[Originally published in two parts in the Barnstable Patriot on March 6th and March 13th, 2009, and reproduced with permission from the Barnstable Patriot (and thank you, Ed Maroney and the Barnstable Patriot, for the delightful assignment!]
To me, Bob and Ray have always been the Beatles of comedy (in other words, the best there is), and when I recently saw a new DVD of theirs, “An Award Winning Film by Bob & Ray”, for sale at my local Booksmith bookstore in Orleans -indeed, not just for sale, but on display at the check-out counter! -I had to ask myself, what kind of time-warped hallucination was this? Ray’s been dead for almost twenty years, and I really hadn’t been expecting anything in the way of new material.
For one thing, they’re not that popular -even in their prime, they were never household names, never best sellers. They were just completely original, incredibly beloved and ridiculously, truly, madly, and deeply hilarious -but not so’s you’d notice. You never saw them in stores or magazines; their names were never on everyone’s lips; they weren’t even on TV that much. In fact, they were basically radio guys, who (with timing that can only be described as “peccable”) first appeared on the scene right around the time radio took a TV-induced nose-dive. They were on the radio, for god’s sake -no wonder you never heard of them!
Even at that, they were somewhat regional, having started out at WHDH in Boston in the late forties and spending most of their career (as late as 1987) broadcasting out of New York City, making them kind of a northeast thing. They did log some TV time, first with a daily fifteen minute show of their own on NBC (in the process shortening “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”, not a particularly popular move at the time), but also guesting on “What’s My Line”, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, and later Letterman and Saturday Night Live, on which they hosted and also did a prime-time special, “Bob & Ray, Jane, Laraine & Gilda”.
Sound familiar? Well, maybe not, but I’ll tell you who loves Bob & Ray: comedians. All of the above (Carson regarded them highly enough that, years later, they were given permission to use Tonight Show” footage on this new DVD, which is rather rare) is just the beginning. Sports and newscaster Keith Olbermann contributed particularly excellent liner notes to the project (making the observation that Bob & Ray’s parodies of daytime radio soap operas outlasted the thing they were satirizing by a couple of decades); other fans include Garrison Keillor and Jerry Seinfeld, both of whom inherited their heroes’ ear for excruciatingly mundane and redundant subject matter.
The writers and cast of SNL worshiped them, though Bob Elliott today says that even so, Franken and Davis would not let them off the hook about performing Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy”, despite their protests (the song ended up being the hit of the show.) Kurt Vonnegut aptly described them as having their own field of gravity, and my good friend George Carlin not only bought scores of Bob & Ray products (first reel to reel tapes -!!! -in the seventies, then cassettes in the eighties and nineties, on into CDs over the last decade or so) for himself, but also lucky me (and, of course, we were both always after whatever vinyl we could scrounge!)
So, it would not be an over statement to say that I was glad to see “An Award Winning Film By Bob & Ray”, and I am very happy to report that it completely lives up to (and perhaps even beyond) expectation in every area except length (it’s only a little over forty minutes of material, even including the “Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife” audio set to the “Bonus! Bob & Ray Personal Photo File”.) Fortunately, even the photo file is fun, and the centerpiece of the DVD, a short film of the duo cutting some radio spots in 1968 by Orleans filmmaker David Jacobson, is nothing less than revelatory, revealing a couple of guys with an amazing work ethic improvising great material to order the way most people make a sandwich or write a letter, just like breathing, no big deal.
This attitude led to the production of a mountain of material over their forty year-or-so career that goes way beyond prolific. RadioArt, a not-for-profit label run by Larry Josephson, has 28 different Bob & Ray sets in their catalog at bobandray.com, all but two of which contain four CDs each -which equals, strangely enough, exactly 100 CDs, most of them between fifty and sixty minutes each. What kind of guy puts out 100 Bob and Ray CDs? You’ve got to wonder.
And that’s not all they have out by any means -there’s also Darryl Hawkins, who runs a company called Radio of Yesteryear (www.originaloldradio.com) out of Berea, Kentucky, who offers yet another hundred-plus hours of Bob and Ray, available in 10 or 11 hour chunks via mp3s on CDs (the website notes that these are “not playable on most regular CD players”, implying, I assume, that you could use them in your computer), available for $7.00 a pop -certainly the bargain of the century, as the RadioArt CDs go for a relatively daunting $34.95 plus shipping per four hour, four CD set, but I haven’t seen the packaging, and was unable to find out whether they do a proper job of paying performance royalties (I did ascertain that RadioArt does.)
All this came to light while trying to track down information on which of their many releases a new listener might want to start with, which has emerged as today’s $64,000 question. Amazingly, despite RadioArts 100 hours and Radio of Yesteryear’s 100 plus, many of my favorite Bob and Ray tracks are out of print at this point, in some cases because they were originally issued on larger companies like RCA (Bob seemed to agree that 1960’s “Bob and Ray On a Platter” might be the rosetta stone, including my single fave comedy track of all time, “Two Face West”, a five minute improvisation concerned exclusively with two cowboys trying to get off their horses) and Columbia (which originally released “The Two and Only”, Bob and Ray’s successful Broadway show.) Both albums were re-released on RadioArt at one time, but the licensing fees proved prohibitive.
