“But even…but even as they did so,” I might incongruously drop into a conversation among my brothers, inevitably prompting a knowing chuckle from Richard.
“Ah,” David will sigh as he accurately deduces the origin of my non sequitur, “is this one of those ‘Bob and Ray’ things?”
It’s not easy to entice newbies to embrace the surreal and wildly funny world of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, two geniuses of radio comedy whose influential work is sadly unfamiliar to modern ears. You might play them a few skits that are guaranteed to amuse and elicit a few laughs, but Bob and Ray evangelicals know that true conversions are rare.
“I liked the one about the world’s longest, narrowest house,” David will offer. “That’s funny.”
And it is. But there is so much more for those who are willing to listen further. Yet it takes time and patience, perhaps a recalibration of the funny bone, to dig deeper. Like any religion, it’s not hard to pique people’s curiosity, but you can’t force their discipleship. You must wait for them to come to Bob and Ray in their own time.
Richard and I are lucky in that we have each other as sounding boards for our mutual appreciation. (Far too many B&R fans, I assume, are the sole torch-bearers within their social circles.) In fact, it was Richard who introduced me to the legendary duo’s then-recent public radio program when I was a college student in the late eighties. It was, and it remains, a perfect place to start for anyone new to B&R. Seasoned from a lifetime of appearances on radio, television and even the Broadway stage, Elliott and Goulding performed their most accessible material to an appreciative studio audience. The subject matter was much as it had always been throughout their career: send-ups of live reporting, soap opera parodies, ridiculous interviews, twisted radio serials and ludicrous, fake sponsors. But for those unaccustomed to the B&R sense of humor – subtle to flagrant inanity delivered with the driest sincerity – audience guffaws and the precise timing required to accommodate them ensure that you never miss a joke. After working my way through more than two dozen of these programs, I was already a fan. I also discovered one of the great things about B&R: their material and performances were so good that they invite and reward repeated listening. Even when you already know the next line, it’s still funny.
However, the excellent public radio series was merely the satisfying coda to a long career, and once this small taste had made me hungry for more, Richard knew I was ready to dive into the rabbit hole of the B&R archives. Collections like Classic Bob & Ray, Vintage Bob & Ray and Bob & Ray: The Lost Episodes took a little getting used to at first. Having grown accustomed to the gruff voices of the duo in their later years, it was a shock to hear them sounding much younger. Sometimes the age of the source tapes resulted in lower audio fidelity. In addition, almost all of this material was performed without an audience, so the timing was entirely different. But oh, what a treasure trove of hilarity. This was where B&R were truly in their element, when an entire cast of recurring oddball characters was born.
Once you become familiar with these characters, they take on a life of their own, and you can easily forget that you are listening to only two people. Elliott voiced everyone from adenoidal journalist Wally Ballou and the doddering grandfather of One Fella’s Family to alcoholic reporter Kent Lyle Birdley and a wonderful take-off on Peter Lorre. I actually heard his dead-on impersonation of Arthur Godfrey before I ever heard the real voice of his satirical target, whereupon I laughed out loud at the similarity. Goulding portrayed the endearingly inept and occasionally undecipherable Webley Webster along with a host of other characters, but it was his portrayals of women, most notably Mary McGoon, that hit a peak of understated hilarity. Just the way that Ray could tweak a pedestrian response like “yes” with an aging spinster’s wistful intonation can make me snort with comic joy.
Many of these characters have amusing quirks and running jokes that merely enrich the experience of gaining familiarity with the work of B&R. Adding to the insanity is the fantastic idea that some of the characters are ostensibly played by other characters. Thus, within the brilliant soap opera satire Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife, the voice of oafish neighbor Calvin Hoogavin is supposedly provided by Webley Webster, who is, in turn, voiced by Goulding. And like many of the older B&R satires, Mary Backstayge was a parody of a real radio soap (Mary Noble, Backstage Wife). There is, therefore, an even further layer of B&R appreciation for modern audiences, and that is digging up recordings of the shows they were ridiculing. Richard and I have reached this level of B&R fan interest, and whereas the parodies are so good that they stand on their own, listening to the originals elicits a whole new experience of unintentional laughs.
And for those who wish to go to the driest of B&R humor, there are those moments that almost defy description due to their surreal absurdity. In Mary Backstayge alone, for example, there is an actress so shaken by an unspecified trauma that she communicates only by saying “dippa-dippa-do, dippa-dippa-da,” and a storyteller (not voiced by B&R but lifted from a recording and highly edited) whose constant omissions and repetitions render his tales unintelligible (“But even…but even as they did so…”). These outrageously obtuse bits are not a good place for the new B&R listener to start, but they are among the funniest and most endearing laughs for longtime fans.
Sadly, Ray Goulding died in 1990, silencing radio’s greatest comic duo. Bob Elliott died just last year. But a few years before that, I learned that a B&R fan had chanced upon the address of Elliott’s residence in Maine and had the temerity to send him a letter of appreciation. He received a wonderful, personal reply. With just a little detective work, I had the address, too, and I tried my best to put in one page what the legacy of B&R meant to Richard and me in our everyday lives. I was truly thrilled when, just a week later, I received a personal reply, typewritten on a dryly witty page of B&R stationery. It included not only a few understated jokes but also the following words:
I can’t tell you how deeply I appreciate your generous praise of the work Ray and I did. Little mail at all comes these days, and to get a message such as yours is a most welcome surprise.
Enclosed, a couple of antique items from the warehouse for you and your brother. These date back to the early fifties when we first began on NBC. I’ve yet to see them on E-bay.
Again, thanks for that letter, which I treasure!
Wow. Speaking of treasured letters! Bob Elliott’s response is framed in my office. And the antique items? A pair of personalized “Bob and Ray Fan Club” cards, one for me and one for Richard, signed by Bob.
Thus I remain a devoted disciple of Bob and Ray. And one day, Richard and I are going to welcome David into the fold.
Then we’ll start working on our brother Brian.