What’s Going On In Gasoline Alley? Could Gasoline Alley happen in real life? April – July 2021


A major part of the story in Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley is a radio signal from 1952 being and heard on someone’s colander. Could this happen? Well, no, of course not.

The thing that isn’t obviously impossible is the radio reception. A crystal set radio needs no battery or electricity. It uses the energy of the radio signal it detects to drive the speaker. It needs only a few components, many of them ones you could make yourself in 1920. Building a crystal set radio is a great way to learn electronics. After a few minutes’ work, you can set about hours, days, whole months of trying to get the stupid thing to work. It never will. But for purposes of a comic story? All right, let it happen.

A radio signal from 1952 bouncing back to Earth and getting stuck in a communications satellite? Yeah, that’s nonsense. It would be less bad if the signal were broadcast from some station that has an old-time-radio night. I don’t know why Jim Scancarelli didn’t go for that instead. It could encourage people to look for broadcasters who bring up old recorded stuff.

This should catch you up on Gasoline Alley for mid-July 2021. If you’re reading this after about October 2021, or if any news about the comic breaks out, an essay here may be more useful. Thanks for reading.

Gasoline Alley.

26 April – 18 July 2021.

My last check-in came after Walt Wallet dreamed about some moments in his life with Skeezix. That’s the story I suposed to be how the strip commemorated the centennial of Skeezix’s introduction and the comic strip’s change. The strip then sent Gertie, Walt’s caretaker, to the store again, for more eggs. This seems like a lot of egg consumption. But that’s if you assume the strip from Monday, the 18th of April, takes place right after that of the Saturday before. We’re trained to expect that unless a comic says there’s a time gap something happens right after what came before. The story makes more sense if we’re looking at a week, or even a month, later.

Gertie, at the supermarket, holding a carton of eggs: 'I'm looking for unbroken cackleberries!' Mim: 'Huh? What's that?' Gertie: 'What do hens say?' Mim: 'Cluck! Cluck!' Tim: 'They cackle! Oh! I get it! Cackleberries! We're the dumb clucks!' Mim: 'Us? Speak for yourself!' Gertie, slapping her head: 'Oh! I started their first argument!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 30th of April, 2021. I understand, and appreciate, that Jim Scancarelli wants his characters to have soft, pleasant lives. But, wow, Sidney Potier and Katharine Houghton’s characters from Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner are looking at Mim and Tim and saying, “Now that’s a couple that married too fast.”

At the store again, Gertie runs into Mim and Tim, the couple whom she helped cute-meet back in February, our time. Mim and Tim got along great, turns out, and now they’re married. You see why I say this has got to me later than “the next day”. As it is, Gertie sets off their first argument, over whether “cackleberries” is a clever joke name for eggs. I understand there’s whirlwind romances. I still say Mim and Tim should have dated a little longer.

On her way out Gertie runs in to Rufus and Joel, as they run into her car. Rufus and Joel are the most 50s/60s-sitcommy characters in Gasoline Alley. Their stories tend to be deep in the American Cornball style. So if you don’t like that, bail out of any and all Rufus-and-Joel stories. You will not have fun.

Disembodied voice: 'Astro to Earth! I can't raise them! You try, Roger!' Joel, waking from bed: 'Oh! Not again!' Voice: 'Cadet Roger Manning calling Earth! What's wrong down there, Junior?' Joel, tossing a jug of moonshine out the door: 'I know what's wrong! No mo' sippin' on th'jug --- no mo' --- no how!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 22nd of May, 2021. So I grew up at the very tail end of this being a thing in American pop culture but let me promise younger readers, as though I had any: encountering something weird and promising to never again touch Demon Alcohol? That used to be crazy funny. I genuinely do like the nostalgic vibe of seeing it again.

If they are for you, then what you got the last two months was Joel hearing mysterious voices. “Astro on the Polaris, calling Earth! Come in!” And when Earth does not come in, Cadet Roger Manning tries to get Earth on the radio. Anyone with old-time-radio credentials recognizes this: it’s the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series. I’m assuming this the radio series, as Jim Scancarelli is a major fan of old-time-radio. (I’m aware it was a TV show first. And last, as the radio program ran less than a year. The clip gets identified as from the radio series, on what grounds I do not know.) The important thing is Joel doesn’t recognize it, and neither does anyone else until the end of the story.

Since there’s a racket, Joel goes off to Rufus’s house to sleep. And keep Rufus awake, since Joel snores like I snore. In the morning, the strange sound is still going. Rufus can hear it too. It’s not the radio, since Joel doesn’t have one. So, aliens it is, then.

