Vic and Sade: A Box Of Old Letters


So years and years ago two then-friends played a little prank on me. One said hello to me, and we chatted a bit about the day and how it was going. Twenty minutes later the other said hello to me, and used the same prompts, and got the same conversation out of me without my noticing.

I was listening to the Retro Radio Podcast of Vic and Sade and last week they had a thoroughly delightful episode. If you don’t care to deal with your podcast software — and I admit, given that I’m on iTunes, I’m quite fed up with mine — here’s a link to the file from archive.org. And I should have it embedded to play below, if I can remember how to do that right.

It’s the Vic and Sade episode of the 26th of September, 1944. And it’s got a classically simple premise. Uncle Fletcher has made Russell the present of a box of old letters. They start off magnificently mundane and petty. And then writer Paul Rhymer brought his absolute freaking genius to something that makes my anecdote something on point. I know that Vic and Sade isn’t to everyone’s taste — it’s not a program to listen to casually, and the comic style defies the picking-out of specific punch lines — but this one just sang.

(In other Vic and Sade podcast news, Jimbo over at The Overnightscape Underground has had a bunch of small episodes of the Vic and Sadecast the past couple weeks. I would like to share the URL for that, but iTunes isn’t letting me, because iTunes.)

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Watching Some Cartoons: Educated Fish


I realized I haven’t done one of those posts where I talk about a cartoon in a while. So here’s one. It’s from every 1930s animation fan’s favorite studio if they don’t admit that, yeah, Disney was doing amazing things then: Fleischer Studios. (It is hard to come up with an era when Disney wasn’t outclassing everybody on technique and story, although they often could be beaten for comedy or pacing.)

This is Educated Fish, an entry in the Color Classics series. It was originally released the 29th of October, 1937, and it was nominated for Best Animated Short. It lost to, of course, Disney, which put up the short The Old Mill the 5th of November. Tough competition; The Old Mill is the short in which Disney unveiled the multi-plane camera, as well as special effects for rain, water, wind, and careful realistic depiction of animal behavior. Disney would use the technology and skills showcased in that to make Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi, and a long train of cartoons after that. It’s hard to argue with the Academy’s choice.

I’m a bit sorry to get on the competition. Educated Fish can’t really compete. It’s a competently done example of the naughty-child-repents genre. There’s not enough of the Fleischer studio’s real strength, clever mechanical design. The flashes that are there of it elevate the cartoon, as do the more energetic moments. The structure of the plot doesn’t allow for fast stuff to happen until the end; when it does, the cartoon picks up.

Still, there’s some fun bits. The sardines arriving in a tin is the sort of thing that tickles me. The student giving the teacher an apple. The lesson being done as music. The naughty Tommy Cod playing pinball in his desk — alas, in that era, pinball machines were flipperless. Tommy swimming so fast he pulls his skeleton out of his body, the sort of whimsical body horror that made the Fleischer cartoons famous. The cartoon doesn’t reach the full potential of Fleischer studios, but then, fish are really challenging things to animate. It’s a good question whether anyone did them well before Finding Nemo. I mean besides Disney’s whales. You know how it is.

Vic and Sade: When The Building Falls In


Do you remember being bored? I mean, boredom is still with us. But it’s attenuated now, chopped up into small bits of boredom between something exciting happening on Facebook or watching the spectacle of the Future Disgraced Former President’s self-immolation or the like. And a lot of that is still an expression of boredom, since boredom is the state in which anything is sufficient to hold our attention. A video of a bird putting a cover on a cat isn’t actually interesting, but compared to nothing going on, it’s interesting enough.

But back in the days, we could be bored in quantity. Just have days, especially summer ones, when time stretched out and there wasn’t any prospect of something asking for attention. I’m not saying those were better days. They weren’t. By nearly all measures we are so much better off today that we have cell phones and abundant Internet and are never that far from someone we want to communicate with or something we find entertaining to watch or do.

In this Vic and Sade episode, from the 13th of June, 1939, it’s the boring part of summer. And the best of all possible things happens: something exciting comes up. A good part of an old building collapses. Rush gets to see it. And one of his friends is inspired. He turns something already exciting into a performance. Maybe it’s the sort of thing that could happen today. But I do wonder if it takes being bored, and knowing what the face of long stretches of quiet, inactive summer evenings imply, to see a chance like this and make it something even more.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index held steady today, not changing at all, as more cautious traders worried they were under surveillance by a cheetah and didn’t want to make a move lest they get caught in a rundown between second and third base.

331

Vic and Sade: Meet The Parade Community


I don’t know when this episode of Vic and Sade first aired. It’s dated 1941, but it includes Rishigan Fishigan (of Sishigan, Michigan) as a major off-screen player. And he doesn’t seem to have been introduced before the 12th of December, 1941. The show aired five days a week, but that isn’t a lot of time for Rishigan Fishigan to get promoted from a name on the boss’s Christmas list to a telephoned friend of Vic’s. But they did have as many as thirteen chances to get him kind-of on-stage. (I don’t know whether the show aired Christmas Day, 1941. Nor how many times it might have been preempted for news.)

It’s got to be from early in Rishigan Fishigan (of Sishigan, Michigan)’s tenure, given how exasperated Sade is by the length of his name. So maybe it’s a 1942 episode. No matter. I am delighted by the main conversation’s proposition that one could get a weekly list of all the parades going on in the country. It’s the sort of thing that surely exists today. My love and I schedule our December around a listing of when Rankin/Bass specials are going to air and on what channel. And I find Vic’s proclaiming that he’s a fan of parades likely. It doesn’t seem just a defensive reaction to Sade’s skepticism about the parade list. Remember that Vic was happy to join the All-Star Marching Team for his lodge, and that went off on its own weird little way.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index fell thirteen points over the trading day, providing a much-needed hushing to all the Another Blog, Meanwhile analysts talking about when we’re going to need to buy an index board that handles four digits instead of just three. Honestly. I get your enthusiasm and all that but really, go play outside.

311

Vic and Sade: Meet Rishigan Fishigan


Sometimes a throwaway gag is too good to dispense with. In this installment, from the 12th of December, 1941, Vic’s boss has given him a list of people to buy Christmas presents for and twenty dollars to do it with. Sade expects she’ll have to do all the bother and that it will be an incredible bother. She’s right, as she makes Vic read the list and consider the complete lack of guidance into what sort of thing any of these people might want or how much they should spend on it.

