Radio: Bob & Ray
Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding first met in 1946, at radio station WHDH-AM in Boston. Bob — the slight one with the big blue eyes — was the morning DJ; Ray — the burly one with the splendid baritone — was the newly-hired announcer. After reading the news on Bob's program, Ray would stick around and the two would riff off their particular corner of the Establishment - shows, sponsors, guests and interviewers alike.They quickly discovered that their shared understanding of the absurd went well beyond the casual. Without ever quite meaning to, they became a natural - and entirely unique - comedy team.Eventually they proved so popular that they were given their own half-hour afternoon slot, Matinee With Bob & Ray (hence the billing; "if the word had been 'Matinob', it would've been 'Ray & Bob'"). Eventually that proved so popular that The Bob & Ray Show moved to New York and a national audience - including a weekly TV series, from 1951-53.Together (later, with the help of various supporting writers) they introduced, perfected and then endlessly refined the then-revolutionary idea of 'comedy as conversation', telling stories rather than jokes. Their metier was parody, and their target was the medium they worked in: "Our original premise was that radio was too pompous." The material was clean and on the surface unthreatening, a kind of gently inconsequential drollery that hid a razor-sharp satirical edge. They could be called the first modern Deadpan Snarkers.Each was a gifted mimic not only of voices but of attitudes, ad-libbing through a maze of loony logic with timing so effortless it suggested telepathy. CBS radio, during their stint there in 1959-60, summed them up in promos as 'the zany characters of many characters.'Bob handled the old men, young children, petty officials and other generally nebbishy types; he was a master at projecting a kind of intellectual opaqueness. This made him also the ideal one to handle most of their beat reporters and announcers, the most famous of which is inept roving reporter Wally Ballou ("-ly Ballou here!"), whose nose for news was permanently stuffed up. Ray's characters were not particularly smarter, but much better at bluffing. Thus he handled most of the businessmen, doctors, sports heroes and general 'man-on-the-street' types Wally interviewed. He also provided all the female voices, notably for housekeeping 'spert Mary Margaret McGoon - basically Martha Stewart via MAD - using a startlingly authentic coloratura falsetto.They created spoof serials - complete with fictional producers, writers, announcers and casts - with titles like "One Fella's Family" and "Jack Headstrong, All-American American" and "Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate" (brought to you by 'Chocolate Cookies With White Stuff In-Between Them'). Soap operas included "The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely" (played on TV by a very young Audrey Meadows) and "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife" - the latter a broad sendup of the wildly popular "Mary Noble, Backstage Wife". It was on this show that they took aim at Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army hearings, recasting him as an oily-voiced petty official and in the process becoming among the very few high-profile performers (possibly the only ones beside Walt Kelly with Pogo) to tackle him directly.Eventually they would take on pretty much every media trend and sociological fad going, marshalling the ever-dubious assistance of a loyal 'staff' that, besides Wally and Mary, included mushmouthed book reviewer Webley Webster; "word wizard" Dr. Elmer Stapley; and Dean Archer Armstead, the agricultural guru from 'our field station up in [the industrial wasteland of] Lackawanna'. Regular celebrity drop-ins included Tex Blaisdel the singing cowboy, who also did rope tricks (yes, on radio) and Barry Campbell, star of stage, screen, television and occasionally all-girl orchestra.Guest experts offered advice and/or pontifications that ranged from daffily unhelpful to downright surreal, hobbyists and entrepreneurs ran the gamut from pointless to wildly incompetent. Human interest segments ("We've found that you listeners enjoy hearing these pathetic people tell their tragic stories") suggested that humanity's major problem was utter stupidity.Meanwhile, they had also parlayed their vocal dexterity into a very successful side career as commercial producers and voice-over artists, beginning with an iconic five-year stint as Bert & Harry, the Piel Brothers, whose bickering proved far more popular than the beer they were pitching (at the campaign's peak, upcoming spots were actually listed in TVGuide). Along with friend and fellow satirist Stan Freberg, Bob & Ray went on to popularise the use of product-deprecating humour in TV & radio advertising.The pair also served as hosts/moderators of the ABC game show The Name's the Same in 1955, parodied several news reporters in the 1971 film Cold Turkey, and appeared as the financiers of a play written by Al Pacino's character in the 1982 film Author! Author!Interestingly enough both were unassuming family men offstage, without any discernable sign of celebrity temperament or rivalry; 'gentle' is the word that pops up often in others' reminisces. Physically and temperamentally an effective Odd Couple, they nevertheless 'always got along well', and seem to have regarded their partnership largely as a profitable means of making each other laugh. Basically they were the exact same Average Americans they were spoofing, save only for the self-aware edge. 'By the time we discovered we were introverts,' Bob is once supposed to have claimed, 'it was too late to do anything about it.'Thus they managed to stay together as a team for nearly forty years, influencing an entire generation of seminal American comics - Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, Woody Allen, David Letterman, et al.; The Firesign Theatre credit them as direct ancestors. They were also Kurt Vonnegut's favorite comedians; he mentions them with surprising frequency in his work. More recently, broadcaster Keith Olbermann has credited them as a major influence, especially on his "Worst Person in the World" segment.Their last broadcast series on NPR was only cut short in 1987, when Ray was forced to retire due to illness. He died in 1990 of kidney failure. Bob continues to perform occasionally with his son, comic actor and writer Chris Elliott (most notably in Get a Life and Cabin Boy, where Bob and Chris played father and son). Chris' daughter, Abby Elliott, is a former cast member on Saturday Night Live, making for the only living tri-generational television comedy family (and the only tri-generational comedy family ever to appear on SNL: Bob was a guest star on a 1978 Christmas special, Chris was a cast member during the show's much-maligned 20th season, and Abby was in the cast from 2008-12 note ).