All Ears

Browse through the books-on-disc section of a large bookstore, and you’ll likely find a small cachet of CDs archiving forgotten radio programs, from Burns & Allen-type comedy to the adventures of crimefighters like The Shadow. Given the long history of radio entertainment, tricky ownership questions, and the tiny market of radio buffs, though, fans looking for a particular program will often be disappointed.

That needn’t be the case with devotees of Bob & Ray, though you’re not likely to find their recordings at Barnes & Noble. A web site has sprung up at and started cranking archival releases out by the boxload, to the great pleasure of those of us who have long tried in vain to find downloads among the porn and pirated blockbusters on peer-to-peer networks.

Though they aren’t household names now — Bob may be more familiar as the father and sometime co-star of Chris Elliott — Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding are among the most influential of mid-century American comedians, who among other things explored the fake-interview format for 15 years before Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks hatched The 2,000 Year-Old Man. They had a two-man act, but that didn’t keep them from peopling skits with a wide array of funny-voiced characters, many of whom were just clueless enough to be

At last check, offered around 94 hours of programs, most of them divvied up into 4-CD volumes that fit into a handful of series. Some of those categories bear confusing names (how is The Best of Bob & Ray different from Classic Bob & Ray?), but all give a good taste of the droll sensibility that earned the fellas an evangelical cult following. (My first exposure was from a guy I only knew casually, who handed me a tape more than 10 years ago and said, “You’re going to love this!”)

The first Best of, naturally, would be a good introduction, with bits of fake commercials and extended soap-opera storylines that have since been established as standbys for sketch comedy. (The site has devoted a whole series to The Soap Operas for listeners who can’t get enough of “Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife.”) It also gets laughs out of routines not completely without political content: As a reporter interviews a “man on the street” about the President’s recent speech on the economy, the schlub can only form an opinion insofar as “productivity” relates to the elastic waistband of his underpants.

Enjoyable in its own way is the Vintage series, which reaches back to their first appearances in 1946. The production here (naturally scratchy with age) is cluttered with all sorts of organ music, extravagant theatrics, and Chesterfield jingles. But as the young men stumble over each other and improvise banter, you can hear the genesis of a thousand drive-time FM entertainers and TV-variety-show goofballs — few of whom have kept this level of casual, left-field wit going for any length of time.

Now let’s jump both forward and back in time at once: Foreward, to legendary BBC disc jockey John Peel, who launched so many careers by keeping his ears open for unheard talent — and backward, to the ear-cleansing stack of ancient wax he kept around to play in between Joy Division and the Pixies. The Pig’s Big 78s, from the gloriously eclectic label Trikont, gathers 78 rpm favorites of Peel and his wife Sheila. The disc was compiled by the time Peel died in 2004, but notes remained to be written: Sheila picked up the slack, offering personal anecdotes explaining each selection, while label staffers made sure to squeeze in some hard data on each

Those notes are handy as this programming is intensely weird: Cantonese folk song, foxtrots and hula, early R’n’ R, and a “mystery record” whose spliced-together performances were left for listeners to guess as part of a 1950 contest with a prize of 1,950 pounds. If the comp doesn’t “flow” the way many great various-artists discs do, it’s only because so many songs here are unlike any you’d expect to hear. Currently bouncing unavoidably in my head: “John, John Put Your Trousers On,” a track from 1908 that Sheila admits was chosen “because it’s so stupid! Why would you sing about this?”

All I know is why a Brit listener in the ’80s or ’90s would have kept his radio on while it played: The next song might be by his new favorite band, who with John Peel’s help would soon be the toast of London.

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