The last name introduced is that of Rishigan Fishigan, of Sishigan, Michigan. It’s such a catchy name. It’s a catchy town name. It seems like it always attaches to the end of his name, so he’s spoken of as “Rishigan Fishigan of Sishigan, Michigan”. And I am sad that there is no such place as Sishigan, Michigan. We should rename something to be it.

The name must have caught Paul Rhymer’s imagination. Rishigan Fishigan would reappear, in mentions, and eventually as a friend of Vic’s. In later incarnations of the show he would even be a regular character, with dialogue on-microphone and everything. Given how many catchy names Rhymer created I wonder why Rishigan Fishigan (of Sishigan, Michigan) took such hold, although I suppose to say aloud it is to answer the question.

There are a lot of amusingly scrambled place names in the Christmas gift list — I can feel Sade’s righteous anxiety that none of this can be right, even if she allowed that she could buy anything for people she doesn’t know anything about — but I like to think that the choice of “Seattle, Iowa” was retaliation for the existence of “Des Moines, Washington”. I have a friend who lives in Des Moines, Washington, and it nags at me every time I need to send him a card or something. We need some thought put into our Des Moines requirements.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

Repeated heavy waves of selling struck the trading floor at Another Blog, Meanwhile over the course of the day, so of course the index went up eighteen points. At this point we have to suspect some of these traders don’t actually know what they’re doing and they’re just making numbers go up and down without thinking about the long-term implications.

324

Vic and Sade: Meet Five Men From Maine


I’ve got a couple reasons to feature this bit of old-time radio. First is that my friend from Maine isn’t on the Internet this week so it’s safe to talk about the state. Second is that I haven’t really featured Vic and Sade lately, so I’d like to give it some attention. It’s the kind of show that isn’t everyone’s taste. But if it is your taste, it’s a powerfully strong taste. So please consider taking ten minutes and listening to it. (The show has a sponsor, as most did back in 1941, and goes on and on. You can zip ahead to about 2:45 into the show before missing anything that isn’t about Crisco, and you can bail out again at about 12:30 in the recording.) So here’s the Vic and Sade for the 30th of May, 1941.

Something I love in the world is that so much of it doesn’t quite make sense. We’re surrounded by weird little incidents and connections and coincidences. Here, Vic gets, by way of a phone call, an invitation to do something perfectly daft: travel — at his own expense — from the middle of Indiana off to Maine to meet five people he’s never heard of for no reason other than that they’d like to meet him. How does this make sense? Hard to say. But I particularly love how Rush comes to ponder how phony-sounding the five men in Maine are. Series creator and author Paul Rhymer had a love for creating names off exactly peculiar that they’re amusing without ever feeling like deliberately funny names. If you live with people named Edson Box, Fred and Ruthie Stembottom, Y Y Flirch, Hank Gutstop, or Rishigan Fishigan from Sishigan, Michigan, how do you call anyone out on having a suspicious name? But what other explanation makes sense?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index dropped 21 points and it’s still over 300 and if you think that’s normal you don’t know what normal is, and I know none of us have had any idea what normal is, not since, like, what? When David Bowie died? The day before that was about the last normal day, wasn’t it? Please communicate in care of this office if you have information one way or another.

306

And In The Cartoons: Ko-Ko’s Reward, Including An Amusement Park Trip


I’m still recovering from the yard sale. Don’t worry, we made enough to cover the costs of running another yard sale someday. But as long as my mind’s elsewhere here’s a cartoon to occupy it. It’s a 1929 Inkwell Imps cartoon, produced by Max and Dave Fleischer. It’s titled Ko-Ko’s Reward and as you might expect it includes a bit of head-swapping, a girl entering the cartoon world, a haunted house, and an amusement park. Because of course.

Mixing live action and animation goes back to the birth of animation. It was also much of the point of the several cartoon series featuring Koko (or Ko-Ko) the Clown. That and getting Max Fleischer on camera, because if there’s anything animation directors/producers want to do, it’s be movie stars. The structure is normally one of Max drawing Koko and maybe Fitz the dog. Then they natter a bit, and Koko escapes into the real world to make some mischief, and then he gets put back where he belongs.

That’s barely a structure, though. It’s enough to justify whatever the theme for the cartoon is and to give some reason for the cartoon to end at the eight-minute mark. The real meat is figuring some reason for Koko to interact with the real world, and for some free-form strange animation to carry on. Here it’s Max’s girl — I don’t know who played the part — getting lost inside an animated haunted house, giving Koko and Fitz reason to search for her in an amusement park. Well, these things happen.

Of course I’m fascinated by wondering what amusement park this is. I don’t know. I wonder if it might be Rye Playland, which had opened in 1928 — when the cartoon would be in production — and had the sort of kiddieland with a concentration of kid-sized rides such as the cartoon shows. But I don’t see any features that mark it as unmistakably Rye Playland, nor unmistakably not. None of the movie references I can find give information about shooting locations. I would assume they’d pick a park conveniently near the studio’s New York City location, but that could be Coney Island or Palisades Park at least as easily. Well, I don’t recognize the haunted house as anywhere I’d been.

Sade and the Marching Auxiliary


If you’ve been listening along with Vic and Sade episodes this week you maybe noticed that not much happens in them. The characters talk about what they’re up to, but they don’t do much about it. That’s part of the style of the show. It has an almost classic respect for the ancient unities of Greek theater. Each day’s installment is one scene, at one time, and rarely do characters enter or exit, at least not much. Doing stuff is almost impossible in the ten minutes or so of conversation they have.

But stuff happens between episodes. And, more, it’s remembered. Vic and Sade is a representative of the serial-sitcom. It could have storylines going and progressing and developing, five days a week, just the way they might on soap operas. Vic and Sade isn’t a strong representative of the genre, the way that Lum and Abner or the difficult granddaddy of them all, Amos ‘n’ Andy, are. Vic and Sade stories aren’t as long and don’t dominate weeks of storytelling the way the more dedicated serials do. But it’s there.

