Friday, May 11, 2007

"The Komodo dragon is the world's largest living lizard."

You may have noticed there isn’t much that’s funny anymore. There’s a lot of crap they tell us we’re supposed to be laughing at, but damn precious stuff that’s actually funny. What’s missing is irony. Without irony there’s no humor. No humor: No wisdom.

I was lucky, I got in at the end of the last big irony boom when humor was about putting English on the ball. Some of the best English was applied by two radio satirists named Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. Bob and Ray.

Dry, observational and casually surreal, they were among the founding fathers of my sensibilities as a writer. And I got to meet them. When I was in college, my Radio Television production teacher gave me a letter of introduction and I went to visit Bob and Ray during one of their four-hour daily live broadcasts over WOR. Yes, Four hours. Daily. Live.

I thought they were going to let me stand in the control booth or something, but instead, the producer walked me into the broadcast studio. There they were, two innocuous gentleman from Boston, side by side at a desk with two microphones and two copy stands.

A quick round of introductions during a commercial and then I was planted at a smaller table off to one side. I had to sit there, not laughing. To my regret I was too shy and too intimidated to really engage them. Ray offered me some pistachios. I declined. I just sat there, like a lump at the corner of the radio frame while they sculpted the air with absurdity.

I sat there the way a young Kurt Vonnegut once sat in a Boston radio station, a similar lump in awe of the masters. Garrison Keillor did his lump time as well I later learned. Kurt and Garrison and I all came to a similar conclusion; that these two men were so sharp, so agile, so literate, their timing so impeccable, that the impression you got from seeing them work was that they almost seemed bored. It had become so easy for them, they did their triple summersaults without a net with all the flash of some guy on the Long Island Railroad headed in to work at Prudential.

They sat at their desk, cool as a couple of cucumbers. These are the guys who did a live fifteen minute television show five days a week in the early fifties. I like to go to the Museum of Radio and Telelvision and pull up the show they did live the day I was born. During the Bob and Ray Show a conscientious gang of kidnappers follow up a ransom demand made over the phone by throwing a rock through the window with a note that reads: “This is to confirm our telephone conversation of a few moments ago.” Bob and Ray had their own fictional network, The Finley Quality network that like other networks had a late night talk show. Unfortunately, most to the Finley affiliates signed off at local sunset so their late night show went on three, three-thirty in the afternoon.

And Bob and Ray came up with the best names this side of Charles Dickens. Chalmers Boatwright, Mailtand W. Montmorency, Lupis Bartlow, Carlton E. Wickwire, Harlow P. Whitcomb, who was president of the slow talkers of America; four minutes of comedy that shares the pinnacle with the interview of Dr. Darryl Dexter, leading expert on the Komodo dragon. ("It's a ferocious carnivore.")

I sat in the studio with them for three hours, watching them create this world with no more effort than it takes to stir a cup of coffee. Then I thanked them and I left. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell them what great writers they were and how they’d help shape my career. But I didn’t have a career at the time, so that would have been very odd.

Ray passed away in 1990, Bob’s in his mid-eighties now. And last week I made a reference to them while talking to my agent who warned me about not making references to Bob and Ray in meetings. Too old, too far in the past.

The kids, don’t know from Bob and Ray, so I shouldn’t mention them. I was angry for a heartbeat. I grieved for a generation deprived of elegance and irony. Then I realized if nobody in authority remembered Bob and Ray, I could start stealing their material.

If you don’t tell anyone, I won’t tell anyone. Now, have some pistachios.


Blogger Joe Barron said...

Long live Bob and Ray. I directed and performed in about 30 minutes of their material for a festival of one-acts in the 1990s, and I still treasure the letter Mr. Elliott sent granting me permission.

9:01 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home