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.

December 24, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

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?

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