Turning back the clock, Kerrie Mills explores the pairing of two men who became cornerstones of modern American comedy, as well as icons of the mid-20th century media landscape, Bob & Ray.
Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, the two and only. You either get them or you don't... and I am very, very glad I do.
I first heard of Bob & Ray as a formative influence on Bob Newhart, another high and lofty member of my personal comedic Olympus, and thus was well-disposed when I subsequently came across an audio book of their radio routines at the library. You know how sometimes you watch or listen or hear something new, and it clicks into place in your psyche almost audibly? Yeah. Never looked back after that.
In addition to Newhart, you can also hear echoes of their influence in Garrison Keillor, Johnny Carson, George Carlin, David Letterman (who featured Bob's son Chris in the early years of his own show), Jerry Seinfeld, and a host of others then and since. Even Woody Allen owes them a debt. These are all comics who built the modern definition of American comedy -- challenging, consumed with absurdity, ferociously unsentimental. More or less on the foundation that Bob & Ray had patiently been laying for decades.
It all began in 1946 on tiny WHDH-AM Boston with the "Matinee with Bob & Ray" -- hence their enduring nickname; "If the word had been Matinob, it would've been Ray & Bob." What would become their classic format was originally very simple: two twentysomething guys on the same comedic wavelength, their imaginations and their microphones. At that point the whole routine was ad-libbed, growing organically out of the on-air relationship between a disc jockey and his newscaster. Between official chores they began riffing, in much the manner of over-bright drones everywhere, off their particular corner of the Establishment -- shows, sponsors, guests, and interviewers alike.
That both were Army veterans who returned to their native New England probably didn’t hurt. Each in his own way possessed fierce intelligence and hard-earned street wisdom, if not sophistication. Robert Brackett Elliott, 23 -- the slight one with the prominent blue eyes -- was a suburban kid with a diploma from dramatic college who had started in showbiz as a page at NBC. Raymond Walter Goulding, 24 -- the burly one with the rich baritone voice -- was a blue-collar prodigy who’d first picked up a small-town mic after graduating from high school at age 17.
From there the Bob & Ray Show never looked back. The duo moved permanently to New York and a national audience -- both radio and TV -- in 1951, were heard on every major network at one point or another, and ended on National Public Radio circa 1987, the whole time trying, as they would neatly summarize it years later, to make each other laugh.
“Our original premise was that radio was too pompous," Bob says now. What that would mean in practice was 40 years of deconstruction of American media culture -- down to the finest nuance of audience expectation -- and rebuilding with the help of the funhouse mirror that was their collective imagination. It was "comedy as conversation," as Newhart puts it: deadpan, often surrealist drollery that flattered the audience’s sophistication and rewarded their literacy; and as obvious as this all sounds now that ‘snark’ (not to say ‘blogger’) is a part of the common lexicon, the concept revolutionized the comedic landscape of the time.
Before Bob & Ray, funny men told jokes; after Bob & Ray, they told stories. It was the peculiar genius of Bob & Ray that they were able to tell those stories of anyone, interchangeably, passing the character baton back and forth between them until they achieved a sort of literal flying verbal circus.
Bob's soft, precisely adjustable adenoids were perfect for journalists and announcers, as well as the old men, small children, and all the various hopefully hopeless nebbishes that paraded through the Bob & Ray arena. He also looked after any accents the sketches required - German and Chinese were specialties. As himself, Bob was calm, meticulous, and quick to point out logical flaws in the guests' arguments. In character, by contrast, he was a master at projecting a kind of intellectual... not lack, exactly... opaqueness, is the better word. I always picture Bob's people in a slightly rusty, well-pressed but ill-fitting brown cloth suit, like a road-show Willy Loman long since resigned to losing his dream.
