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Rays Week

Ray Jay Johnson And Other People I Know Only From ‘The Simpsons’

The animated Ray Jay Johnson as he appeared in a season 13 episode of The Simpsons.

My wife came home from school one day with a story. She always has them, but this one is going to stick with me. One of her students was wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt. She probably bought it at H&M. They had the following conversation.

“You don’t really listen to Iron Maiden, do you?”
“No, I just know they’re mentioned in that ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ song.”
“How do you know that song?”
“How do you know that song??”

I asked Jan just now, and she doesn’t know how her student knew Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” or if the kid got the IROC reference in the song. How would you even explain to a teenager the specific cultural associations listeners in 2000 would have to the line “he lives on my block/ And he drives an IROC.” (Genius doesn’t quite capture them in its write-up.) My best guess is that, as was the case when my wife’s students recommended Radiohead’s “Creep” to her, the kid heard the song on TikTok.

This took me back, and not because I was a big fan of the 2000 comedy Loser, which was one of those high school movies that does freeze frames at the end of the movie to tell you what happened to Mena Suvari’s and Jason Biggs’s characters. But it reminded me of my youth, when I was occasionally impressing or horrifying my elders by explaining that, yes, I understood that old reference they were making. There was usually one reason why I did: The Simpsons.

Monday I wrote about how I finally watched Ray Donovan, and in it I mentioned one of my first TV memories was my parents and I gathering for the series premiere of The Simpsons. (Should’ve saved it for this story. Whoops!) I would’ve been almost 7 years old, then, which very nearly makes me a lifelong Simpsons fan. An embarrassing thing I can admit from my teenage life is that I once set my watch to beep so I could make sure to see the reruns in the afternoon. I don’t think I ever posted, but I read I taped episodes. I loved this show. Many people loved the show, but I also still watch it. I really enjoyed the two-part episode “A Serious Flanders” last season. I also liked the episode where Homer becomes the Internet’s main character. It’s like pro wrestling for me: The show is never going to be what it was for me when I was 7, but I still get something from it. Like pro wrestling, maybe I’m too easy on it. I can deal with that.

There was a lot I learned from The Simpsons, right from the start. Did I learn that people get “MOTHER” tattoos from the first episode? Maybe! How about the Attila the Hun reference Bart makes in the credits at the end? Did I know who Attila the Hun was yet? Did I “get” the reference at some point from elsewhere? I don’t know! Eat my shorts!

But there are people that I know are real entirely because of The Simpsons. One person towers over them all, even though he is only 5-foot-3 in real life: Ray Jay Johnson. He’s mentioned in the classic episode “Krusty Gets Kancelled.” When Krusty does, indeed, get kancelled, he says he’s never done a bad show—except for the week Raymond J. Johnson Jr. guest-hosted.

This is actually not entirely a reference joke. When Krusty recruits a bunch of celebrities for his komeback special, Gabbo the marionette puppet (who has been stealing his audience) asks his handler who they have this week: “Ray Jay Johnson.” Gabbo’s head spins. It’s a cute little bit that works even if you don’t know the actual man or his actual act. I don’t remember how. But when this episode aired in 1993, I quickly learned he was indeed a real person.

Well, kind of. He was a character. As Krusty says, the character of Raymond Jay Johnson Jr. had basically one bit: Someone would call him “Mr. Johnson,” and he’d launch into a long retort. Here’s one from a clip of some variety show I found on YouTube in which he appears along with a little person mimicking him, and also Redd Foxx: “Welllllll you doesn’t have to call me Johnson. My name is Raymond J. Johnson Junior. Now you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, or you can call me Johnny, or you can call me Sonny, or you can call me June-y, or you can call me Ray Jay, or you can call me R.J., or you can call me R.J.J. Junior. But you doesn’t have to call me Johnson!”