Here, for example, at least after about the first two and a half minutes (spent talking about the wonders of Crisco and perhaps local advertisers), is a continuation of Vic’s All-Star Marching Team. The Marching Team is hoping to put together a Ladies Auxiliary. Sade is targeted to participate. She’s uninterested in marching and she and Vic talk just a little past one another about the point. The Marching Team was based on an absurd premise to start. And now the Ladies Auxiliary promises to be further absurd, as it can’t just be the wives of the Marching Team members. Many of them aren’t married. (One has intentions of marrying his beloved early in 1948, a joke which barely registers until you know that this episode is from the 22nd of February, 1941.) It’s not the straightforward absurdity of the original Marching Team premise, and its need to rehearse when none of the members can get together. That doesn’t keep it from finding wonderful absurdity anyway.

Vic and the Marching Team


Maybe I’ll just carry on with the old-time radio and make it a Vic and Sade week. Picking out episodes makes me want to hear more episodes, and I like talking about the stuff I enjoy. So here goes.

One of my favorite comic modes is the deadpan absurdity. The name almost explains it. Presenting the most ridiculous idea possible with the straightest face possible delights me. If someone questions your absurdity, you can own up to it … or you can try explaining why it really makes sense all along. Take the second path and you are entering the heady woods of the American heritage of tall-tale folklore, of the reductio ad absurdum that earns mathematicians their pay, and — if you happen to answer every objection soundly — conspiracy theory.

Vic belongs to a lodge, the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, the way many people did in 1941. The way even more sitcom men did. The lodge wanted to organize an All-Star Marching Team. The head lodge chose ten members, Vic included. Lodge headquarters wants them to practice marching as a unit. The members are distributed across the country. The members aren’t asked to spend money and time travelling to each other.

So … how to rehearse marching as a unit when you just can’t get together? And there’s an answer, and it’s ridiculous. There’s obvious objections. They’re answered with a straight enough face that it all almost makes sense. It’s wonderful.

And a note for listeners: boy, the sponsor’s introduction really does go on, doesn’t it? If you are already as sold on Crisco as it is possible for you to ever be, you can skip to about two minutes thirty seconds in and the start of the real action.

Vic and Sade, with algebra, without Vic, Sade


I’m still feeling in an old-time radio mood.

Vic and Sade starred Art Van Harvey as Vic, and Bernardine Flynn as Sade. That was, apparently, enough cast to start with, but they adopted Rush, played by Bill Idelson, soon enough. Most of the scripts depended on the three, or two of the three if one of the actors got a day off, describing events to one another. A problem arose in 1940, when Van Harvey became ill. Every long-running radio show had this problem occasionally. If the actor’s illness was known about long enough in advance they could rewrite around the part. If it was sudden, they could just have someone else fill in. (There’s at least one episode of Burns and Allen with someone else playing the part of Gracie Allen, and that is not a role to step into lightly.)

To cover for Van Harvey’s illness, author Paul Rhymer brought a talked-about character in. This would be Uncle Fletcher, played by Clarence Hartzell. Uncle Fletcher could take the part of someone for Sade and Rush to talk to, or at least talk around, at least as well as Vic did.

It does mean we have curiosities like this episode, though. It’s from the 9th of October, 1941. It’s a two-actor day. So it’s an episode of Vic and Sade with neither Vic nor Sade. It’s built on Rush attempting to do his algebra homework, and Uncle Fletcher attempting to coach him through it. As I’d said, many Vic and Sade episodes are driven by the characters talking not quite past one another. This is a fine example of the form.

Bob and Ray Tell You What’s On Channel 6


I want to share some of the gentle, absurd, kindly wonderful humor of Bob and Ray. Here’s something a bit mysterious. Its description on archive.org is able to give only some information about where it’s from. It was an Armed Forces Radio Service transcription disc. It would seem to come from one of their 1958-era broadcasts, apparently on NBC’s Monitor weekend service. I can’t pin it down more precisely than that.

The audio is patchy. But I think their appeal comes through. They offer brownies to the audience and that goes as well as anyone might hope. There’s a look into the difficult world of the soap opera writer. And there’s a review of what could be found on TV. I too would watch that Weird Theater tales meant to keep you in suspense.

S J Perelman: Insert Flap ‘A’ And Throw Away



Has everything amusing there is to be said about do-it-yourself kit projects been said? Perhaps. That doesn’t mean some great people haven’t said find things about it. From 1947’s The Best Of S J Perelman here’s some talk about a ready-to-assemble toy.

INSERT FLAP “A” AND THROW AWAY

One stifling summer afternoon last August, in the attic of a tiny stone house in Pennsylvania, I made a most interesting discovery: the shortest, cheapest method of inducing a nervous breakdown ever perfected. In this technique (eventually adopted by the psychology department of Duke University, which will adopt anything) , the subject is placed in a sharply sloping attic heated to 340 °F. and given a mothproof closet known as the Jiffy-Cloz to assemble. The Jiffy-Cloz, procurable at any department store or neighborhood insane asylum, consists of half a dozen gigantic sheets of red cardboard, two plywood doors, a clothes rack, and a packet of staples. With these is included a set of instructions mimeographed in pale-violet ink, fruity with phrases like “Pass Section F through Slot AA, taking care not to fold tabs behind washers (see Fig. 9).“ The cardboard is so processed that as the subject struggles convulsively to force the staple through, it suddenly buckles, plunging the staple deep into his thumb. He thereupon springs up with a dolorous cry and smites his knob (Section K) on the rafters (RR). As a final demonic touch, the Jiffy-Cloz people cunningly omit four of the staples necessary to finish the job, so that after indescribable purgatory, the best the subject can possibly achieve is a sleazy, capricious structure which would reduce any self-respecting moth to helpless laughter. The cumulative frustration, the tropical heat, and the soft, ghostly chuckling of the moths are calculated to unseat the strongest mentality.

In a period of rapid technological change, however, it was inevitable that a method as cumbersome as the Jiffy-Cloz would be superseded. It was superseded at exactly nine-thirty Christmas morning by a device called the Self-Running 10-Inch Scale-Model Delivery-Truck Kit Powered by Magic Motor, costing twenty-nine cents. About nine on that particular morning, I was spread-eagled on my bed, indulging in my favorite sport of mouth-breathing, when a cork fired from a child’s air gun mysteriously lodged in my throat. The pellet proved awkward for a while, but I finally ejected it by flailing the little marksman (and his sister, for good measure) until their welkins rang, and sauntered in to breakfast. Before I could choke down a healing fruit juice, my consort, a tall, regal creature indistinguishable from Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi, except that her foot was entangled in a roller skate, swept in. She extended a large, unmistakable box covered with diagrams.

