Bob and Ray's Comic Arena of the Mind

THEIR two voices first came to me one night long ago when I was lying in bed, almost asleep and half-listening to the radio. With great solemnity, a reporter named Wally Ballou was interviewing someone at a convention of hedgeclippers - a small-town craftsman doggedly pursuing some arcane trade point to show what the world of hedgeclipping was coming to. The conventioneer sounded so real, so resonant with telltale speech patterns and the dynamics of human nature, that instantly I recognized his type.

What I did not recognize at first was that it was all a Bob and Ray spoof - or that I had entered a comic arena of the mind from which I would never return. I'd never heard of Bob and Ray, but from then on their sense of the ludicrous stuck with me like a basic instinct.

Ray Goulding's death in March may have stemmed the flow of new Bob and Ray dialogue, but true fans have internalized the style of their radio theater of the ridiculous.

You no longer depend on sitcom formulas or the manic gags of standup comics. You merely listen to your neighbors, a secret agent of the Bob and Ray attitude, cocking a good-natured ear for lurking absurdities in a brave new world where any casual talk is potential ``material.''

The man on the corner giving you street directions in ``measured'' phrases becomes a member of Bob and Ray's infamous ``Slow Talkers of America Club'' - one of whom all but drove Ray crazy during a devastating sketch that skewered that genre with the duo's deadly aim.

Ah yes, they had your number, you word-draggers, you nerve-racking pausers before making your point. They also had media types down pat - the interviewer who intones questions that have just been answered, the deep-throated news anchor with a genius for turning the obvious into the pompous.

Their radio-bred humor still pleases because their true subject was the mentality behind the target of opportunity. When they turned a once-popular radio show called ``Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons'' into ``Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons,'' the parody was certainly topical.

But even today there's something innately ridiculous in that wordplay. It makes you listen to the stilted phrases lodged in the American idiom, the kind that plain-speaking people feel compelled to wrap their tongues around.

That brand of humor lies within the fertile American territory where Mark Twain and others staked claims, a niche usually reserved for Southern dialects or Down-East tales whose character eccentricities all but scream at you. With Bob and Ray, the characters don't scream at you, they matter-of-factly join you for life.

But I have a feeling Bob and Ray would be amused at all this dissection. I can hear them now, doing a little sketch about it - Bob the incorrigible analyzer to Ray's exasperated pragmatist. When they spoke of their work, it was with light-hearted, off-hand pleasure.

During one afternoon I spent with them, we retold old Bob and Ray stories (yes, I had the temerity to attempt a few), and they roared as if it were someone else's material. It was like sitting in a barbershop with a couple of local guys. Instead of reaching for buzz words and one-liners, their tone was reflective and generic, a rare and useful comic tradition - then and now - for audiences conditioned to market-based formats.

Ray Goulding was the one with soaring eyebrows, in whose rising tones you could hear echoes of your own frustration with an unreasonable world. In his absence, Bob Elliott works with that other radio traveler on the trail of native American humor, Garrison Keillor, who once told me of his admiration for Bob and Ray.

But the old team is still at it, having booby-trapped the memory of fans with routines that can spring to mind at awkward moments. If a respectable gentleman on a crowded elevator suddenly laughs loudly to himself, don't call a psychiatrist. He's just remembering a Bob and Ray exchange, one he might have heard 30 years ago. It happens to the best of us.

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