IT'S HARD TO imagine any more equally brilliant yet personally diverse satirists than Allan Sherman and Bob & Ray. Nor any more skillful at mocking American pop culture: Sherman with his Jewish-inflected song parodies written to popular tunes, and Bob & Ray with their deadly deadpan skewering of radio shows—of radio itself, actually.
Immersed in showbiz as a TV game show producer (“I’ve Got a Secret”), Allan Sherman backed into success as a Hollywood party favorite until his album, “My Son, the Folksinger,” made him a national craze. But he was wrecked by his excesses. Sherman led a flamboyant, dissolute life and flamed out fast, at 48.
Meanwhile, modestly tending their garden of radio parodies, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding lived well away from the shallow showbiz glamor their sketches so subtly, sublimely ridicule. They were family men (11 kids between them) whose careers spanned four decades on the air, the longest known comic partnership. Ray Goulding died at 68 in 1990. Bob Elliot is now 90; son Chris and granddaughter Abby, both former Saturday Night Live cast members, carry on the family funny business.
Bob & Ray’s and Allan Sherman’s rich legacies live on, and at (too) long last their lives and work are now deftly and thoroughly captured in two finely detailed first-ever biographies: Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by demon researcher Mark Cohen (Brandeis University Press); and Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Persons by David Pollock (Applause Books), the subtitle a deft play on the team’s stalwart detective “Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons” (for non-old time radio freaks, itself a keen play on the show “Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons”).
IT HELPS TO have grown up on radio to truly dig and delight in Bob & Ray’s incisive parodies of every form of broadcast life: soap operas, cop shows, talk shows, experts, self-help forums, food shows, news remotes, sportscasts, quiz shows. But anybody could, and still can, howl at Sherman’s slyly rewritten folk songs, pop songs, and show tunes, classics like “Harvey and Sheilah” (sung to “Hava Nagila”), “Glory, Glory, Harry Lewis” (“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”) and the song that put him on the map, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” (sung to “The Dance of the Hours”), an anguished letter home from a kvetchy kid that ends with a sweet wry twist.
“Hello Muddah,” like most of Sherman’s parodies, is not just a series of clever rhymes and wordplays with a Jewish flavor. His songs contain kernels of truth and sharp social comment on American life that endeared the lyrics to Jews and gentiles alike and gave Sherman’s tunes a long happy afterlife—unlike his own damaged real life, which was beset by troubles with women, weight, booze, and gambling. He scarcely missed a deadly sin, from gluttony to adultery (orgies included). The pudgy bespectacled Sherman was not the nice Jewish boy his songs suggest; he was a desperate letch and lush.
Sherman’s Dickensian boyhood is a textbook example of the making of an unhappy comic. His floozy, wannabe-flapper mother and redneck, racecar-driving father divorced early and moved often, leaving young Allan wondering where he lived, or even what his name was (Copelon, which he changed to Sherman to separate himself from his father’s shameful shadow). His bizarre parents were Jews in name only, but Sherman was pickled in Jewish tradition when he moved in with his grandparents. Most of his relatives come off as crazy and messed up, and Sherman apparently inherited the family meshuggah gene with a vengeance; only his wife and their two kids sound normal.
Song parodies have never engendered much respect, but Sherman raised the lowly bar to a new height that approached art, making fun of American trends through a Jewish prism. Nobody had ever done that before. Even Mickey Katz, an earlier version of Sherman who sang songs in Yiddish dialect, was not a social commentator, as Sherman clearly was.
Sherman only wrote a handful of songs with original melodies, such as “Good Advice.” He penned the script and lyrics to a Broadway show inspired by his divorce, The Fig Leaves Are Falling, that only ran a few nights. He was best on TV, where his roly-poly physique and gravelly voice gave added comic spin to the clever lyrics. His raspy voice was funny just to hear on LPs, but seeing him as an owlish, schlubby Everyman—he looked like a pastrami-slicing deli counter man—made the songs even funnier.
BOB ELLIOTT AND Ray Goulding were improper Bostonians who met after World War II at CBS’s affiliate WHDH, where Bob was an announcer and Ray a newscaster. Both were fans of Ray Knight’s oddball “Cuckoo Hour” (Elliott later married Knight’s widow), and after discovering each other, began doing improvised bits before Red Sox ballgames on “Baseball Matinee.” For years they were shuffled around as fillers between shows, segments, and stations, and not until they landed a regular spot on NBC’s famous marathon weekend “Monitor” program in the mid-1950s did they catch on nationally.