Newspaper reporter: 'Polly? How'd you TV guys scoop *us*? We heard about it first!' Polly Ballew: 'You have your ways --- we have ours! [ Getting in front of the camera ] Now, please move out of our way ... while we do a live broadcast!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 17th of June, 2021. Incidentally we never do hear how Polly Ballew got word of this. Maybe the Galactic Institute of Space Research and Astral Studies dropped a tip so they’d have an excuse to appear.
The press is hardly going to ignore a good flying-saucer story. Reporters from the Gasette newspaper show up. So does Polly Ballew, of Gasoline Alley Television. Polly’s so excited by the story she doesn’t even mention being the sister of Wally Ballew of Bob and Ray’s old-time-radio show. (This might be because Bob and Ray had a running spoof of Tom Corbett. This was the Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate series. Too close a mention might spoil people’s suspension of disbelief. Except I’d think anyone who would spot that link would be going along with Scancarelli on this, so who knows?) But she also confirms the strange noises are coming from the kitchen colander.

Joel, introducing the Galactic Institute of Space Research and Astral Studies people: 'Howdy! This is m'fr'en' Rufus! These folks are from a outer space outfit studyin' my colander!' Rufus, sotto voce: 'They don't look like they is from outer space!' Joel: 'How yo' know? Yo' ain' never seen nobody from out there!' Rufus: 'I is too! In plenty o'movies an'th'TV!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 5th of July, 2021. I had not noticed before writing up the alt text for this image, but you could redraw this dialogue as a Pogo strip and it wouldn’t seem out of place.

Drawn by Polly Ballew’s live reporting, three members of the Galactic Institute of Space Research and Astral Studies show up. Cosmos Quasar, Dr Lana Luna, and Andrew Andromeda are happy to study this apparent alien transmission. With scientific investigators on the scene, Polly leaves. But their verdict: It’s the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet radio series. They recognize “Cadet Roger Manning of the Astro”. Their explanation: last week a communications satellite went off-course. A fragment of ancient radio got stuck in its circuits, and by freak coincidence is getting sent right to his kitchen colander. They recognized the names.

The story’s punch line, fitting to a cornball 50s/60s sitcom, is the departure of the Galactic Institute of Space Research and Astral Studies trio. Scotty beams them up.

The three Galactic Institute of Space Research and Astral Studies researchers, caught in a beam that looks like sunlight, with their forms dissolving: 'Well! Our work is done! Let's go home!' 'Right!' And the last says, in Greek (with Greek lettering) 'Beam us up, Scotty'. Rufus's mule Becky looks on, surprised.
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 17th of July, 2021. I don’t know why Scancarelli chose to depict an alien language as Greek. I would put money on his thinking of the idiom about something “being Greek to me”. And wanting to use an actual language that readers would have a fair shot of deciphering.

This would seem to end the Rufus-and-Joel story in time for this essay. Monday’s strip still had the characters talking about it. But the transition to a new story sometimes does happen mid-week. Often the protagonist for one story sees the protagonist for the next. Who that will be, and what they’ll do, I have no way to know except wait.

Next Week!

On the one hand, renowned nature guy Mark Trail! On the other, renowned pop science guy Bee Sharp! The stakes: an app about whether the air is healthy for pets. It should all come together in Jules Rivera’s Mark Trail, discussed next week, if all goes well.

Bob and Ray and the Campaign Microphone


I feel like listening to something today. Here’s an October 1959 episode of Bob and Ray Present the CBS Radio Network. As often for these shows it’s a set of several sketches, all done by Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. None of the sketches really involve one another so if you don’t care for one premise — a Broadway actor going over the failure of his musical; a political-news interview with a possible candidate for the upcoming presidential election; the Bob And Ray Trophy Train arrives in Memphis — you can zip ahead a few minutes and enjoy the next. I wouldn’t.

While listening to the Vic And Sadecast, an hourlong podcast about Vic and Sade, my love assessed that I have a love for wordy humor. Not puns, mind you, or jokes that consist only of putting a word where it doesn’t belong. More humor in which there is wonderful care about picking words so that they are just odd enough to be funny even if you can’t point to a specific laugh line. I think my love’s right in this as with so many regards. Bob and Ray sound rambling and improvised; it’s part of their charm. I don’t know how much Bob and Ray and their writing staff got done by editing and rewriting into shape and how much they got done by being really good writers and improvisors. It’s hard to pick any line, though, and find a variation that would be better. You can make lines more obviously meant to be punch lines, but then the whole sketch would be lessened. Anyway, do enjoy, please.

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.

Missing Christmas Ornaments with Bob and Ray


I felt like sharing a little old-time radio this weekend. So here, please enjoy the fifteen minutes of Bob and Ray Present The CBS Radio Network. This episode’s from the 15th of December, 1959.

