Robert Brackett "Bob" Elliott (March 26, 1923 February 2, 2016) and Raymond Walter "Ray" Goulding (March 20, 1922 March 24, 1990) 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 TV Guide). 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!. In 1979 they starred in their own late night NBC special along with Saturday Night Live cast members Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner and musician Willie Nelson.
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 continued to perform by himself and 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 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 ). Bob died of throat cancer in 2016.
Tropes found in Bob and Ray's works include:
- Advertising Campaigns:
- Parodied in the radio shows, often supposedly sponsored by makers of steel ingots, flypaper, and other items of dubious glamour.
- Played straight when B&R wrote and performed the Piels Bros. beer commercials of the late 50's, featuring animated Odd Couple siblings Bert and Harry Piel. Widely conceded to be far superior to the product itself; at the campaign's peak, upcoming spots were actually listed in TV Guide.
- The duo appeared in various other real-life commercials over the years on both radio and TV.
- Bad "Bad Acting": Used frequently, in the course of poking fun at various conventions of the radio medium. One of the B&R mock talk shows was called "Us, the Folks, Mumble!" and featured the following running gag:Bob: (as host) OK now sir, tell us what happened in your own words...
Ray: (as guest) Um... mph schmpfl reffle flp...
Bob: (hastily) Er, maybe you'd better use our words, sir. Right here on the card.
Ray: OK, sure. (reads off card in stiffest and most unconvincing manner possible)
- Catchphrase: Inept reporter Wally Ballou's sign-on, "-ly Ballou here!" and the duo's closing signature, "This is Ray Goulding reminding you to write if you get work/And Bob Elliott reminding you to hang by your thumbs." Also possibly their habit of referring to their fictional staff as 'our Bob & Ray Organization', which by the end of their forty-year career in media parody ran to an empire Rupert Murdoch might envy.
- Clock King: Mr. Trace, Keener than Most Persons admonished his valet, Rudy: "When I call for you, I want you now, not seven or eight seconds from now."
- The Comically Serious: A number of Bob and Ray's interview sketches that used this — with one (usually Bob) as himself, trying to make sense out of the other as the increasingly loopy subject.
- Corpsing: They were occasionally prone to this; a good example can be heard here.
- Critical Research Failure: One sketch has an In-Universe example, with Bob interviewing the author of a History of the United States. It turns out that the 1,100-page tome contains numerous glaring errors, including Abraham Lincoln driving to his inauguration in an automobile, the Civil War breaking out in 1911, and the nation's original capital being located in Bailey's Mistake, Maine. The author readily admits it's "a shabby piece of work", but quickly adds that it's leather-bound.
- Deadpan Snarker: Bob and Ray based their entire act around this trope, as applied originally to the medium they worked in, and later expanded to take in every media trend and fad going. Given their influence on modern American comedy - including but not limited to Bob Newhart and George Carlin - it could be argued that they played a major role in popularising the concept.Bob: (introducing a "human interest" segment) We've found that you listeners enjoy hearing these pathetic people tell their tragic stories.
- Delusions of Eloquence: The character of Dr. Elmer Stapley, "The Word Wizard", was all about this trope.
- The '50s: Bob and Ray themselves fit into the Historical Fifties as a result of spoofing the media conventions inherent in the Fifties Fifties.
- Have a Gay Old Time: In one episode — circa about 1959 — book reviewer Webley Webster discusses the 'coming-out party' he's throwing at the Waldorf-Astoria. When Bob tells him that those are only 'for young ladies',note Webley is insistent: "No, no, I come out fr'm behind the curtain, an' then I'm officially out!" It sure doesn't help that this character is portrayed generally as an affected dandy.
- His Name Really Is "Barkeep": The sketch where Bob interviews Mr. G.L. Hummerbeck who is running as a write-in candidate for President of the United States.Hummerbeck: "It's not "Mister" G.L. Hummerbeck, it's "The Right Honorable" G.L. Hummerbeck."Bob: "Oh, you're assuming the full title of presidency already."Hummerbeck: "No, no, that's my first name. "Right Honorable."...I'm part Winabago Indian, and when a child is born they give it a name after the first thing it sees right after it is born. And in my case it was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Right Honorable Charles Evans Hughes."Bob: "That's a very interesting story."
- Hollywood New England: In a modern twist on the intellectual side, both Bob and Ray were born and raised in Massachusetts — in middle-class Boston and blue-collar Lowell respectively — and sounded like it. (In one early Boston-based show they do a funny bit on how to impress a local waitress by pretending you're from out of town. Their main suggestion is to "hit your 'R's verry harrd." "Yerss, I will have some erggs and orrange juice, please!")
