Bob Elliott: Still finding humor in the ordinary
LOS ANGELES -- For almost half a century, the comedy team of Bob and Ray took the ordinary and made it extraordinarily funny.
During that span they influenced comedians and writers such as Johnny Carson, David Letterman, George Carlin and Garrison Keillor. "Slaughterhouse-Five" novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote of the duo: "Their jokes turn out to be universal Š because much of life presents itself as the same dilemma; how to seem lusty and purposeful when less than nothing is going on."
Though they haven’t performed in decades, their brilliance is on display in several clips on YouTube, including one from "The Tonight Show" with Carson in which Ray Goulding is interviewing Bob Elliott as the first male winner of the "most beautiful face contest." Goulding seems oblivious to Elliott being a mild-mannered, middle-aged, balding man.
"They’ve been relaxing the requirements this year," Elliott deadpans, as always, to Goulding. "My neatly chiseled features do stand out."
"Things like that were so ridiculous, the straighter the face we did it, the funnier it seemed," Elliott said recently.
"You know, everything Bob and Ray did was mocking broadcasting," said David Pollock, author of the 2013 book on the duo: "Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Persons."
Among their most popular parodies included "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife," "One Fella’s Family," "Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons" and "Jack Headstrong, All American American."
By making fun of their own medium, said Pollock, "they make their listeners their co-conspirators on both radio and TV. They distinguished themselves by appearing normal. They never really perceived themselves as actors but two guys entertaining themselves and each other. It was always assumed audiences were in on (the joke), and that was part of the fun."
Goulding died in 1990. Elliott recently turned 91 and hasn’t lost his genially low-key humor.
Elliott noted that the man who puts out the CDs of their vintage radio shows sent him countless emails from fans wishing him a happy birthday. "And with it was a note saying 91 is the new 90," Elliott said over the phone from his home off the coast of Maine. "I haven’t discovered much difference yet."
He’s the father of five, including comic actor Chris Elliott. The two played father and son in the 1990-92 Fox comedy series "Get a Life." The comedy genes continue with the next generation; his granddaughter is former "Saturday Night Live" regular Abby Elliott.
Bob and Ray were an instant sensation on radio in Boston in 1946 at station WHDH. Elliott was a disc jockey and Goulding read the news when they began ad libbing bits.
"The manager was new, and they were ready to try anything to put a failing station on the map again," said Elliott. "He was very free in letting us play."
Besides their spoofs, Bob and Ray created a stock company of outrageously funny characters such as Goulding’s farm editor Dean Archer Armstead and Elliott’s sportscaster Biff Burns -- "This is Biff Burns saying this is Biff Burns saying good night" -- and his most famous creation: the inept man-on-the-street reporter Wally Ballou, who had won "16 diction awards" during his less-than-illustrious career.
Ballou was based on someone they knew at WHDH. "I think he was the morning janitor," noted Elliott. "He would come in and ask very strange questions like ‘Did you get your shoes shined today, Bob and Ray?’ I was able to sound a little bit like him. The older I have gotten the more I sound like him. I can’t tell when I’m me or Wally Ballou!"
New York beckoned in 1951, and for four decades Bob and Ray were heard on radio on the NBC (they won a Peabody for their routines on the long-running "Monitor" radio show), CBS and Mutual networks. Their final series aired on National Public Radio before Goulding became ill.
They also were mainstays on television from when the medium was in its infancy. Their 1951 series "Bob and Ray" featured a pre-"Honeymooners" Audrey Meadows. Cloris Leachman replaced Meadows in 1952 when the show was retitled "Club Embassy."
"We were given a complete free hand, as was Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen," said Elliott. "Everybody was trying to put a finger on how do you do this new medium. We tried different things, and nobody complained. We never did jokes. It was characters and situations that we had seen happen in real life."
Retired for a while
They conquered Broadway in 1970 in "Bob and Ray: The Two and Only" and were embraced by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players in the early years of "Saturday Night Live," starring with Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner in the 1979 NBC special "Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine & Gilda."
Elliott has been retired for a while. "I miss it a little when I see things we could have had fun with," said Elliott. "But I keep busy. I paint. I have been painting since I was kid. If I hadn’t gone into radio when I did I probably would have come out of the Army, gone into the art business and probably would have flopped because I’m not that great."
He didn’t have to pursue that option, to the eternal joy of countless Bob and Ray fans.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.