing in 1946 through Ray’s death in 1990. Though their material has circulated for years, on tape and records (later CDs), in books and now on YouTube, the book offers the opportunity to learn the detail (even minutiae) of their joint career, including their early leap from radio to television in the latter’s earliest days, their role (along with another hero of mine, Stan Freberg) at injecting humor into advertising, and their reluctant foray onto the Broadway stage in 1970.
The book goes out of its way to point out what ordinary guys Bob (Elliott) and Ray (Goulding) were and how much they eschewed the trappings of even minor celebrity. It also repeatedly comments on the lack of conflict between the two, only mentioning Ray’s occasional flashes of anger that were quickly forgotten. There’s no tell-all here, pretty much just the facts, ma’am, and very little drama.
In addition to noting just how much the duo were outside the comedy mainstream (indeed, they didn’t consider themselves comedians at all), Pollack makes one important observation about the pair’s popularity. Because they performed almost exclusively for years in studios – not stages or nightclubs – there were no aural cues as to what was funny and what was not. Their humor thrived on being underplayed, and undersold. But what may have made them truly unique was that without a live audience, fans would feel they were an audience of one, communing directly with the hosts from their car or home, unmediated and deeply personal.
Save for the occasional line of dialogue, Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons reproduces none of the duo’s material and its straightforward, authorized telling makes the assumption that you’re reading the book because you’re already a fan; there’s no effort to drum up new aficionados. While such an effort would have been challenging given that so much of Bob and Ray’s humor emanates from their rapport and timing, it’s hardly impossible to proselytize for comedians of the past; witness Dick Cavett’s superb evocation of the once sui generis improv of Jonathan Winters, which just ran in The New York Times.
So I must urge you to head to YouTube, to listen to my indescribable favorites, “The Komodo Dragon Expert” and “The Slow Talker,” both from their Broadway stand (therefore, with atypical audience laughter). Then just keep searching.
A personal addendum, less than 24 hours old. When the book arrived and landed on my coffee table, my wife’s response was, “Bob and Ray. Who are they?” At the time I didn’t launch into a rhapsody, but last night, having just read the book on an airplane, I began talking about Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, mentioning that I thought Ray might have lived near her family on Long Island. “Goulding?” she said. “I went to school with a Mark Goulding. His dad did something in radio.” I showed her pictures from the book and, indeed, my wife recognized Ray Goulding from school events. He flew under the radar even in his own town.
I, of course, was floored to find that my wife had come so close to one of my heroes, completely unaware. So I played the two pieces mentioned above, and we both laughed until tears came to our eyes. I am happy to report that nearly 70 years after they began working together, I had just recruited a new fan to the cult of Bob and Ray. Join us, won’t you?