A labor of Laughs Humor: For people of a certain age, Bob and Ray mean hearty chuckles. And thanks to Larry Josephson, young people can share the mirth on public radio, cassettes and CDs.


NEW YORK -- First on Larry Josephson's agenda is an introduction to his toys. They spill from shelves and coffee tables and box tops onto the floor just inside the front door of his Radio Foundation offices.

One by one, he picks them up to demonstrate: a radio in the form of chattering lips, slippers that make dinosaur noises, and a pig that dances to "La Bamba." Best of all is "The Whipping Boy," a stricken-looking man with his head between his hands. When Josephson flicks the dial in the back, the Whipping Boy wails, "It was all my fault" and "How could I have been so stupid?" and "I don't deserve to live."

Neurosis is funny, but then Josephson, once an iconoclastic radio personality in these parts, is himself proof of that. Within moments of meeting him, he volunteers that he is considering writing an article built around the notion that he wouldn't leave these Upper West Side offices, which double as his apartment, for a year. "In New York," he says, "you can get anything from Chinese food to a woman delivered."

Josephson is bowling ball-shaped with a nearly white beard, and he roams these rooms in a blue pin-striped shirt, tomato-red suspenders and slippers. Clutter is all around him, and most of the clutter is hundreds of tape recordings and CDs of old-time radio humorists Bob and Ray.

Josephson is not an obsessive fan, although he is a fan and most likely he's obsessive. It happens that he is the world-wide marketing arm of Bob and Ray. Because of him, their sketches can still be heard 50 years after their radio debut, 20 years after their last commercial radio show and six years after Ray's death.

For a man who so relishes humor, Josephson is hardly a cheery presence himself. On the contrary, he has a rather melancholy disposition and finds much to complain about, from what he regards as the predictability of contemporary public radio to his unsatisfying love life. After two marriages and a string of broken relationships, he reveals he has resorted to answering the personals in the New York Review of Books.

So far, those efforts haven't yielded much satisfaction, which leaves Josephson plenty of time to devote to his cottage Bob and Ray business. Thanks to him, their comedy is available on cassettes and CDs, and their vast array of loopy characters can still be heard weekly on 30 public radio stations across the country, with at least a score of others getting ready to join the fun. (In this area, WAMU-FM (88.5) and WETA-FM (90.9) are considering carrying the program.)

So, it is fair to say that grumpy old Larry Josephson is keeping alive Matt Neffer, Boy Spot-Welder and Wally Ballou, Mary Backstayge and Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate. He's doing the same for a couple dozen other nincompoops, rubes, asses and boors.

Larry Josephson is doing a very good thing.

Bob and Ray who?

Who are Bob and Ray anyway? If you were conscious during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, you already know. Bob and Ray -- the slight, adenoidal Bob Elliott and the deep-voiced, bulky Ray Goulding -- were radio staples in just about every metropolis, village, backwater and truck stop from, as Bob and Ray would say, "approximately coast to coast."

If you happened to be in a monastery during those decades or waiting to be hatched, Andy Rooney's comments about Bob and Ray will serve as introduction: "They were funnier than almost anyone who ever was."

Bob and Ray's most famous sketches parodied victims that are now long-forgotten, particularly radio soaps, serials and personalities from the '30s or '40s. But their humor was more generalized than that. Their real target was most often the media itself -- bumbling reporters who don't listen, interview subjects who don't merit the attention, commercial plugs for inane products ("Einbinder, the greatest name in flypaper" was a favorite), game shows that are contrived, fixed or just plain idiotic, and dramas in which nothing happens to anybody.

In a typical Bob and Ray interview, it would become quickly apparent that the guest was a complete dolt. In one famous routine, Bob interviews Ray as Alfred E. Nelson, author of a new, 1,100-page history of the United States. But as Bob points out, the book is loaded with absurd errors. Nelson, for example, refers to the father of our country as "Nelson Washington," has Abraham Lincoln driving to his inauguration in a car, and reports that the first capital of the United States was Bailey's Mistake, Maine.