“Now don’t start making excuses,“ she whined. “It’s just a simple cardboard toy. The directions are on the back —”

“Look, dear,” I interrupted, rising hurriedly and pulling on my overcoat, “it clean slipped my mind. I’m supposed to take a lesson in crosshatching at Zim’s School of Cartooning today.”

“On Christmas?” she asked suspiciously.

“Yes, it’s the only time they could fit me in,” I countered glibly. “This is the big week for crosshatching, you know, between Christmas and New Year’s.”

“Do you think you ought to go in your pajamas?” she asked.

“Oh, that’s O.K.” I smiled. “We often work in our pajamas up at Zim’s. Well, goodbye now. If I’m not home by Thursday, you’ll find a cold snack in the safe-deposit box.” My subterfuge, unluckily, went for naught, and in a trice I was sprawled on the nursery floor, surrounded by two lambkins and ninety-eight segments of the Self-Running 10-Inch Scale-Model Delivery-Truck Construction Kit.

The theory of the kit was simplicity itself, easily intelligible to Kettering of General Motors, Professor Millikan, or any first-rate physicist. Taking as my starting point the only sentence I could comprehend, “Fold down on all lines marked ‘fold down;’ fold up on all lines marked ‘fold up’,” I set the children to work and myself folded up with an album of views of Chili Williams. In a few moments, my skin was suffused with a delightful tingling sensation and I was ready for the second phase, lightly referred to in the directions as “Preparing the Spring Motor Unit.” As nearly as I could determine after twenty minutes of mumbling, the Magic Motor (“No Electricity — No Batteries — Nothing to Wind — Motor Never Wears Out”) was an accordion-pleated affair operating by torsion, attached to the axles. “It is necessary,” said the text, “to cut a slight notch in each of the axles with a knife (see Fig. C). To find the exact place to cut this notch, lay one of the axles over diagram at bottom of page.”

“Well, now we’re getting some place!” I boomed, with a false gusto that deceived nobody. “Here, Buster, run in and get Daddy a knife.”

“I dowanna,” quavered the boy, backing away. “You always cut yourself at this stage.” I gave the wee fellow an indulgent pat on the head that flattened it slightly, to teach him civility, and commandeered a long, serrated bread knife from the kitchen. “Now watch me closely, children,” I ordered. “We place the axle on the diagram as in Fig. C, applying a strong downward pressure on the knife handle at all times.” The axle must have been a factory second, because an instant later I was in the bathroom grinding my teeth in agony and attempting to stanch the flow of blood. Ultimately, I succeeded in contriving a rough bandage and slipped back into the nursery without awaking the children’s suspicions. An agreeable surprise awaited me. Displaying a mechanical aptitude clearly inherited from their sire, the rascals had put together the chassis of the delivery truck.

“Very good indeed,” I complimented (naturally, one has to exaggerate praise to develop a child’s self-confidence). “Let’s see — what’s the next step? Ah, yes. ‘Lock into box shape by inserting tabs C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, and L into slots C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, and L. Ends of front axle should be pushed through holes A and B.’ ” While marshalling the indicated parts in their proper order, I emphasized to my rapt listeners the necessity of patience and perseverance. “Haste makes waste, you know,” I reminded them. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Remember, your daddy isn’t always going to be here to show you.”

“Where are you going to be?” they demanded.

“In the movies, if I can arrange it,” I snarled. Poising tabs C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, and L in one hand and the corresponding slots in the other, I essayed a union of the two, but in vain. The moment I made one set fast and tackled another, tab and slot would part company, thumbing their noses at me. Although the children were too immature to understand, I saw in a flash where the trouble lay. Some idiotic employee at the factory had punched out the wrong design, probably out of sheer spite. So that was his game, eh? I set my lips in a grim line and, throwing one hundred and fifty-seven pounds of fighting fat into the effort, pounded the component parts into a homogeneous mass.

“There” I said with a gasp, “that’s close enough. Now then, who wants candy? One, two, three — everybody off to the candy store!”

“We wanna finish the delivery truck!” they wailed. “Mummy, he won’t let us finish the delivery truck!” Threats, cajolery, bribes were of no avail. In their jungle code, a twenty-nine-cent gewgaw bulked larger than a parent’s love. Realizing that I was dealing with a pair of monomaniacs, I determined to show them who was master and wildly began locking the cardboard units helter-skelter, without any regard for the directions. When sections refused to fit, I gouged them with my nails and forced them together, cackling shrilly. The side panels collapsed; with a bestial oath, I drove a safety pin through them and lashed them to the roof. I used paper clips, bobby pins, anything I could lay my hands on. My fingers fairly flew and my breath whistled in my throat. “You want a delivery truck, do you?” I panted. “All right, I’ll show you!” As merciful blackness closed in, I was on my hands and knees, bunting the infernal thing along with my nose and whinnying, “Roll, confound you, roll!”

“Absolute quiet,” a carefully modulated voice was saying, “and fifteen of the white tablets every four hours.” I opened my eyes carefully in the darkened room. Dimly I picked out a knifelike character actor in a Vandyke beard and pencil-striped pants folding a stethoscope into his bag. “Yes,” he added thoughtfully, “if we play our cards right, this ought to be a long, expensive recovery.” From far away, I could hear my wife’s voice bravely trying to control her anxiety.

“What if he becomes restless, Doctor?”

“Get him a detective story,” returned the leech. “Or better still, a nice, soothing picture puzzle — something he can do with his hands.”

Jack Benny Sees Out The Year 1943


The comic writer/critic Ian Shoales (Merle Kessler) wrote once that he thought allegory was an art form that’d gone out with the Middle Ages, “except for certain episodes of The Twilight Zone”. It’s true in spirit, even if allegories lasted a bit longer than the Middle Ages. Allegorical stories are still around, although they’re not so formally structured as your classic Middle Ages/Twilight Zone structure.

