Monday, April 22, 2013

Bob and Ray - KeenerThan Most Persons -- David Pollock

A guest review by Art Scott.

Bob and Ray - KeenerThan Most Persons, by DavidPollock, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2013, 318 pgs., $27.99, ISBN978-1-55783-830-8

            Were this a podcast, I'd be awfully tempted to do this review as an episode of Bob & Ray's Webley Webster Book Review feature.  "The Webley Webster players will now dramatize what I think is the most exciting scene in the whole book.  They're three days out to sea . . .".  But this is a blog, and the voice of Webley Webster is stilled, so I'll have to make do with text.

            Two young radio announcers/disk jockeys, recently demobbed from WWII, started kidding around and doing ad lib bits at Boston's WHDH to fill the half hour before the Red Sox games.  The show was titled Matinee with Bob and Ray, thus setting the billing, and beginning what would be a 43-year partnership of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, who created a unique brand of comedy based on slightly off-center characters dealing with absurd situations with deadpan seriousness.

            I am a proud, fanatical member of The Cult of Bob & Ray. For decades, B&R's radio routines have been in my ear as I relaxed at home, walked, biked and drove anywhere.  At first, the material came from the B&R tape underground, on reel-to-reel tape, then cassette, often of dubious provenance and fidelity.  More recently, many volumes of high quality transfers have come out of the B&R archives, on CD and MP3.  You can find them on Amazon.

            This new joint biography of  "the boys" by David Pollock is a valuable resource for B&R fans, for radio buffs, and for cultural historians studying the evolution of American comedy.  It covers their private lives and their career.  The personal material is simply told.  Both were home-loving family men (eleven children between them), uncomfortable with celebrity, and remarkably untainted by “showbiz” and the angst and neuroses that have been part of the personality package of so many famous funny men.

            Their career is a much more complicated story, at one time or another touching all aspects of the entertainment business, often several simultaneously.  The first few years after they left Boston and went to New York are especially crazy, as they bounced around from local radio to network shows, game shows, remotes, night club gigs and infant tv (There are YouTube clips out there from the latter; they demonstrate that their material at the time was ill suited for television, but they are wonderful samples of the raw and chaotic character of live tv in the early '50s).  The information density in this portion of the narrative is very high, and could have used a graphical timeline  to help sort things out.

            Pollock is himself a comedy writer with an impressive resume of tv hits.  As such, he is scrupulous in identifying and crediting the producers, directors, engineers, sound men and especially writers who worked behind the scenes of “The Vast Bob & Ray Organization.”  He gives due credit to writers who created so many classics bits, notably radio pioneer Ray Knight (Bob married his widow), Phil Green, and especially Tom Koch, who mailed them gem sketches from California for thirty-three years.

            As they refined their material and their reputation grew their work became a bit became more focused and less scrambled.  They had a run on NBC’s weekend Monitor, a series on Mutual, and for two years beginning in 1959 (replacing Edward R. Murrow!), Bob and Ray Present the CBS Radio Network a series of 15 minute shows that I consider the high water mark of their art.  At around the same time they had launched and developed their pioneering advertising business, Goulding-Elliott-Graybar Productions (motto:  “Puissance Without Hauteur”), best remembered for their long-running Bert & Harry cartoon ads for Piel’s Beer.

            The final third of the career arc chronicled by Pollock follows their varied activities as beloved comedy icons: their smash Two and Only show on Broadway (in July, 1971 I saw the show on tour at Stanford University, one of the most memorable experiences of my life); their association with Mad magazine, feature film appearances (most notably Norman Lear’s Cold Turkey), their many appearances on Carson, Cavett and Letterman (all huge fans), one more run on New York radio at WOR (where Wally Ballou made an abortive run for mayor), and a Last Hurrah radio series on NPR.  There’s a bittersweet cast to the last twelve years of their partnership, as – kept secret from nearly everyone – Ray was slowly dying of kidney failure, and their work had to be scheduled around his dialysis sessions.  Ray died in 1990.  Happily, Bob is still with us, having just celebrated his 90th birthday, and he, along with Liz Goulding, Ray’s widow, provided extensive information to Pollock in preparing this book.

            Throughout, Pollock supplies titles and brief descriptions of  lots of classic B&R routines, and bits of dialogue.  Fans will recognize many such, and smile as they replay the bits in their head, but they will also be frustrated to learn of many that are missing from their collections. There is so much fantastic stuff; and it must be heard.  Even the three volumes of B&R scripts that were published in the ‘70s and ‘80s are inadequate.  Their humor came from character and situation -- and brilliant voice acting – and can’t be adequately conveyed on paper (again, go look on Amazon!).  However, a book is the right medium for a biography, and Pollock has done an outstanding job.

            There are many wonderful photos, an extensive bibliography, and two indices, one general, the other an index of B&R Parodies.  I spotted only one mistake (one I suspect many Bill’s Blog readers would have noted as well).  In discussing their early tv show, Pollock mentions an actress’s previous job on Rocky Corbett, Space Cadet.  That title, of course, is a mistaken conflation of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, the latter, of course, being the inspiration for B&R’s long-running serial, Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate (brought to you by “chocolate cookies with white stuff in between them”).

1 comment:

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Bill,

Let's not forget: Bob & Ray, Jane, Laraine & Gilda (1981).