Adding to the fun is that RadioArt and Radio of Yesteryear cover some of the same ground, but both also have some exclusive material; and the liner notes can be a little sketchy, so the whole thing is really fairly bewildering. All parties seem fairly flummoxed by the concept of putting out a short “Best Of” style compilation (Bob Elliott said that it would be like trying to pick a favorite child, to which I wish I’d replied, but really, who has hundreds of children?), and one can certainly understand why, as that’s a hefty bit of treasure hunting. But the question remains, where to start? Even getting through my own collection was hard, because most of them are on loan, like candy stripers, out there helping people…
The good news is that a good chunk of the Bob & Ray RadioArt catalog is available online at itunes, Rhapsody, Yahoo, and emusic, etc., so you can try a few cuts without leaving your house. Larry Josephson recommends starting with their “Carnegie Hall: Night Of Two Stars”, and it’s a sensible approach: it’s only two discs, and is a good attempt to collect some of their best bits -I’d especially suggest the “Slow Talker” routine, “The Komodo Dragon”, “Speaking Out”, “Wally Ballou at the Paper Clip Factory”, and perhaps the McBeeBee Twins. The only downside is that it’s recorded with an audience, and Bob & Ray are unique among comedians in the regard that they were actually at their best without a live audience, taking full advantage of the intimacy that radio affords.
Which brings us back to the DVD, which is, as noted, too short and features some segments with an audience (the Tonight Show clips); and some would say that they’re better off unseen, though that’s a little extreme. David Jacobson’s film segment of them at work, though, is just priceless, and despite it’s brevity, the DVD actually covers a lot of bases, and makes quite a nice little intro -at least until “Two Face West” gets re-issued.
I’m only a little ashamed to admit that I cheerfully (though nervously) used all of the above as an excuse to interview Bob Elliott, something I considered years ago and decided I just wasn’t up to, not just because he’s a genius, but because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep a straight face. Luckily, it was just a phone call, and he couldn’t have been more charming. Now in his late eighties, he was sharp as a tack, and delighted to observe that the Elliotts are probably the only family in the world to have provided three generations of comics who have been featured on “Saturday Night Live” (Bob’s son Chris was a cast member in the eighties, as Chris’s daughter Abby is now.)
Among his observations:
“Everything we do was based on elongating whatever the idea was and carrying minute, unimportant things to big levels, and that’s what made ’em good, but it also required time and they don’t have that now.”
“We were testing ourselves, to see what we could get away with. On the Cavett show, we did Wally Ballou in a diner interviewing the chef, and all he was making was a fried egg sandwich, but he described everything that went in to this, the preparation, and we had to kill time till the hot plate heated up. We did about 7 minutes, frying an egg -one of Wally’s biggest achievements.”
“Ray was funnier as far as doing original funny reactions and lines, than I am…. I was the -what do they say? -the arsenic in the pudding…” Ray always did remarkable female characters, never falling into using falsetto, and “Ray’s voice got deeper and deeper as he got older… [Ray’s character] Mary Backstayge was the disciplinarian, and Ray could bring things back down to earth through her character when he had to.” They both loved the overly treacly MC’s of daytime TV, and Bob did a mean Arthur Godfrey impersonation (“I did it better when I was smoking”.)
The pair didn’t socialize extensively -they got to see plenty of each other at work -but they always got along well, and the two clans (Bob had 5 kids, and Ray had 6) occasionally vacationed together, once in Hawaii … “It was always fun… it was really difficult” when Ray died of a hereditary kidney disease about 20 years ago after having been on dialysis the last 10 or 11 years of his life… “how he did it is amazing, because he never complained about it, never complained, and we didn’t have to lose any particular work that I can remember… it’s difficult -he went too soon…”
We also talked about our mutual love of bad singers (“Leona Anderson! -we picked the farthest offbeat that we could”, including the wonderful Jo Stafford (Jonathan and Darlene Edwards) and even Florence Foster Jenkins… somehow I resisted the temptation to ask if I could have a crack at his record collection, but, Bob, if you’re reading this, I really, really need a crack at your record collection…
More great Bob and Ray stuff to check out? -Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife; Dean Archer Armstead; Aunt Penny’s Sunlit Kitchen; Mr. Science; Wally Ballou’s interview of Professor Groggins on the occasion of the launch of his satellite, which was made of “folding chairs , mostly, and some balsa wood, like you say”, and flew at an altitude of about 15 feet for awhile until it hit a barn; anything with Calvin Hoogevin, or his soul mate, Webley Webster’s book reports… You can also find them on Sirius and XM radio, on channels 117 and 163, respectively… hey, there’s only a couple hundred hours out there -party down, peoples!