The Jack Benny Program was for many years an exception. Benny’s show would do, for the New Year’s broadcast, a deliberately allegorical piece. Benny would play the Old Year, giving advice and explanations to the New Year. It makes for a curious pop-cultural filter on years of history: the sketches are stuffed full of news, hopes for the coming year, wishful thinking for the present, up-to-the-minute pop culture references. (The song Benny as Old Year sings is “Pistol Packin’ Momma”, which was everywhere in 1943. I think Jack Paar mentioned how sick USO crews got of the song, since whenever they arrived at a new base the soldiers and sailors wanted to hear it.) It can make for striking moments of understanding life in a time gone far by.

I’m not sure how many years they did this. But I wanted to share an example. This one’s from the 2nd of January, 1944. It’s dominated by war news, of course. Even there it gets strange, turning the war news of 1943 into a baseball game, with gags like how Mussolini got knocked in the head in the sixth inning. The premise feels odd, though it’s saved by earnestness and sentiment. There are some laughs that I, comfortably seventy years on, have which the original audience wouldn’t.

(There’s some racially charged jokes in this. You probably suspected that going in. I cringed most at Rochester’s segment. The character’s treatment on the show got better in time, but the show as a whole was probably at its best during World War II. I do feel bad closing out 2015, a year that saw so much celebration of white racism, with that Rochester sketch. But I don’t feel right editing it out and pretending it’s not there.)

Franklin P Adams: Rubber-Stamp Humor


We haven’t checked in with Franklin P Adams in a while. Though since he’s been dead an even longer while he can’t be taking it personally. Still, here, from Tobogganing on Parnassus, is “Rubber-Stamp Humor”, about the problem of being funny while talking about the same jokes everybody makes.

Alfred Austin was the Poet Laureate who followed Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and I never heard of him (Austin) either. “Crank” in this context means “fan”. And can you imagine there was a time when football was perceived to be a dangerously violent game?

If couples mated but for love;
    If women all were perfect cooks;
    If Hoosier authors wrote no books;
        If horses always won;
If people in the flat above
    Were silent as the very grave;
    If foreign counts were prone to save;
        If tailors did not dun —

If automobiles always ran
    As advertised in catalogues;
    If tramps were not afraid of dogs;
        If servants never left;
If comic songs would always scan;
    If Alfred Austin were sublime;
    If poetry would always rhyme;
        If authors all were deft —

If office boys were not all cranks
    On base-ball; if the selling price
    Of meat and coal and eggs and ice
        Would stop its mad increase;
If women started saying “Thanks”
    When men gave up their seats in cars;
    If there were none but good cigars,
        And better yet police —

If there were no such thing as booze;
    If wifey’s mother never came
    To visit; if a foot-ball game
        Were mild and harmless sport;
If all the Presidential news
    Were colourless; if there were men
    At every mountain, sea-side, glen,
        River and lake resort —

If every girl were fair of face;
    If women did not fear to get
    Their suits for so-called bathing wet —
        If all these things were true,
This earth would be a pleasant place.
    But where would people get their laughs?
    And whence would spring the paragraphs?
        And what would jokers do?

(That all said, I’d like to put in a good word for Christopher Miller’s delightful American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny. It’s a hefty list of stuff that was always good for a joke, circa 1900 to 1965, and what it might have meant. If you’re at all interested in why people on old sitcoms were obsessed with the things they were obsessed with, Miller can make things at least a bit clearer.)

Body-Sculpting The Betty Boop Way


A while ago this year I was on an amusement park cartoons-and-TV-shows-and-stuff kick. It started with a Betty Boop cartoon. Grampy’s Indoor Outing has Grampy work out a way that Betty Boop and Junior can have a day of amusement park fun despite the rain. I noted that many sources speaking of the cartoon identify the kid in it as Little Jimmy, even though he’s clearly called Junior by the other characters in the cartoon. But I also could see where people were coming from. Let me talk about that.

In February 1904 the cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton started a comic strip, as was normal in those days. What wasn’t normal was that he kept making the comic strip. The days before World War I were ones in which comic strips popped into and out of existence like, well, web comics do. Little Jimmy would stay in the papers until Swinnerton retired in 1958. To give that perspective, that’s five years longer than Peanuts ran before Charles Schulz died. Hagar the Horrible is (currently) twelve years younger than it is, and Funky Winkerbean eleven. For Better Or For Worse ran only 29 years.

That said, I don’t actually know much about the comic strip. Wikipedia says that in the strip Little Jimmy would routinely go off, forgetting what he was supposed to do, and getting in trouble. It supports this with a 1911 Sunday strip in which Jimmy doesn’t go off and forget what he was supposed to do. Wikipedia’s writers may be drawing their conclusions about the comic strip from this cartoon.

Betty Boop and Little Jimmy premiered the 27th of March, 1936. It was probably an attempt to see whether another comic strip character could be turned into an animation character. Popeye adapted brilliantly, after all, to the point the cartoon largely overshadows the comic strip. The Fleischers would make several attempts at launching new characters through Betty Boop cartoons — Sally Swing wasn’t the first — although they didn’t take. (Yes, Popeye debuted in what was technically a Betty Boop series cartoon, but the deal was already made. This is much more a testing of the character.)

With this cartoon you can see why. It’s pleasant enough but nothing happens. Betty gets in trouble on a mechanical vibrating belt, as everyone who ever uses one on-screen does, and Little Jimmy runs off, gets distracted, and bounces back. That’s it. I suppose his attempts at remembering he’s supposed to get an “electrician” should be funny or endearing but it’s a slender thread of personality. There’s not much to support or contradict the idea he might be Junior, seen in Grampy’s Indoor Outing, considering Junior has a similar build and similar soft, low-impact persona.

There’s interesting touches in the cartoon, though. The most prominent is that objects grow faces and voices in the midst of the singing. That’s unusual for a cartoon as late as this, from the latter half of the 1930s. The everything-can-be-alive motif was popular in silent cartoons and the earlier Fleischer work, but by the time they had those lovely watercolor backgrounds and three-dimensional sets (not on display here, incidentally) those had gone away as, I suppose, indiscretions of a more youthful art style.

This cartoon’s got some special meaning to me, by the way. It’s the first Betty Boop cartoon I distinctly remember seeing, back in the days of Cartoon Network’s Late Night Black and White segment. It isn’t first-rate Betty, admittedly, but it charmed me. I would probably inevitably have grown as a Betty Boop fan; my personality just lends itself to black-and-white and silent cartoons. But this is a milestone from how things happened for me.