Under Bob's questioning, Nelson readily owns up to the errors, which he says were due to his failure to do any research whatsoever. "Yes," he agrees, "it's a shabby piece of work. I'm one of the first to admit it."

But, he points out, the book was leatherbound.

Often it is the reporter who is skewered in a Bob and Ray routine, as in Ray's interview with Bob's Dr. Daryll Dexter, an expert on the Komodo dragon.

Ray: Doctor, would you tell everybody all about the Komodo dragon please?

Dexter: The Komodo dragon is the world's largest living lizard. It's a ferocious carnivore. It's found on the steep-sloped island of Komodo in the lesser Sunda Chain of the Indonesian Archipelago and the nearby islands of Rinja, Padar and Flores.

Ray: Where do they come from?

Their material would be funny enough on paper, but they were masterful performers as well, each a dead-on mimic and also capable of creating an amazing number of distinct voices.

"They are a seminal influence in my work," says comedy writer Al Franken, who modeled his Saturday Night Live "Franken and Davis" shtick on Bob and Ray. "The way they left stuff unsaid. The timing between them. The tradeoff of being straight man and funny guy. They were brilliant and loopy and really smart without being intellectual.

"They are heroes of mine."

Birth of a fan

And of Josephson's, too.

He started listening to them in the '60s, at a time when he was himself achieving a measure of fame on the radio in New York.

He was born in California in 1939 and had come east in the hopelessly miscast role of IBM computer programmer. He chucked that career (enduring the admonishments of his Depression-era Jewish mother), and became host of a morning show on New York's WBAI, a left-leaning, nonprofit outpost on the FM dial. Soon, he was attracting enthusiastic media notices from such eminences as the New York Times and the New Yorker, which declared Josephson a refreshing, intelligent antidote to the mindlessness of AM deejays.

Josephson was either courageous or indifferent enough to be a recognizable human being on the radio. He was sometimes ill-tempered (he hated the mornings), unfailingly cynical, and so un- smooth that at times he spoke into the microphone with his mouth full of bagel. He was also invariably interesting, spouting forth perceptively on whatever topic occupied his brooding mind, whether it was music, books or politics. According to Ken Mueller, curator of radio at the Museum of Television & Radio, Josephson was one of the forerunners of the progressive FM announcers who blossomed in the 1970s.

In 1981, Josephson was still on the air, but he was also doing consulting work for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. One of his main responsibilities was to organize a biannual conference of public radio executives, which meant booking top-flight entertainment. Bob and Ray, he figured, would be a natural for this crowd.

By then, Bob and Ray were both in their late 50s and six years removed from their last regular radio show on New York's WOR. They were still frequent guests on television, popping up regularly on Carson, "Saturday Night Live" and, later, Letterman. But it was no longer possible to hear them, which was always the best way to experience Bob and Ray because of the array of harebrained characters they created, many in the same skits.

They readily accepted Josephson's invitation. Naturally, they were a smash, and as Josephson watched the radio executives contorting in laughter, something became obvious: "These guys should still be on the radio."

Ageless wit

Their act, he saw, was not dated in the least. It was as much fun witnessing them lampoon media conventions as it must have been in 1946 when Bob, a deejay on Boston's WHDC radio, and Ray, the station's news announcer, first teamed up. They were not ready for radioland oblivion.

"The appeal of Bob and Ray, it seemed to me, was timeless," Josephson said.

On the Monday after their appearance at the convention, Josephson called Bob and Ray with a proposal. How about producing a new series of radio shows which would air on public radio stations?

Bob and Ray liked the idea and back they went into the studio. They created 56 new half-hour Bob and Ray shows and once again found themselves on the air all over the country.

The warm reception to the shows led to two sold-out Carnegie Hall performances in 1984. There was talk of a national tour, but by then, Ray's long fight with cancer had commenced. He wouldn't be able to handle the travel.