Ray Jay Johnson Jr. is actually the comedian Bill Saluga, a longtime member of the comedy troupe Ace Trucking Company, which also included George Memmoli, Michael Mislove, Patti Deutsch, and Fred Willard. (You probably know Willard from those Christopher Guest mockumentaries.) They were apparently somewhat regular guests on Johnny Carson, who once called them “kind of our resident flaky group on The Tonight Show.” I think that means they’re hippies, or maybe they just didn’t show up when booked sometimes. IMDb says the group appeared 35 times on Carson, so they did show up a lot. Saluga’s R.J.J. Junior character was already doing his full shtick in this 1973 sketch, and it’s clear it’s already an established bit here. The bit on Carson has a kind of vaudeville one-liner feel to it. Johnson actually has a lot more than just his one catchphrase here, although as none of that was mentioned on The Simpsons I didn’t know about it until this week.

“She didn't come here to be insulting!” “Oh really? Where does she usually go?” I laughed at this. Feels like something Bobby “The Brain” Heenan would say.

Saluga developed the character, he told the Washington Post’s Tom Shales in 1979, one night at the (still open) New York City club The Bitter End, back in 1969. “One night at the Bitter End in the Village I just got up and started doing this blustery character,” Saluga told him. “The response was good, and one of the guys says. ‘What’s your name?’ and I said ‘Raymond Johnson.’ It was just a name I threw out, and that was it. Then the next night I did the character again and this time I said, ‘Raymond J. Johnson.’ And pretty soon it was ‘Raymond J. Johnson Jr.’ I just stretched it out. Then he would call me Johnson and I’d say, ‘You doesn’t has to call me Johnson.’ And then, ‘You can call me Ray, or you can call me Ray Jay, or you can call me R.J.. or you can call me R.J. Junior, or you can call me R.J.J.’ We never sat down and figured it all out; it just came out.” In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal’s magazine, Beacon, Saluga said that the voice he was doing was obviously inspired by Kingfish, a character on Amos ’n’ Andy. Listen to a clip of Kingfish, a black radio character voiced by a white man, and it does kind of sound like Raymond Jay Johnson. Saluga’s character is basically an impression of a racist caricature voice; divorced from the original subject, his character is “every old cigar-breath who ever button-holed you in a bar and told you more than you could possibly want to know about anything,” as Shales put it.

Despite his 35 Carson appearances, over time Saluga became known for just that catchphrase. In the 1970s he became well-known as the spokesman for Natural Light beer. The company used his shtick to encourage people to order their beer by asking for “a Natural”; Anheuser-Busch research had shown when people asked for “a light” they got a Miller Lite and not their brand. (AB’s Bud Light, long the best-selling beer in the country, was introduced in 1982. I could not decipher when the nickname for Natural Light became not “Natural” but “Natty.”) The campaign didn’t last that long—it was off the air by 1982—but it was ubiquitous enough to make Ray Jay Johnson a well-known character. (Think how well you knew the “Dilly Dilly” king. Now imagine if he had a name, or if the Bud Knight had a catchphrase besides “BUD LIGHT!”) Shales wrote that people did impressions of Ray Jay Johnson at every party. Beacon’s Charles Lally wrote that Saluga was the second-most imitated man in America, after Steve Martin, and “a piece of American pop culture with a recognition factor rivaling Ronald McDonald and The Fonz.” Bars ran R. Jay Johnson lookalike contests. He also popped up to do his bit on variety shows, which was an even odder 1970s fad than Raymond J. Johnson Junior. As you might expect from someone who was famous during this time, he also had a novelty record.

I don’t really get the bit. (I mean, I get it more than Christopher Guest mockumentaries.) Defector staffers discussed it earlier this week. I thought the gag was that R.J. Johnson didn’t want to be called johnson, slang for penis. (That etymology seems to be unclear, but there are 19th century references.) It actually doesn’t seem like that's it, though. Samer hit upon what appears to be the best explanation of the gag: He’s trying to be polite, so you don’t have to call him Mr. Johnson—but he goes into an extended diatribe interrupting the person, annoying them all the way. Yes, somehow this character was once a mascot rivaling Ronald McDonald.

Excerpts from Ray Jay Johnson content in 1979 newspapers. At the left is from The Belleville News-Democrat; at right is from Beacon.