The mechanical-vibrator belt thing Betty Boop uses — and that many, many other comedies mostly would use through the mid-20th-century — was designed to lose weight by shaking people. As best I understand, the thinking was that by shaking the body up it forces your muscles to contract a lot, and that’s the same as exercise, without the hard part of doing work, right? Yeah, it’s stupid, but for comic value it’s hard to beat.

And after all we’re not really past that. You can still buy silly vibrating belts that do nothing to help you lose weight. They’re just more portable now. When I was in Singapore there was a really catchy silly commercial for one that showed a model who needed no weight reduction wearing one on various parts of her body, while the disembodied voices chanted, “zap zap tummy, zap zap tummy, zap zap tummy” or the like. It’s a subtler silly than Betty Boop’s contraption, but it’s not different.

Bob and Ray Put Up The Storm Windows


I’m still feeling a little woozy and a more bit lazy, so let me give you something to listen to today. This is another Bob and Ray Present The CBS Radio Network. an episode from the 23rd of October, 1959. It’s seasonal. I’d be putting up the storm windows myself if I quite felt up to it right now.

The center sketch of this, One Fella’s Family, is a parody of something specific. The tone of it probably gives that fact away. What it’s a parody of is probably as forgotten as it used to be famous. They’re playing off the series One Man’s Family, a radio soap opera that ran from 1932 to 1959. And it kept the same actor for the main Man, J Anthony Smythe, for that whole run. (It also had two short-lived TV adaptations, one in prime time and one in daytime.)

The show had an irresistible comic hook. Episodes were introduced as being from a particular book and chapter of the tales of the Barbour Family. I would say that’s the high point of the episodes, honestly. The show strikes me as the tale of Henry Barbour sighing and grumbling about how his kids won’t listen to him, until they finally decide to listen to him. It’s a style of drama I don’t get much into.

Bob and Ray don’t have the great arcs of the kids figuring they’re too smart for college or whatever else went on in One Man’s Family. As with many of their bits, the story is of characters not quite able to do simple things. The closer you listen, the more absurd it all is.

H L Mencken’s Bathtub Hoax


So, you’ve heard about how H L Mencken created the story of Millard Fillmore being the first president to have a bathtub in the White House. Ever read it? Me neither, which is kind of a strange thing. I’ve always had a love for the mock-fact article. There is a real skill in creating something that has the cadence of actual facts, something that captures grand sweeps of events and the weird specificity of real life.

I finally got prodded to looking up Mencken’s bathtub hoax; it’s online, among other places, at http://hoaxes.org/text/display/a_neglected_anniversary_text. Reading it makes it clear why this should be such a successful hoax. It has the craggy grit of authentic history, the switch of focus from great themes to little homey details, this magnificent sense of scope delivered with a perfectly straight face. It’s great. If you haven’t read it before, take this chance now. It’s worth it.

A Neglected Anniversary

On December 20 there flitted past us, absolutely without public notice, one of the most important profane anniversaries in American history, to wit, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into These States. Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day.

True enough, it was not entirely forgotten. Eight or nine months ago one of the younger surgeons connected with the Public Health Service in Washington happened upon the facts while looking into the early history of public hygiene, and at his suggestion a committee was formed to celebrate the anniversary with a banquet. But before the plan was perfected Washington went dry, and so the banquet had to be abandoned. As it was, the day passed wholly unmarked, even in the capital of the nation.

Bathtubs are so common today that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them. They are familiar to nearly everyone in all incorporated towns; in most of the large cities it is unlawful to build a dwelling house without putting them in; even on the farm they have begun to come into use. And yet the first American bathtub was installed and dedicated so recently as December 20, 1842, and, for all I know to the contrary, it may still be in existence and in use.

Curiously enough, the scene of its setting up was Cincinnati, then a squalid frontier town, and even today surely no leader in culture. But Cincinnati, in those days as in these, contained many enterprising merchants, and one of them was a man named Adam Thompson, a dealer in cotton and grain. Thompson shipped his grain by steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, and from there sent it to England in sailing vessels. This trade frequently took him to England, and in that country, during the ’30s, he acquired the habit of bathing.

The bathtub was then still a novelty in England. It had been introduced in 1828 by Lord John Russell and its use was yet confined to a small class of enthusiasts. Moreover, the English bathtub, then as now, was a puny and inconvenient contrivance — little more, in fact, than a glorified dishpan — and filling and emptying it required the attendance of a servant. Taking a bath, indeed, was a rather heavy ceremony, and Lord John in 1835 was said to be the only man in England who had yet come to doing it every day.

Thompson, who was of inventive fancy — he later devised the machine that is still used for bagging hams and bacon — conceived the notion that the English bathtub would be much improved if it were made large enough to admit the whole body of an adult man, and if its supply of water, instead of being hauled to the scene by a maid, were admitted by pipes from a central reservoir and run off by the same means. Accordingly, early in 1842 he set about building the first modern bathroom in his Cincinnati home — a large house with Doric pillars, standing near what is now the corner of Monastery and Orleans streets.

There was then, of course, no city water supply, at least in that part of the city, but Thompson had a large well in his garden, and he installed a pump to lift its water to the house. This pump, which was operated by six Negroes, much like an old-time fire engine, was connected by a pipe with a cypress tank in the garret of the house, and here the water was stored until needed. From the tank two other pipes ran to the bathroom. One, carrying cold water, was a direct line. The other, designed to provide warm water, ran down the great chimney of the kitchen, and was coiled inside it like a giant spring.

The tub itself was of new design, and became the grandfather of all the bathtubs of today. Thompson had it made by James Cullness, the leading Cincinnati cabinetmaker of those days, and its material was Nicaragua mahogany. It was nearly seven feet long and fully four feet wide. To make it water-tight, the interior was lined with sheet lead, carefully soldered at the joints. The whole contraption weighed about 1,750 pounds, and the floor of the room in which it was placed had to be reinforced to support it. The exterior was elaborately polished.

In this luxurious tub Thompson took two baths on December 20, 1842 — a cold one at 8 a.m. and a warm one some time during the afternoon. The warm water, heated by the kitchen fire, reached a temperature of 105 degrees. On Christmas day, having a party of gentlemen to dinner, he exhibited the new marvel to them and gave an exhibition of its use, and four of them, including a French visitor, Colonel Duchanel, risked plunges into it. The next day all Cincinnati — then a town of about 100,000 people — had heard of it, and the local newspapers described it at length and opened their columns to violent discussions of it.