The heartier types Ray created, on the other hand, mostly wore loud check blazers -- or maybe letterman sweaters, depending on their age. There was a fair sprinkling of expensive business suits, too -- and in a bit of lively social commentary in and of itself, all the dresses, from soap actresses to society dowagers. He was good at it, too, in the manner of a man to whom it had clearly never occurred that there could even be such a thing as 'issues' with the females in his life. Neither of the duo was a classic straight man in the comedic sense. However, on-air, Ray -- who never quite lost that Warners-esque accent that pronounces 'idea' as 'ideer' -- filled what you might call the Costello role, temperamental with the staff and impatient with the guests. Many of whom, of course, were also him, and exhibited the same qualities. In perfect counterpoint to Bob’s arid precision, they insisted on their stupidity so passionately it approached real flair.
Together, with the help of their supporting writers, of whom Mad alum Tom Koch was probably the most prolific, they explored what turned out to be the limitless vista of human banality. Nowadays, of course, with Internet forums available 24/7 and American Idol the biggest hit on TV, the self-satisfaction of the average has been so thoroughly charted that commenting on it has achieved a kind of meta-pointlessness of its own (vide Seinfeld, again). When Bob & Ray began, in Eisenhower's America, it was difficult even to realize it was there, let alone that there was room outside. Listeners accustomed to offhand spoofery on the order of That's My Bush! can barely grasp the concept of a time when Bob Newhart was dubbed a 'sick comic' because one of his routines "made Abe [Lincoln] out to be kind of a dolt."
Acute as it could be, that awareness did not make them angry, not even when taking direct shots at Senator Joseph McCarthy. There was no shock value to their act, no language or sexual suggestion -- at least, none that they were interested in sneaking past the censors. They were simply bemused... by accusations of genius as much as anything else. They may well have been the only comedy team on record to sincerely think of themselves as guys who got paid for making each other laugh.
Which is in turn very likely why they ended up as legends anyway, the stars of a hit Broadway retrospective (The Two and Only) as early as 1970. Faced with the social tumult they themselves had helped inspire, they never pushed the edge, yet never lost their relevance. In 1978 they were handed a showcase Saturday Night Live special (the delightful Bob & Ray, Jane & Lorraine & Gilda), and the 18-25 demographic was still attending their NPR shows years past that. Another decade and they'd have become the darlings of the Internet.
Bob & Ray had made themselves representatives of a literally timeless archetype of cool: the 'innocent fool' of the fairy tale -- or, in a more contemporary example, Dr. Seuss -- whose instinctive reaction in the face of the ruling sturm und drang was not to yell back, but to question why anyone was yelling in the first place. To that end, they ran serials demurely called "One Fella's Family" (sample episode: "Looking for the Christmas Ornaments"), and "Grand Motel" (‘a heck of a place, a speck of a place’), and "Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate" (a kiddie serial 'brought to you by Chocolate Cookies With White Stuff In-Between’), and oh, let’s see -- "Jack Headstrong, All-American American", and "Matt Neffer, Boy Spot Welder", and "Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons"....
...Even "The Adventures of Charlie Chew". The civil rights movement, like most specific political comment, fell outside their scope... but it's noticeable that the 'comic Negro' of the era never once made an appearance in their act. They appear to have viewed racial stereotypes much as they did intellectual laziness of any stripe -- as infinitely mockable (exemplified by a ‘redskin’ character named Pronto who, primarily because Bob kept forgetting to use broken English, turned out to have a Harvard degree: “Me Boston brave”).
Besides, there were a lot more obvious targets out there. Soap operas, for instance. Anybody who’s tried to watch one with your average young male can imagine how gleefully Bob & Ray leapt for that bullseye, as far back as the Boston days. The result was a freewheeling catalogue of genre excesses, "The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely". (She would go on to be played on TV by a very young Audrey Meadows.) "Garish Summit", a later NPR addition, was Dallas with lead mines ("Lead is in my blood!") and "The Gathering Dusk", on which a ‘handsome local doctor’ spent much of his time trying and failing to keep up with beautiful Edna’s version of reality, wouldn’t be out of place as a takeoff on Grey’s Anatomy or ER.
