I saw Bob and Ray on YouTube on the David Letterman show the other day and I found myself waiting for the funny parts, thinking “when is the joke going to finally happen”? I was chuckling and twittering as if this was already funny, that delicious moment of becoming ready to laugh out loud. I love Bob and Ray, I exhorted them to make me laugh, I wanted to love them right there and then. But they don’t quite do it, we were all (me, Letterman, the audience) expectantly chuckling with great goodwill but the big laugh never happened.
Then it occurred to me: this very thing is their basic shtick, their conceit: they sit on the edge of the almost funny, always about to be burst into truly funny, and always at the end leaving us shaking our heads at how funny that not being funny was. We laugh as they tease us; we laugh because they never quite come across . We can’t not laugh, their infectious self-deprecation looms so large, their awesome affability conquers us.
To put it another way: two boring white guys goofing around about being boring and white, reveling in this having nothing to say, is actually very funny.
Slow Talkers Of America ( S-T-O-A ) is the defining, canonical, hysterical Bob and Ray skit: Harlow P. Whitcomb announces his name, brutally slowly, and after a pause that threatens never to end, announces that he is president (long pause) and (pause) recording secretary(continuation of interrupted pause) of the S – T – O – A. The teasing itself is quite funny, but that doesn’t quite explain how insanely funny this becomes. It’s not merely the way in which he’s speaking, but that what he is saying is nothing except that he is speaking slowly. Bob is waiting and waiting for Ray to get to the next word, the next sentence, he’s imploring him to get on with it and say whatever it is he wants to say, but Ray is intent on torturing him. The punchline turns out to be that there is no punchline.
Thus Bob and Ray invented a wonderful and preposterous religion – a religion of listening to a droning, middle aged, middle class, middle American colorless yet goofy looking white guys who seem about to say something but never quite do. A famous zen master said “The only wisdom is you don’t open your mouth”. Our guys go him one better: They open their mouths but, speaking as the tortoise to the impatient and therefore doomed hare, their guileless yet mischievous demeanor speaks nothing more decisively than mere silence. This is the Zen us regular Americans were always looking for. It can make one want to run screaming into some Zendo, or loony bin or sensory deprivation tank, a place where we know they will just shut up. It’s the ultimate shaggy god story.
Their heroes are all in this vein:
Ray interviews Bob, the man on the street reporter for many years. He says, I bet you have a lot of wacky stories to tell us from your years on the street. Both Bob and Ray break into heavy guffaws, back and forth, oh so ready to tell these wonderful stories, as if they can’t decide which one to pick. Then they stop and Bob says, Well actually not much ever happened. Ray says oh. Fade out.
A Paper Clip manufacturer who refuses to use equipment, or pay his employees, and consequently produces nearly no papers clips; A cranberry farmer who has never heard of cranberry sauce or cranberry juice or cranberry jam and so sells no cranberries; A higher jumper who never jumps, who first proclaims himself a lower jumper( “we start in a very high place and jump down”) but then admits that he has retired from this stupid sport because the Olympic committee is uninterested; Bob and Ray unite family members who haven’t seen each other for 50 years and, contrary to expectations, have nothing to say to each other except ‘see you around’.
Remember that these guys, saying nothing, were a radio rather than TV act, making the nothing they were saying so much clearer and purer.
Why is the self-deprecating nothingness they sold so much purer than, for example, Woody Allen’s? Bob and Ray, brazenly evading the Jewish stranglehold on American comedy, have no pretensions, not even that of the neurotic shlemiel. Being neurotic would be way too much work, and would interfere with the true dharma, their spontaneous enlightenment of transcendent boredom. Praise Be.