The thing, in fact, became a public matter, and before long there was bitter and double-headed opposition to the new invention, which had been promptly imitated by several other wealthy Cincinnatians. On the one hand it was denounced as an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic, and on the other hand it was attacked by the medical faculty as dangerous to health and a certain inviter of “phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases.” (I quote from the Western Medical Repository of April 23, 1843.)

The noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Delaware) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.

This legislation, I suspect, had some class feeling in it, for the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any save the wealthy; indeed, the common price for installing one in New York in 1845 was $500. Thus the low caste politicians of the time made capital by fulminating against it, and there is even some suspicion of political bias in many of the early medical denunciations. But the invention of the common pine bathtub, lined with zinc, in 1847, cut off this line of attack, and thereafter the bathtub made steady progress.

The zinc tub was devised by John F Simpson, a Brooklyn plumber, and his efforts to protect it by a patent occupied the courts until 1855. But the decisions were steadily against him, and after 1848 all the plumbers of New York were equipped for putting in bathtubs. According to a writer in the Christian Register for July 17, 1857, the first one in New York was opened for traffic on September 12, 1847, and by the beginning of 1850 there were already nearly 1,000 in use in the big town.

After this medical opposition began to collapse, and among other eminent physicians Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes declared for the bathtub, and vigorously opposed the lingering movement against it in Boston. The American Medical Association held its annual meeting in Boston in 1849, and a poll of the members in attendance showed that nearly 55 per cent of them now regarded bathing as harmless, and that more than 20 per cent advocated it as beneficial. At its meeting in 1850 a resolution was formally passed giving the imprimatur of the faculty to the bathtub. The homeopaths followed with a like resolution in 1853.

But it was the example of President Millard Fillmore that, even more than the grudging medical approval, gave the bathtub recognition and respectability in the United States. While he was still Vice-President, in March, 1850, he visited Cincinnati on a stumping tour, and inspected the original Thompson tub. Thompson himself was now dead, but his bathroom was preserved by the gentlemen who had bought his house from the estate. Fillmore was entertained in this house and, according to Chamberlain, his biographer, took a bath in the tub. Experiencing no ill effects, he became an ardent advocate of the new invention, and on succeeding to the Presidency at Taylor’s death, July 9, 1850, he instructed his secretary of war, General Charles M Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House.

This action, for a moment, revived the old controversy, and its opponents made much of the fact that there was no bathtub at Mount Vernon, or at Monticello, and that all the Presidents and other magnificoes of the past had got along without any such monarchical luxuries. The elder Bennett, in the New York Herald, charged that Fillmore really aspired to buy and install in the White House a porphyry and alabaster bath that had been used by Louis Philippe at Versailles. But Conrad, disregarding all this clamor, duly called for bids, and the contract was presently awarded to Harper & Gillespie, a firm of Philadelphia engineers, who proposed to furnish a tub of thin cast iron, capable of floating the largest man.

This was installed early in 1851, and remained in service in the White House until the first Cleveland administration, when the present enameled tub was substituted. The example of the President soon broke down all that remained of the old opposition, and by 1860, according to the newspaper advertisements of the time, every hotel in New York had a bathtub, and some had two and even three. In 1862 bathing was introduced into the Army by General McClellan, and in 1870 the first prison bathtub was set up at Moyamensing Prison, in Philadelphia.

So much for the history of the bathtub in America. One is astonished, on looking into it, to find that so little of it has been recorded. The literature, in fact, is almost nil. But perhaps this brief sketch will encourage other inquirers and so lay the foundation for an adequate celebration of the centennial in 1942.

S J Perelman: Nothing But The Tooth


Trade journals are fascinating, as long as you’re not in the trade. Journals for another field give a peek into how the magic of things are done. S J Perelman had an experience with a dental trade journal once, and shared his thoughts. Why not enjoy tonight, since my last dental visit went wonderfully smoothly despite my cold?

Nothing But The Tooth

I am thirty-eight years old, have curly brown hair and blue eyes, own a uke and a yellow roadster, and am considered a snappy dresser in my crowd. But the thing I want most in the world for my birthday is a free subscription to Oral Hygiene, published by Merwin B. Massol, 1005 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa. In the event you have been repairing your own teeth, Oral Hygiene is a respectable smooth-finish technical magazine circulated to your dentist with the compliments of his local supply company. Through its pages runs a recital of the most horrendous and fantastic deviations from the dental norm. It is a confessional in which dentists take down their back hair and stammer out the secrets of their craft But every time I plunge into its crackling pages at my dentist’s, just as I get interested in the story of the Man with the Alveolar Dentures or Thirty Reasons Why People Stay Away from Dentists, the nurse comes out slightly flushed and smoothing her hair to tell me that the doctor is ready. Last Thursday, for example, I was head over heels in the question-and-answer department of Oral Hygiene. A frankly puzzled extractionist, who tried to cloak his agitation under the initials “J. S. G.,” had put his plight squarely up to the editor: “I have a patient, a woman of 20, who has a full complement of teeth. All of her restorations are gold foils or inlays. She constantly grinds her teeth at night. How can I aid her to stop grinding them? Would it do any good to give her a vellum rubber bite?” But before I could learn whether it was a bite or just a gentle hug the editor recommended, out popped Miss Inchbald with lipstick on her nose, giggling, “The Doctor is free now.” “Free” indeed — “running amok” would be a better way to put it.