After doing some research, I now would say that I know a lot about Ray Jay Johnson, and certainly more than anyone would need to know in 2022. But this all began with The Simpsons. I am not the only person to learn about this man, or this character, from that TV show. Another one of them is actually Matt Selman, executive producer of The Simpsons for 386 episodes and counting. “I also know who Ray Jay Johnson is from the first generation of Ray Jay jokes on The Simpsons,” he tells Defector. This makes sense to me. Imagine a young person now learning about the “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” guy from a viral video.

Selman says the “first generation” because there was one more: Saluga made his own appearance on the show, in Season 13’s “The Old Man and the Key.” I watched this Monday night. It’s not a classic, but I enjoyed the episode’s broad, vaudeville-level jokes about old people, because I’m a jerk, I guess. It also feels really fresh in two ways: It opens with Homer becoming saddened by the cancellation of the XFL season, which became topical again in 2020, and will be topical in the near future when people try and inevitably fail to relaunch that league. The episode also contains a famous Simpsons meme! Here it is in high quality for your usage!

Near the end of the episode, Grandpa and Bart drive to Branson, Missouri, to chase down the woman he’d been dating. They end up in a dinner theater with stars from the past—Charo, Mr. T, and R.J. Johnson himself. Saluga was the only one of these celebs to actually voice his character. There’s a little song where they talk about how they’re still around. Here’s Sonny:

You can call me Ray 
Or you can call me Jay
Just don't call me washed-up
I do three shows a day 

It’s pretty catchy and naturally has been in my head all week. It was up for an Emmy for Outstanding Music And Lyrics but lost to the theme to the BBC documentary The Blue Planet. (David Attenborough has not been on The Simpsons, but character Declan Desmond is an obvious analogue voiced by Eric Idle.)

Despite thinking about it more than I expected to this week, I’m not sure why I’m so tickled that I only know—or, after this story, knew—about R.J.J. Junior from The Simpsons. I spent a lot of time thinking about what else I first learned of from The Simpsons this week. I think my favorite one is the Falklands War.

But learning this sort of stuff from TV is not useless. I have a text chain with two of my high school friends where we share Simpsons memes constantly and talk about our lives occasionally. One friend told me that early in his career he bonded with older coworkers because he knew certain references via The Simpsons. I also routinely impressed older people early in my career by being a bit of a know-it-all. Maybe impressed isn’t the word here, but I really did know a lot of stuff from The Simpsons: The Falklands War, Ray Jay Johnson, the fact that Abraham Lincoln sold poison milk to school children (OK, this one was just a gag).

The conversation with my Simpsons meme pals reminded me of another thing from high school: The Beloit College Mindset List. The gimmick, which began in 1998, was allegedly a way to tell adults what the incoming college freshman class knew when entering. I remember hating this list in high school. I took it as an insult. Look at the list for my graduation year. I knew what 45 records are. My house had shag carpeting well into the 1990s. (In defense of my parents, it was only in the basement by then.) I definitely knew the Don McLean version of “American Pie,” not just Madonna's cover. I also knew what fucking Woodstock was. Woodstock ’99, which I watched on PPV in my friend’s basement, was probably going on when these doofuses came up with this list.

I guess this Beloit college list wasn’t mean to be taken this way, but obviously I’m still a little angry about it all these years later. I don’t know if there’s a lesson here. The Beloit College listmakers say they were originally intended as just a way to tell professors to watch their references; though they also say they became “globally reported and utilized guide to the intelligent if unprepared adolescent consciousness,” I don’t know how many people used it that way. And how did their reporting not uncover that I knew what 45s were?

Beloit College published its last Mindset list in 2019, though Marist now has one with different founders. Bill Saluga, though, is still around. I couldn’t get in touch with him. Whatever. He’s 84. He briefly had his heyday in the U.S. when everyone was impersonating his commercial pitchman character, and that's more fame than most downtown comedy types ever enjoy. I’m glad I learned about him. And I’m glad he finally got to appear on The Simpsons.

“I’m sure it was a Ray Jay love fest,” Selman said. “I hope no one called him Johnson. We would’ve been really embarrassed.”

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