Brent ‘Rafert’ Webster’s ‘I gotcha’ laugh is silent
Des Moines musician Bob Cook figures entertainer Brent Webster, 63, may have gotten his last sinister “I gotcha” laugh on Feb. 6 when he died in Colorado without telling his friends in Central Iowa that he was ill. Cook, Webster’s friend and the other half of radio advertising’s “Willard and Rafert” comedy routine, was accustomed to such treatment. As the gravel-voiced Rafert, Webster got the better of the hapless Willard, Cook’s alter ego, for about two decades. “He was so damn fast and comedic, and faster than Robin Williams was in some cases,” said Cook, who met Webster in Biloxi, Miss., in the 1970s and had played music with him on and off ever since.
The two were recording a cable television commercial in 1975 and needed names for a pair of cantankerous old characters they had created. Willard and Rafert became well-known in homes across the Midwest in commercials for products ranging from Massey-Ferguson farm equipment to Allied Insurance annuities. They pitched the products in a folksy, cunning way that seemed more like entertainment than advertising to listeners. “A radio station up north played it, and it went over so well, people called and asked that it be played over and over,” Cook said. “Willard and Rafert put them on the map,” said Harbert Creative founder Bob Harbert, a talent agent who helped line up jobs for Webster and Cook. “Pretty much all of that was ad-libbed. He was so funny in his ad-libs; his comedic timing was incredible.
“He was always ready to tell the latest joke, and even if you’d heard it, you’d want to hear his version because it was so much better with the animated face, the animated everything.”
Webster often made himself the butt of jokes, telling stories from two decades of traveling the country with different bands and other adventures in his life, which began on a New England farm. He lived big and sought out ways to make people laugh. In Dallas County, where he lived until moving to Colorado four years ago, he was known as “the Carpet Fairy,” because he would show up at his friends’ band gigs wearing a pink tutu, flowing blond wig and tiara, a costume from a 1970s television commercial for a carpet supplier.
Porter and Associates Senior Vice President Abe Goldestien said Webster may have been among the last from an era in which people could make a living from their voices. “He had such a distinctive voice,” Goldstien said. “Nowadays, you find a lot of people who are announcers and actors who get into the voice-over business. Brent was a voice talent with a sound that was unique. If he was in a spot, people sat up and took notice.”
Willard and Rafert faded into obscurity in the 1990s after Cook and Webster fought – and won – a long and expensive court battle over intellectual property rights to the characters. Webster retired soon after, working professionally only occasionally.
“I remember as vividly as if it happened yesterday what fun it was,” Cook said.
“If there wasn’t laughter, it means something had happened, and he’d cry a minute and then be back to making you laugh so hard you wet your pants.”