Com­edy writer for Bob and Ray, Mad

TOM KOCH, 1925 - 2015

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By Elaine Woo elaine.woo@la­times.com

Tom Koch, a la­conic satirist whose re­fined sense of the ab­sur­di­ties of ev­ery­day life in­formed thou­sands of ra­dio scripts for the com­edy team Bob and Ray as well as a mem­o­rable Mad mag­a­zine sports spoof called “43-Man Squamish,” died March 22 at his La­guna Woods home. He was 89.

The cause was pul­monary fail­ure, said his grand­daugh­ter, Nia Thomas.

Koch (pro­nounced “cook”) was a news writer who fell into com­edy writ­ing in the mid-1950s, when Bob El­liott and Ray Gould­ing were ris­ing NBC ra­dio stars. Shar­ing their wry take on the tics and ma­nias of or­di­nary peo­ple, Koch wrote ma­te­rial for the two­some on and off for more than 30 years, in­clud­ing their half-hour se­ries on Na­tional Public Ra­dio in the 1980s.

“We were very close to him in our sense of hu­mor,” El­liott, 92, said last week of Koch, whose pro­lific con­tri­bu­tions, largely un­cred­ited un­til re­cent years, helped keep the duo’s act go­ing. “He helped it last longer than we ever fig­ured it would.”

Koch wrote nearly 3,000 Bob and Ray scripts, in­clud­ing such clas­sics as “Squad Car 119,” a par­ody of the long-run­ning po­lice se­rial “Drag­net”; “Tippy the Won­der Dog,” a sendup of “Lassie”; and “The Gath­er­ing Dusk,” which poked fun at day­time soap op­eras.

When soaps went prime time with shows such as “Dy­nasty,” “Dal­las” and “Fal­con Crest,” Koch’s re­sponse was a take­off called “Gar­ish Sum­mit,” in which char­ac­ters spoke such lines as “I’m the wealthy but spine­less young ex­ec­u­tive.”

He also lam­pooned early re­al­ity-TV shows in “Hardluck Sto­ries,” which fea­tured hob­bled and des­ti­tute char­ac­ters such as the wor­ried mother voiced by Gould­ing, who says: “My lit­tle San­dra has cu­ti­cles grow­ing half­way up her fin­ger­nails, and the out­stand­ing cu­ti­cle man has his clinic in Auburn, Ind.”

Koch won a lo­cal Emmy in 1976 for writ­ing “Bob and Ray’s Cure for Cal­i­for­nia,” a half-hour KNBC-TV spe­cial that gen­tly mocked the state’s ap­proach to smog, traf­fic and other prob­lems. (“I think that gun con­trol and the av­o­cado blight will cancel each other out,” El­liott’s char­ac­ter says at one point.)

“Tom Koch’s premises, al­ways sup­ported on a bedrock of de­li­ciously ab­struse logic, were noth­ing more than ‘re­al­ity car­ried a step fur­ther,’ he said,” David Pol­lock wrote in his 2013 book “Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Per­sons.”

Koch brought sim­i­lar mer­ri­ment to Mad mag­a­zine, where he con­trib­uted 300 fea­tures over 38 years, start­ing in 1957.

His best-known piece was “43Man Squamish,” the name he in­vented for a pre­pos­ter­ously con­vo­luted game in­spired by his fas­ci­na­tion with the com­pli­cated rules and spe­cial ter­mi­nol­ogy used in many sports. A sports­writer early in his ca­reer, he turned his comic mind on sub­jects that al­lowed him to “en­hance the ab­sur­dity,” said his son, John, who sur­vives him along with three grand­chil­dren and two great-grand­chil­dren.

Il­lus­trated by Mad artist Ge­orge Wood­bridge, Koch’s ar­ti­cle out­lined the 43 po­si­tions (“the left & right In­side Grouches, the left & right Out­side Grouches, four Deep Brood­ers … two Leapers and a Dummy”), the equip­ment (“a long hooked stick known as a Frul­lip … used to halt op­pos­ing play­ers at­tempt­ing to cross your goal line with the Pritz”), the five-sided field (the Flut­ney) and var­i­ous plays (the Woomik, worth 17 points).

To Koch’s sur­prise, col­lege teams formed across the coun­try and abroad. In a trib­ute last week, Mad’s ed­i­tors noted that “43-Man Squamish” re­mains the mag­a­zine’s most re­quested reprint 50 years af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion in 1965.

“It was quin­tes­sen­tial non­sense,” said for­mer long­time Mad edi­tor Nick Meglin. “I have al­ways held him as the pin­na­cle of the writ­ers Mad had.”

Thomas Free­man Koch was born May 13, 1925, in Charleston, Ill., and grew up in In­di­anapo­lis. His fa­ther, Elmer, was a sales­man. His mother, the for­mer Rachel Free­man, was a homemaker.

At North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity, he earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in jour­nal­ism in 1946 and a mas­ter’s in po­lit­i­cal science in 1948, then be­came a news writer for CBS in Chicago and NBC in New York.

His work for Dave Gar­roway, the popular DJ who would be­come the first host of the “To­day” show, led some­one at NBC to rec­om­mend him to Bob and Ray, who in 1955 had be­gun con­tribut­ing live spots to the net­work’s na­tional week­end ra­dio pro­gram, “Mon­i­tor.”

“They usu­ally ad-libbed their stuff, but NBC didn’t want things go­ing out over the net­work with­out know­ing what was com­ing in ad­vance, so they asked me to start writ­ing for them,” Koch told the Los An­ge­les Times in 1996.

Koch had never writ­ten com­edy be­fore but quickly found he had a knack for it.

“The first pack­age we got from him, we prob­a­bly bought ev­ery­thing in it,” El­liott re­called. “He re­ally hit it on the nose.”

Shortly af­ter he started writ­ing for Bob and Ray, Koch moved to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and wrote ma­te­rial for Jonathan Win­ters, Ernie Ford and Pat Paulsen. El­liott said he and Gould­ing, who were based in New York, met face to face with their main writer no more than half a dozen times over the years. It was an ideal ar­range­ment for Koch, who liked work­ing at home.

He ex­pe­ri­enced the spot­light on a few oc­ca­sions. He had a bit part as a hyp­no­tist in the 1963 mu­si­cal com­edy “Come Blow Your Horn,” which his friend Nor­man Lear co­pro­duced. Lear also cast him in an episode of the late-1970s soap opera par­ody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

For the most part, how­ever, Koch pre­ferred be­ing the sly wit be­hind the scenes.

“Peo­ple would say I must have had such a great life do­ing this, peo­ple who were en­gi­neers, doc­tors, in­sur­ance sales­men or what­ever,” he once said. “But it was the kind of work where ev­ery morn­ing I would wake up and think, ‘My God, I won­der if I can do it again to­day.’ There is no way you pre­pare to do it, or even know how you do it.”

Bob Grieser Los An­ge­les Times

THE MIND BE­HIND ‘43-MAN SQUAMISH’ Koch’s best-known Mad mag­a­zine piece was a sports spoof in­volv­ing a con­vo­luted game that is

still the mag­a­zine’s most re­quested reprint 50 years af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion in 1965.

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