Bob and Ray and the Old Nice America

David Halbertstam's article in Vanity Fair last year about the US government's response to the New Orleans hurricane was a sober and devastating attack on the presidency of GW Bush and was also an opportunity for the great Journalist to expound, in his trademark ponderous style, on America's degraded self-image. "We are less generous with one another", he wrote, "especially with the vulnerable among us. We are prideful of things that all too rarely reflect our better qualities. we have become a harder people, more arrogant, caring only about a certain kind of material success, the norms of which seem increasingly excessive. We are Fortress America cheering our own deeds, values and opinions while ignoring the same of others. We strut, all of us, too much. Where did our modesty go?"

Halbertstam consoled himself remembering another America, represented in a speech given by Dwight Eisenhower in June 1945 at London's Guildhall after being made an honorary Londoner. For Halbertstam the speech symbolised America at it's best- "thoughtful, tempered and respectful of others. The voice of a generous and confident man who spoke for a generous and confident nation." A nice enough, nostalgic thought for a great historical figure, and let's not forget that the General, amongst his other deeds, coined the phrase "military industrial complex" in his last speech to the nation as president, warning his country and the world what would happen if the American economy became intertwined with the interests of the arms industry. Too late! But nice try Ike.

Another couple of generous, even innocent, voices from that era were Bob and Ray, Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding, really just radio comedians, but pound for pound two of the greatest examples of the twentieth century, white, American male you could hope to come across. They started out in the 40's as serious announcers on a small Boston radio station but began to play it for laughs, satarising the medium itself, it's endless soaps, man on the street interviews, and filling-up-time studio links and in a few years were in New York as authentic national celebrities.

As a comedy duo Ray was the big bluffer, Bob the more intellectual, pessimistic, easily disappointed one. Mostly improvising live on the mic, Bob and Ray spoke with a calm, deadpan New England assurance in the voices of characters like author Alfred E Nelson (were the creators of Mad Magazine listening?) who wrote a history of the US despite having only a grade 8 education ("I relied on my memory a great deal", he explained.) or Frank and Tabetha Worley, brother and sister reunited live on a reality show after 70 years only to find they had nothing to say to one another. Or Wally Ballou, roving reporter, forever last on the scene of a breaking story, forced to go on the air with nothing to say. Or the endless radio show parodies like the soap The Gathering Dusk ("the heartwarming story of a girl who hides behind a shield of indecision because it's the safest place to hide") Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife, Tippy the Wonder Dog (a poor man's Lassie sponsored by Mushies "the great new cereal that gets soggy even without milk") or Squad Car 119 in which "the unsung heroes of the police force never actually make it to the scene of a crime.

Kurt Vonnegut was a fan. He wrote that Bob and Ray "played it as though they were intellectually, emotionally and creatively bankrupt. Doors slam as bored people leave the studio. Bob and Ray themselves would obviously leave too, if they didn't need the money so much" The radio shows are still available on audiocassette and they haven't dated. Vonnegut points out that the material is "universal and timeless because so much of it presents itself as the same dilemma- how to seem lusty and purposeful when less than nothing is going on". Vonnegut declares Bob and Ray characters "third raters all".

If Halberstam’s Eisenhower was the voice of the generous American Winner Bob and Ray is the voice of the lovable American Loser, an archetype not heard from much these days. The American Fuck-up is everywhere but that's not the same thing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post... I googled Tabetha Worley and found your blog.

Check out "Weekend Radio" on WCVL in Cleveland, (available on the Internet).

Bob and Ray have been my favorites for years... Probably because of the reasons you gave.



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