- The Hyena: The recurring character "Charles the Poet" would start out by reading a piece of awful poetry with dead seriousness, but within a few lines would completely lose his composure and break out into helpless laughter. This would get him yanked from the air well before he could get through to the end of the poem.
- Improv: Central to the legend — if not always the actual performance — of B&R. Their act began literally as two guys batting it around on-air, and never stopped sounding like it, regardless of an increasing reliance on scripts as their performance workload got heavier.
- Is This Thing Still On?: Inverted with the newsman character Wally Ballou, who would invariably start talking before the mike was on. (" ly Ballou speaking...")
- Kent Brockman News: The 'weird, random stories instead of anything important' version was a B&R staple, usually personified by inept roving reporter Wally Ballou (Bob). Sent to meet interesting people at the airport, Wally manages to find the guy who was headed to Paris to lobby for tunafish as the traditional meal for Bastille Day. Even when Ballou found himself pursuing an actual legitimate story, it quickly lapsed into absurdity - as when he discovered that a paperclip company was able to keep costs down because they only paid their workers 14 cents a week. ("How in the world could they live on that?" "Well, we don't pry into the personal lives of our employees, Wally...")
- Additional amusing touch: Wally's broadcasts always started in mid-spiel. "-lly Ballou here..."
- This sketch was parodied at least once on The Al Franken Show on Air America Radio. Wally Ballou is interviewing a British Airways passenger whose flight has been delayed, and Ballou remains oblivious that the person he's talking to, Muhammad al-Khazmani, is implied to be a terrorist hijacker.
- Large Ham: Ray Goulding used his classic theatrical baritone to great effect in skits calling for this character type. Partly justified by the medium he was parodying, but mostly just because he was having a whole lot of fun.
- Larynx Dissonance: Ray Goulding, ironically enough the big, burly half of the duo, used the same matronly falsetto for numerous female characters. It was a lot more convincing when he was younger; in their earliest shows, he also had a breathy, right-over-the-top voice for their soap opera heroines: "Ooh, David, kiss me, my darling!"
- Laugh Track: Not only averted, but satirized as early as 1959 by hauling out a 'laugh machine' (because "we don't feel we're getting the correct response from you [listeners],") then making it roar with joy over a deliberately awful sitcom pilot.
- Little Known Facts: Characters such as "Mr. Science" often came up with these.
- The Magazine Rule: In one interview, they're discussing hobbies with the editor of Wasting Time Magazine.
- Malaproper: "Word Wizard" Elmer Stapley was given to this trope.
- Man of a Thousand Voices: The duo fit this trope perfectly between them, double-handedly maintaining the illusion of a large supporting 'cast' (male and female) plus endless one-shot guest-stars.
- Motor Mouth: Averted, big time, in the "Slow Talkers of America" skit.
- Name and Name: Bob and Ray, naturally.
- Odd Couple: Subverted. Bob and Ray were almost exact opposites as per this trope (slight, precise and soft-spoken vs. burly, extroverted and baritone), but could intuit each other's thoughts to the point where they could turn a chance word or phrase into a full-blown comedy skit without skipping a beat. Their character types did tend to reflect their personalities...except that big burly Ray ended up playing all the females.
- Opening Narration: "From approximately coast to coast, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding present the CBS Radio Network."
- Operators Are Standing By: Parodied as far back as the 1940's when B&R turned a sponsor's real commercials into a series of spectacularly unsuccessful efforts to 'make a simple phone call' to contact the 'trained operators' who were, according to the copy, standing by to sign customers up for a free trial TV set. "No, no, they mean we'll be out at what time's convenient to us, pal. Yeah, they don't say that, do they?"
- Only Sane Man: Central to the B&R style. As neither was a classic Straight Man, they played point/counterpoint between this and the Cloud Cuckoolander instead.
- Priceless Ming Vase: One skit has newsman Wally Ballou conducting an interview at a glass-fruit factory, and repeatedly dropping and breaking the expensive product. When he assures the outraged owner that "Of course, my employers Bob & Ray will cover this..." we abruptly 'cut back' to Ray: "Ah, thank you, that was Wally Ballou. And no, we won't."
- Ruritania: The "funnies in the news" announcer Peter Gorey (Bob, using a Lorre accent: "Een other news, only vun man vas keeled attempting suicide today...") hailed from Lower Schizophrenia.
