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 lines like “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 “43-Man 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 sports writer 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 a half-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 co-produced. 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.”