Accent on Living

IT WOULD be an odd thing indeed if 1951 were to go down as the year in which radio finally discovered itself and became worth hearing. The appeal of radio in recent years has been about equal to that of the silent films. It continues to make familiar noises, yet its vitality has been ebbing daily. Radio this past year seemed plainly a curio, a completed episode, headed for the Smithsonian. To listen in accidentally on a Dr. I.Q. program, after exposure to the blast of television, was like waking up in the House of Burgesses in eighteenthcentury Williamsburg and marveling at the quaintness of life in those days. The same was true of other standard radio perennials: it was unbelievable that such outmoded offerings could still command commercial support and an audience.

Yet during the summer just past, the National Broadcasting Company brought forward a new network feature — two comedians, of all things, named Bob and Ray — that very nearly constituted a one-program justification of radio. It was startling — a reminder that the contenl of entertainment was more important than the gadget that transmitted the show. Extraordinary. On that basis, a genuinely funny radio comedian could be more entertaining than a completely unfunny television performer. The whole idea was revolutionary. Even more disturbing was the obvious fact that Bob and Ray were taking advantage of new techniques in radio and that these techniques were a delight to hear, yet entirely without value for television.

Bob and Ray made it plain that radio had been overlooking some of the most effective tools in its kit — the use, for instance, of transcriptions in a “live” show. There would be no point in playing a transcription for TV, but ordinary recorded bits were caused by Bob and Ray to produce preposterous illusions via radio. The effect of suddenly slowing down the turntable, or speeding it up sharply, in the middle of an ornate trumpet, solo, yielded wonderful implications for the listener, guided by low-pressure comment from Bob and Ray. They had been having trouble with the trumpeter — drinking perhaps, nerves, family discord. . . . Would he make it this time? . . . No . . . too bad . . . there he goes again!

Each of the team can also take the part of ten or a dozen different characters without reducing his conversational speed, and their version of a Small Business Men’s Round Table — the tallest Small Business Man present being just 9 ½inches — was a rich tangle of warring voices with a moderator and program announcer thrown in. It wound up with the shortest Small Business Man (4 inches) shouting through the honeyed sign-off of the “announcer”: “Lift me down from this table, somebody!” — nothing for television, but a droll enough interval for the listener. So were the team’s ruinous telephone conversations, both parties talking at once and with great earnestness.

They created hundreds of funny situations in those summer weeks; their material was wonderfully fresh and distinctive. How long they could continue to produce brilliantly at the vast rate of their summer consumption (five 15-minute programs plus a one-hour show every week) remained to be seen. Both men are capable actors, and their mimicry is subtle enough to prosper even with more commonplace subject matter. The fine gusto of their first burst into network radio smacked of durability.