- Science Show: Parodied in the "Mr. Science" skits.
- "Sesame Street" Cred: On The Electric Company (1971), B&R voiced a couple animated versions of their 'interview' schtick.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Dr. Eugene Stapley, the 'Word Wizard', is a broad parody of this trope... at times possibly just a bit broader than intended. After Bob suggests 'plunging straight into the mail': "Male and female serve only to differentialize one type of living creature from another. Now, undoubtedly some male members of the animal kingdom would be softer, say, to plunge into than others; but in any coincidence, the act of literally plunging into the male would in all probabilitiness be injureful!"
- Severely Specialized Store: In the recurring skit Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife, the characters started a restaurant called the "House of Toast", with a rather limited menu.
- Show Within a Show: The numerous parody serials. Bob and Ray went so far as to invent fictional writers, producers, announcers and cast members, all of whom would frequently argue amongst themselves in the course of an episode.
- Side-by-Side Demonstration: Subverted—much to the manufacturer's likely chagrin—on the earliest B&R shows. During a stint with a floorwax sponsor that asked them to urge customers to make a side-by-side test on their own floors, Bob once inquired mid-commercial, "Uh...if we're so sure they'll think [sponsor's wax] is better, why should they bother doing the test?"
- Signing-Off Catchphrase:"This is Ray Goulding, reminding you to write if you get work...""...Bob Elliott, reminding you to hang by your thumbs."
- Single-Minded Twins: A pair of recurring characters named Clyde and Claude McBeeBee were non-identical twin bandleaders who went everywhere together and always spoke in unison.
- So Unfunny, It's Funny: Bob and Ray often pursued aggressively unfunny material to its logical limit and beyond, as a way of "seeing what [they] could get away with." Notable examples include the fifteen-minute, multi-show "Bulgarian Cream Pie" bit and an instance of a grouchy Bob Elliott playing intentionally annoying music because he had to broadcast alone on Christmas Day.
- Speak in Unison: The primary trait of the McBeeBee Twins was to always say the same thing just slightly out of sync with each other, creating an echo effect.
- Status Quo Game Show: Parodied in an early episode:Ray: ...Only employees of this station and their relatives are eligible to enter. The rest of you people [listeners], you're not eligible, so don't bother.Bob: Yeah, so if you're related to us, get started on your postcard now...Ray: For instance, if you're my brother, you have an excellent chance of winning.Bob: Right. So if you're Ray's brother, get busy and fill out that postcard, and we'll send you this great prize.
- Straight Man: Averted, as each man could simultaneously be the straight man and the goof, all in the same routine.
- Subliminal Seduction: Parodied as far back as 1960: An enterprising ad man thinks hard into the microphone while the B&R show is on the air and asks listeners to call in if they received any messages. One guy does call in to say that he's getting a message to come for dinner... which turns out to be from his very impatient wife.
- Take That, Critics!: Showing an uncharacteristically pointy side, B&R reacted to New York magazine critic John Simon's negative review of their stage show by incorporating him into their skits as "The Worst Person in the World" — a character who never spoke, just made rude noises while other characters (that is, Bob and/or Ray) commented loudly on his uncouth manners. (Broadcaster Keith Olbermann later picked up the concept, sans specific attack, and used it in his Countdown.)
- Tonto Talk: Parodied in a 1949 skit featuring Pronto, sidekick to the Lone Agent:Pronto (Bob): Ug. Lone, that be completely impossible. You would be implicating me in crime, in which I can have no hand.Lone (Ray): Huh? Is this Pronto speaking?Pronto: Ug.Lone: Where'd you get the education?Pronto: Me go Harvard. Me Boston brave.
- The Unintelligible: Occasional agricultural reports featured the consummately unintelligible Dean Archer Armstead, of the "Lackawanna Field Station."
- Weirdness Censor: Played with in a few of the Wally Ballou skits, wherein the newsman, searching eagerly for a story, ends up interviewing the most boring man alive (in the most memorable version, a cranberry grower) while resolutely ignoring the obvious disaster — gunshots, sirens, screams, crackling flames etc — happening all around them.
- Who Writes This Crap?!: During one show, the duo are openly embarrassed to have to read a cheesy promo. Ray eventually convinces Bob to go ahead by pointing out that it'll demonstrate "what happens when you let people with college educations write things."
- Worst News Judgment Ever: See "Weirdness Censor" above.