So if Bob and Ray are known to someone who’s not a fan of old-time radio or of a previous generation’s comedians, it’s probably for one of these things: one of them (Bob) being father to Chris Elliot; the Slow Talkers of America; or Wally Ballou. Wally Ballou was I think their most reliable “field correspondent” bringing interviews. His first and most obvious running gag was that his cues were always mistimed. He’d almost always lose the first few syllables of “This is Wally Ballou, reporting from — ” and if that sounds like a slender thread on which to hang a recurring character, well, watch the noon news anchor throw to whoever’s in the field. Sixty years later the timing is still off.
Wally Ballou would interview as diligently as possible the people who occupy the Bob and Ray world. They’re all daft. It’s often not the obvious, clownishly goofy; it’s often just people with an odd idea that gets rigorously investigated. The hopefully-embedded link above, “591119 Wally Ballou on the Coming World’s Fair” if you just download the link, features Wally Ballou interviewing the guy who took the Perisphere home after the 1939 World’s Fair, and who had hopes for it to reappear in 1964. A slight premise? Perhaps. Talented people can build a lot on a slight premise.
Wally Ballou casts a long comic shadow. Bob Newhart has described how his career-defining telephone calls were written, essentially, as spec scripts for Wally Ballou. That was a revelation that floored me. I believe it; once you’ve studied the rhythms of both a Newhart telephone sketch and a Wally Ballou interview it’s hard to believe you ever didn’t notice that. But it also puts lie to the claim that Bob Newhart’s phone interviews were hilarious because the audience could imagine the absurd things he was hearing back. Bob Newhart’s phone interviews were hilarious because they found hilarious things to be about. Wally Ballou has both sides of the conversation and that doesn’t hurt either.
Jim Scancarelli, artist and writer for the comic strip Gasoline Alley — still running! — is among other things an old-time radio fan. Any sales clerk is likely to turn out to be Frank Nelson’s character from The Jack Benny Program. And when he needs a reporter for a scene Molly Ballew (sic) or her sister Polly Ballew are reliably called in to host. Their other sister Hulla Ballew has also appeared, as a newspaper journalist. For some reason Scancarelli has made it surprisingly insistent that these are Wally’s sisters. I would have thought making them his daughters, or even grand-daughters, less taxing on the timeline. After all, one of the defining traits of Gasoline Alley was that it progressed in more or less real time.
Also I’m delighted that one of the running sketches, the Bob and Ray Trophy Train, takes the train in to Lansing, Michigan. And not just for a visit; the train, bringing souvenirs of Bob and Ray’s life on a goodwill tour to the areas outside CBS Studios, is said to be wintering over in Lansing. Well, I could walk to the train station where that would have been. (It’s a restaurant now.) Maybe it would have wintered at some other spot. Should ask the local comedy troupes if there’s a plaque marking the spot.
Bob and Ray also name-check radio station WJIM, which back then must have been the CBS affiliate. It’s still running, although as one of those News-Talk format stations that do so much to wear out one’s interest in news. WJIM was, Wikipedia claims, named after license owner Harold Gross’s son. It claims also that legend says Gross won the license, Lansing’s first commercial radio license, in a card game. That all delights me.