But the success of the shows convinced Josephson that the appetite for Bob and Ray's material was not sated. They had no record contract. With their permission, Josephson began marketing cassette recordings of the public radio shows. Then he began selling a recording of the Carnegie Hall performances. Finally, he began soliciting collectors for copies of old Bob and Ray shows, some of them taped by people in their homes holding a microphone to a radio 30 or 40 years before.

Now, Josephson offers 16 different Bob and Ray titles (as well as a video produced by the makers of "Saturday Night Live" and a Bob and Ray T-shirt). Josephson's mailing list is 25,000-strong and includes the likes of Franken, Rooney, George Carlin,

Johnny Carson and Woody Allen. And with four new products on the market, he's having the best Bob and Ray Christmas season ever, good enough to finance a Paris vacation over New Year's.

"There are people who will buy anything that I put out," he marvels. And to keep making money, he has to mine more Bob and Ray material, some of it not their best.

The buyers are skewed toward older people who remember Bob and Ray from their heyday. But, Josephson says, when young people listen to their routines, they like them.

That's where the current radio series helps. It is the third Bob and Ray series on public radio since the first debuted in 1982. As always, the response is strong wherever it airs.

"They always do good things for our fund-raising and audience-building and just on a personal note I enjoy the hell out of them," says Norman Bemelmans, executive director of Georgia's Peach State Public Radio, a network of 13 stations that covers all of Georgia and parts of Alabama and South Carolina.

The Bob and Ray business is not especially lucrative. Josephson says he grosses between $100,000 and $150,000 a year. (Ray's estate and Bob get around 10 percent.) Josephson's other source of income is as host of a weekly syndicated public radio show called "Bridges: A Liberal-Conservative Dialogue." He's supposedly the liberal of the title, (a posture often obscured by his crankiness), and each week he interviews a conservative such as William Buckley or William Kristol. The show is a masterstroke of marketing, appealing to public radio program directors worried about criticism that their stations are a refuge for leftists.

Still, Josephson doesn't make much money. In early December, he said he had made only $39,000 so far this year from all sources. The only reason he can afford an apartment overlooking Central Park is that he moved into it 30 years ago and it's rent-controlled.

On the other side of the park is Bob Elliott, but Josephson never sees him. In fact, he reveals, Bob won't take his calls. He didn't enjoy a close relationship with Bob and Ray; they argued about money, and he was never invited to either of their homes, not even after Ray's funeral in 1990.

In the hallway of Josephson's apartment is the framed poster from the Carnegie Hall performance with signatures from Bob and Ray. Each devotes two words to Josephson. "Fine producing," Bob writes. "Thank you," says Ray.

Josephson broods about his chilly relationship with the comic duo. It hurts him.

"I gave them another 15 years of life and kept them out of the exclusive hands of radio collectors," he says, "but I don't think they ever really appreciated what I did."

Bob, who is now 73, has remained active since Ray died. For a time, he was a regular on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" and on son Chris Elliott's TV show, "Get a Life." Al Franken has cast him in his new situation comedy on NBC next fall. Bob will play a variant on his most famous creation, slow-witted, terminally nasal reporter Wally Ballou.

In turning down a request for an interview, Bob recently offered tepid praise for Josephson in a letter. "I commend him on a most thorough search for B&R; material, and for packaging and promoting it through cassettes, CDs, and T-shirts."

So Josephson isn't getting rich and a close relationship with Bob and Ray is a) unlikely and b) impossible. Still, on balance, as everything is for Josephson, he's glad to be doing it. Keeping Wally Ballou and the McBeebie twins on the airwaves is not a bad way to spend your time.

"Someday," muses Josephson, "I can walk through the Pearly Gates and when St. Peter says, 'What did you do?' I can say, 'I kept Bob and Ray alive.' "

He pauses. "Oh, also, I can tell young women that I'm a record producer."

A catalog of Bob and Ray material is available by calling (800) 528-4424.

Laugh lines

To hear excerpts from Bob and Ray, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6187. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 12/24/96

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