Besides some experimental new sound effects the episode includes an installment of One Fella’s Family, all about the search for the missing Christmas ornaments. There’s a happy ending to it.


Also, there’s another comic strip review over on my mathematics blog. Do enjoy, if that’s your taste.

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.

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.

Bob and Ray at the Grand Motel


Top Secret is a pretty good movie. Solidly fun, stuffed full of jokes, and breezy and silly in a way that seems to be lost to modern grand spoof movies. What probably keeps it from being one of the great spoof movies is that it’s impossible to answer the question: so what exactly is being spoofed? It’s a close parody of something that never existed, the … Elvis World War II espionage thriller? That doesn’t matter much. Maybe its genius comes from pulling together spoofs of a couple of genres and finding that they harmonize. Maybe its genius comes from just taking a goofy idea and spoofing it so relentlessly that we don’t care if there was ever an original.

A weird idea? Sure. But after all, how many people spoof silent movie melodramas by depicting women tied to railroad tracks, even though that never happened except in silent movie spoofs of melodramas? Something can have all the hallmarks of a spoof without actually being a parody of anything in particular.

And this brings me to the Bob And Ray Present The CBS Radio Network for the 14th of July, 1950. The episode is tagged as “The Grand Motel”, for the central sketch in it. It gives off the vibes of parodying some particular old-time radio soap opera but heck if I can say what. The most specific I can get is to One Man’s Family, but that’s just because I’ve heard a lot of that soap and it features a lot of cranky old man at its center. I’m attempting, again, to embed it, but if that doesn’t work the above link should let you download it. And if that doesn’t work you can try this Archive.org collection of Bob and Ray episodes, looking for the one tagged “590714TheGrandMotel”.

To the extent this is spoofing anything particular, it’s soap operas, of course. There used to be a lot of them. Many were surprisingly short, fifteen-minute installments mostly of people recapping where they were and advancing the story a little bit. Many blurred the line between drama and comedy, as we’d see it now. The Grand Motel feels just slightly outside what might be plausible for a real soap. It’s played with a ruthless integrity to its internal logic and the Bob and Ray sketch comedy motif of the world just not quite fitting together smoothly. Everyone in their sketch worlds is just a little bit out of place. If that amuses you at all, then the sketch will keep getting funnier.

Also, yes, look for surprise special guest Pat Boone. He’s there with advice for teenagers.

Bob and Ray Week: Guess The Name Of This


If you want to be a comic performer, broadly speaking, there are two paths to take. You can be Groucho Marx or an accountant. The Groucho Marx approach has obvious advantages: you go out looking funny and anybody paying the slightest attention knows you are trying to be funny. The audience is readied to laugh. The accountant is tougher: you go out looking utterly unexceptional and trust that, maybe, the audience will notice you’re being ridiculous. The accountant style is more likely to go over people’s heads. The audience might not understand they’re expected to find this funny. But it’s also the kind that gets critical acclaim. And discovering something that’s accountant-style funny is wonderful; it feels like being let in on a secret.

(Yes, I’m aware that Groucho Marx hated the greasepaint-mustache, looking-to-be-funny look he wore. He felt going out looking deliberately funny encouraged audiences to be skeptical, and would rather have gone out looking like an accountant. But by the time he could have cast off the vaudeville look, he was too famous for it to ditch it entirely.)

So this brings me to Bob and Ray. Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding were mostly radio comics, with some television and other ventures. I want to say the best way to describe what they did was that they did SCTV, but for radio. I trust that SCTV is a recognizable reference around these parts. However, what’s got me doing a Bob and Ray Week is that I discovered a friend had not the faintest idea what I was talking about when I referred to them.

So here’s a sample. In 1959 and 1960 they performed Bob and Ray Present the CBS Radio Network many installments of which survive thanks to the magic that lets old-time radio survive. This one is from the 12th of October, 1959; it’s tagged “Guess The Name Of This”.

It is theoretically possible that I have this embedded below. However, Archive.org’s “embed” feature is really badly screwed up, and its help page is utter gibberish. I recommend that if you want to see something explained in a way that explains nothing to anybody. It may be easiest to just download the MP3 and play that in your preferred MP3 player than deal with this mess. In any case it’s file number 77 in this collection, titled “591012 Guess The Name Of This”.

Anyway, this is a fun episode to try out. I think it conveys well the Bob and Ray spirit in which you might, if you’re not listening, not even notice something ridiculous is going on. We get some lovely predictions for the future, and a Name That Tune-style contest that goes subtly awry. The sense of subverted normality is strong here. It won’t be for everyone, but for the people it is for, it’s perfect. Also the episode is only twelve minutes long, so it’s easy to try out. (Most episodes of this particular series are fifteen minutes; I’m not sure why this one is short.)

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