I had always thought of dentists as of the phlegmatic type — square-jawed sadists in white aprons who found release in trying out new kinds of burs on my shaky little incisors. One look at Oral Hygiene fixed that. Of all the inhibited, timorous, uncertain fumble-bunnies who creep the earth, Mr. Average Dentist is the worst. A filing clerk is a veritable sabre-toothed tiger by comparison. Faced with a decision, your dentist’s bones turn to water and he becomes all hands and feet. He muddles through his ordinary routine with a certain amount of bravado, plugging a molar here with chewing gum, sinking a shaft in a sound tooth there. In his spare time he putters around his laboratory making tiny cement cup-cakes, substituting amber electric bulbs for ordinary bulbs in his waiting-room to depress patients, and jotting down nasty little innuendoes about people’s gums in his notebook. But let an honest-to-goodness sufferer stagger in with his face out of drawing, and Mr. Average Dentist’s nerves go to hell. He runs sobbing to the “Ask Oral Hygiene” department and buries his head in the lap of V. C. Smedley, its director. I dip in for a typical sample:

Question — A patient of mine, a girl, 18, returned from school recently with a weird story of lightning having struck an upper right cuspid tooth and checked the enamel on the labial surface nearly two-thirds of the way from the incised edge toward the neck. The patient was lying on a bed looking out an open window during an electric storm, and this one flash put out the lights of the house, and at the same time, the patient felt a burning sensation (like a burning wire) along the cuspid tooth. She immediately put her tongue on the tooth which felt rough, but as the lights were out she could not see it so she went to bed. (A taste as from a burnt match accompanied the shock.)

Next morning she found the labial of the tooth black. Some of the color came off on her finger. By continually brushing all day with the aid of peroxide, salt, soda and vinegar she removed the remainder of the black after which the tooth was a yellow shade and there was some roughness on the labial surface.

Could the lightning have caused this and do you recommend smoothing the surface with discs? — R. D. L., D.D.S., Oregon.

Well, Doctor, let us take your story step by step. Miss Muffet told you the sensation was like a burning wire, and she tasted something like a burnt match. Did you think, by any chance, of looking into her mouth for either wire or matches? Did you even think of looking into her mouth? I see no mention of the fact in your letter. You state that she walked in and told you the story, that’s all. Of course it never occurred to you that she had brought along her mouth for a reason. Then you say, “she removed the remainder of the black after which the tooth was a yellow shade.” Would it be asking too much of you to make up your mind? Was it a tooth or a yellow shade? You’re quite sure it wasn’t a Venetian blind? Or a gaily striped awning? Do you ever take a drink in the daytime, Doctor?

Frankly, men, I have no patience with such idiotic professional behavior. An eighteen-year-old girl walks into a dentist’s office exhibiting obvious symptoms of religious hysteria (stigmata, etc.). She babbles vaguely of thunderstorms and is patently a confirmed drunkard. The dentist goes to pieces, forgets to look in her mouth, and scurries off to Oral Hygiene asking for permission to smooth her surface with discs. It’s a mercy he doesn’t take matters into his own hands and try to plough every fourth tooth under. This is the kind of man to whom we intrust our daughters’ dentures.

There is practically no problem so simple that it cannot confuse a dentist. For instance, thumb-sucking. “Could you suggest a method to correct thumb and index finger sucking by an infant of one year?” flutters a Minnesota orthodontist, awkwardly digging his toe into the hot sand. Dr. Smedley, whose patience rivals Job’s, has an answer for everything: “Enclose the hand by tying shut the end of the sleeve of a sleeping garment, or fasten a section of a pasteboard mailing tube to the sleeping garment in such a position as to prevent the bending of the elbow sufficiently to carry the thumb or index finger to the mouth.” Now truly, Dr. Smedley, isn’t that going all the way around Robin Hood’s barn? Nailing the baby’s hand to the highchair is much more cozy, or, if no nail is available, a smart blow with the hammer on Baby’s fingers will slow him down. My grandfather, who was rather active in the nineties (between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues — they finally got him for breaking and entering), always used an effective method to break children of this habit, He used to tie a Mills grenade to the baby’s thumb with cobbler’s waxed thread, and when the little spanker pulled out the detonating pin with his teeth, Grandpa would stuff his fingers into his ears and run like the wind. Ironically enough, the people with whom Grandpa now boards have the same trouble keeping him from biting his thumbs, but overcome it by making him wear a loose jacket with very long sleeves, which they tie to the bars.

I have always been the mildest of men, but you remember the old saying, “Beware the fury of a patient man.” (I remembered it very well and put my finger on it instantly, page 269 of Bartlett’s book of quotations.) For years I have let dentists ride rough-shod over my teeth; I have been sawed, hacked, chopped, whittled, bewitched, bewildered, tattooed, and signed on again; but this is cuspid’s last stand. They’ll never get me into that chair again. I’ll dispose of my teeth as I see fit, and after they’re gone, I’ll get along. I started off living on gruel, and, by God, I can always go back to it again.

Bob and Ray Get Wally Ballou’s Report on the World’s Fair, Early


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.

TV journalist Polly Ballew notes she's the sister of Molly and Wally Ballew (sic).
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley from the 2nd of August, 2010. One of the times she was introduced she or Molly specifically name-checked Bob and Ray. I haven’t been able to find that one.

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.

Bob and Ray: They Went To Venus, You Know


A lot of life is hanging out without anything particular going on. That’s generally omitted in dramas, of course. Just hanging out might establish the tone of normality before the Crisis comes in and disrupts things. Even comedies don’t much depict “nothing particular going on”; even genial hangout comedy usually gets some possibly slender activity going on. If nothing really is going on, you’re either watching Waiting For Godot or in the parts of a paranoia-suspense thriller where “nothing to talk about” becomes sinister.

One of the running Bob and Ray characters was Lawrence Fechtenberg, Interstellar Officer Candidate. Here you know the genre of show they’re spoofing. What might startle is how precisely they parody the tone and the production of the radio version of space-cadet and space-captain programs. (I’m still stunned by one show that briefly stranded the cast on Saturn, the solar system’s junkyard world.) Science fiction, or space opera, or similar shows are even less prone to showing the “nothing particular going on” than regular shows are. Futurama has a few episodes like that, but mostly even they had stories to get to.

Lawrence Fechtenberg, though, he had a lot of time fumbling around without getting to anything particular. If the tension created by mixing the signals of high drama and the fact of incredible slightness amuses you, then his holding forth on the topic of “what the food was like on Venus” will just keep getting more maddeningly funny.
I’m attempting again to embed it, but if that doesn’t work, just download the MP3 file. This is tagged as “600330LawrenceFechtenbergInterstellar” on archive.org.

That’s the center piece, yes, though not the whole of this 15-minute show. Most of the last five minutes is spend attempting to get a report from Washington. Like many Bob and Ray pieces, the central observation here is that it’s really hard to do anything quite exactly right. We all fumble about at our jobs, whether radio journalists or space navy officer candidates or meteorologists. These are universal moments that few people pay attention to.