Even so, they remained semi-cult favorites throughout their long career as they jumped from network to network, time slot to time slot, from CBS to Mutual to NPR, the most welcome forum for their rarefied satire. They honed the interview format with an endless gallery of voices, or rather shadings of the same basic voices. “You either got them or you didn’t,” someone once said, trusting us to get it. They inspired comics of every sort (Johnny Carson often had them on his show), appeared sporadically on TV, and even did a Broadway show, Bob & Ray: The Two and Only. But as normal, un-hustling guys and non-self-promoters, they never became the big stars they deserved to be.
Their sly, often truly inspired spoofs are almost impossible to describe, since much of the humor is in the give-and-take and in their voices: Bob’s adenoidal characters, like newscaster Wally Ballou, and Ray’s array of blowhards and hand-wringing dowagers, like Linda Lovely and Agatha Murchfield on one of their mindless soap opera parodies—from “Mary Backstage, Noble Wife” (a riff on “Backstage Wife’s” long-suffering heroine Mary Noble) to “Garish Summit,” a send-up of “Dynasty.” They used a few basic voices in a thousand settings. In Pollock’s dual biography I would have liked more excerpts and analysis of their work (Cohen’s strong suit), but even his simple descriptions of the sketches had me chuckling aloud.
The classic routines—like the drawn-out interview with the president of the Slow Talkers of America, the clueless host interviewing a Komodo dragon expert, the chat with a cranberry bog farmer who never heard of cranberry sauce and the bridge builder who ran out of money (as we hear car-splashing sounds in the background)—can be quoted almost verbatim by devoted Bob & Ray addicts. Yet it doesn’t matter if you had never heard of, say, “Backstage Wife,” because B&R’s version was equally funny if you watched any TV soap that featured the same weepy, hapless characters and tedious, farfetched plots.
Bob & Ray artfully played against the often wild premises of their routines by never pushing, never hurrying, never cracking a joke, never going for a punch line, just letting an absurd premise play out. Their secret was pretending that all of these inane shows were for real, letting us discover the humor ourselves. No gags, just gentle wit.
Even for (especially for) Bob & Ray followers, it comes as a major surprise to learn that most of their routines were not improvised, like their earlier but sloppier Boston bits. Not only did they not improvise them, as fans assumed, but they didn’t even write them. The sketches were largely the handiwork of an anonymous genius, the witty and fertile Tom Koch, who turned out bits for Bob & Ray for 33 years but was never credited on the air, which Elliott half apologizes for in the book. You suspect the team didn’t mind that listeners assumed it was all their own material.
Koch was content to remain a silent partner and rarely even had contact with Elliott or Goulding—an occasional phone call, a rare note. Bob & Ray did improvise many early bits themselves. But then the team bought Koch’s first script and used nearly everything he sent them afterwards, maybe tweaking a line or two but never reworking the material much. Koch, who later wrote for other shows, had an innate knack for writing in Bob & Ray’s comic voices. Yet it was those great voices, pinpoint timing, and teamwork that brought his material to life on the air.
Bob & Ray were perfectly in sync. Since neither man played straight, the act didn’t feel like an “act,” but more like two guys just amusing each other. Their longevity, Bob has always said, is due to the fact that they simply loved making the other guy laugh, and indeed, here and there you can catch one of them close to cracking up.
BOB & RAY were as civil and understated, in both their careers and lives, as Sherman was brash and overbearing, but all three remain treasured satirical icons. In Pollock’s exhaustively researched double biography (maybe over-researched in parts—more than we need to know about Ray’s army service and family vacations, station management, and broadcasting politics), he seems to have talked to everyone Bob or Ray ever met in an elevator. A built-in biographical problem is that Elliott and Goulding led relentlessly un-dramatic lives (until Ray went on dialysis but bravely kept performing), but Pollock has nevertheless managed to produce a highly readable biography.
The contrast is Allan Sherman, whose chaotic life was a melodramatic made-for-TV movie. Never was a man less prepared than Sherman for overnight success, nor more in need of it. Mark Cohen’s insightful book carefully charts his unlikely rise and swift, sorry crash. Cohen, a scholar of Jewish culture, makes a strong case that Sherman was the first entertainer to bring Jewish culture into the American mainstream, long before Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason, or Woody Allen. Bob & Ray were just having fun, but Sherman’s records masterfully merged Jewish life with national fads in the ’50s and ’60s, bringing Jewish culture out of the closet, celebrating it, and creating a new kind of American humor.