Have you ever tried to explain who Bob and Ray are to someone unfamiliar with their surreal humor? They don't tell jokes or belt out one-liners punctuated by rim-shots, so trying to do Bob and Ray--the way you might mimic some comedian's schtick--doesn't work.
You have to hear Bob and Ray to appreciate them. Or read them--almost as good--in this collection of 52 scripts from their radio, TV and Broadway performances.
Here's their ever-popular peripatetic reporter, Wally Ballou, visiting the Great Lakes Paper Clip Factory in Napoleon, Ohio. Company president Hudley Pierce tells Ballou that his firm battles inflation by wholesaling its handmade paper clips for 6 cents a box, selling only 200 boxes a week:
BALLOU: And you can afford to operate a big plant like that when your weekly sales only mount to twelve dollars?
PIERCE: Yes. We have a very low wage structure. Here, again, we've been able to hold the line on costs. Our average worker makes about fourteen cents a week.
BALLOU: Well, how in the world could anybody live on that?
PIERCE: We don't pry into the personal lives of our employes, Wally . . .
Wally Ballou also visits Kenosha, Wis., touring the home of that famous American, Fabian Sturdley, with Van Tassel Sturdley, the grandson. Ballou describes "fabulous Sturdley House" for his listeners:
BALLOU: And what's the significance of that hole in the wall with a frame around it?
STURDLEY: That was when Grandfather shot at a traveling tinker and missed. He was moody that day because the bottom had fallen out of puttees. And there was a tight money situation, too.
BALLOU: Now, there's a kitchen out that way . . . and through this door a small den. I can see a pile of National Geographics and a picture of a blank Mount Rushmore. Not many of those around, I bet.
STURDLEY: It's a rare, valuable possession, yes.
All the other Bob and Ray trademarks are here too, the flaky characters with names that just skirt reality--O. Leo Leahy, Bodin Pardew, Millard L. Peevy and raconteur Martin Le Soeur (who forgets both the beginnings and punch lines to his anecdotes)--and the space cadets who always sound a little too real for comfort. In "News in Depth," for example, Bob interviews "the corrupt mayor of Skunk Haven, New Jersey--Mayor Ralph Moody Thayer":
THAYER: . . . ten or fifteen years ago, it was a disgrace to be corrupt. Now it's a very fertile field. I recommend it to anybody with a devious mind, who is willing to put in long, long hours, without working hard. They will find it terribly enriching. Fully rewarding.
And you'll find Bob and Ray's wacky take-offs on radio shows--"Mr. District Defender," "Buddy Blodgett at the Polygon Ballroom," "Tippy, the Wonder Dog;" their commercials--"Einbinder Flypaper," "Forbush Dinnerware," and "the Monongahela Metal Foundry;" (" . . . don't let unexpected company think you're a person with corroded ingots") and soap operas--"General Pharmacy," "Search for Togetherness," and three episodes of "Garish Summit":
RODNEY: . . . I'm the wealthy but spineless young executive, Rodney Murchfield. And this is my dowager mother, Agatha.
MAN: Pleased to meet you, Miss Agatha. I've been looking forward to this moment. You see, I'm your long lost elder son, Skippy.
(Organ: musical sting)
RODNEY: I'm afraid there's been some mistake, you sleazy imposter. I'm an only child and sole heir to the Murchfield billions. Mother, tell him you never had another son.
AGATHA: Well, I'm just trying to remember. That would have been about thirty years ago. And there were so many goings on at the country club then that it's hard to keep track of everything.
I wish the book had included performance data and dates on the scripts and photos and more extensive biographical material. Fans and students of humor writing would have enjoyed knowing more about Bob and Ray's creative processes. But the book's goal is to supply laughs, which it does in abundance. Bob and Ray weave satire, non sequiturs, wordplay and elegant wit into brilliant comedy.
I wouldn't dare to analyze how Bob and Ray pull this off. ("Defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people," wrote Robert Benchley.) Let it suffice that they've delighted audiences for almost 40 years without joking about dead cats, dope, ethnic slurs, cruelty or any of the other tasteless material that a depressingly large audience seems to find funny these days.