Their crowning achievement, however, is "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife", tracing the careers of a bumbling theatrical family, up to and including the time they left showbiz altogether to open a toast-themed restaurant, and widely conceded to have left more of a mark than its original, Backstage Wife. This is in part because it contained that McCarthy parody sequence, a remarkably fearless use of celebrity privilege. During the Army hearings, the Backstayges’ plans for a summer home were thwarted daily by a zoning commissioner (Ray) whose oily growl was unmistakeable.
Back at base, they marshaled a loyal, if fictional, staff that The Today Show could only envy. The most famous of the motley crew is probably Bob as roving correspondent Wally Ballou ("-ly Ballou here!"), whose nose for news was permanently stuffed up. Certain only that he was a Newsman and his job was therefore to Get The Story, Wally exemplifies the Bob & Ray tradition of characters so obtuse they become sympathetic.
Sent out to Times Square on a typical man-on-the-street assignment, he came back with a live report -- complete with gunshots echoing and screams flying in the background -- featuring a cranberry grower who was amazed to discover you could make sauce, jelly, and even juice out of them. ("If I may ask, sir, what've you been doing with your crops up to now?" "Well, we put 'em in a basket and sell 'em for shortcake.")
Sent out to find and honor businessmen leading the fight against inflation for a typical investigative report, Ballou ended up at the Great Lakes Paper Clip Company, where every clip was made by hand -- maybe ten, 12 dollars worth of boxes on a good week, the foreman noted. When Ballou asked how they could possibly sell them for ten cents per box, he was told that it was easy -- they only paid the workers 14 cents a week, under a 100-year sweetheart contract that made it illegal for anyone to quit. ("How in the world could they live on that?" "Well, we don't pry into the personal lives of our employees, Wally...") Occasionally, Wally was paired with Artie Schemerhorn, who was in patented Goulding fashion just as clueless, only better at bluffing. Net result: covering the local Fourth of July parade turns out to be kind of tricky when you're facing the wrong way. Artie sure covered the heck out of that warehouse wall, though.
Ray, meanwhile, was maintaining his own legend as Mary Margaret McGoon, basically Martha Stewart via Mad magazine (the original inspiration was a contemporary expert named Mary Margaret McBride). Wielding the flat falsetto twang that became the duo’s go-to female voice -- suggesting, if not a nephew’s honored great-Aunt exactly, then at least her picture in those old albums -- Mary stalked about the Bob & Ray ‘test kitchen’ promoting housekeeping excellence for the budget-minded. Her signature recipe was Frozen Ginger Ale Salad: "I love the little bubbles, they make me all tingly!" Don’t laugh just yet; it probably went really well with a main course of her other specialty, ‘mock turkey’, i.e., shaped mashed potatoes and two hot dogs. Keeping meatballs warm by knitting them individual spaghetti cozies, that was another Martha-worthy concept.
In leisure moments, she hung around reading the society news and trying to advance her theatrical career -- which in 1949 spawned a hit novelty recording of "I’d Like to Be a Cow in Switzerland", as a rather extraordinary byproduct of Ray’s vocal dexterity (both he and Bob could sing very capably in their own voices and a variety of comic ones, a running feature on the earliest shows). Mary even got herself in legal hot water, after the Vermont inn she opened during the year on CBS burned down in a suspicious fire -- one that, she admitted live on-air to Wally Ballou, she set herself, being tired of all the hotelier hassle. Eventually she evolved into a sort of dotty den mother to ‘the boys’ and their staff, and they thought of her as "our conscience". (As it happened, Ray’s wife Elizabeth was a dietician -- no, I have no clue what if any connection there was, but it does strike me as a great way to keep a marriage interesting.)
Over the years, Bob & Ray would create a whole pantheon of other flamboyantly mediocre in-house experts, as the sociological fad of the moment demanded. Foremost among these was Ray’s mush-mouthed book reviewer, Webley Webster, whose live dramatizations of "weally excitin' shcenesh" from his latest find -- one week it was the American League Green Book -- rarely had anything to do with the actual plot. Another stalwart was agriculture guru Dean Archer Armstead, even more unintelligible than Webley, whose reports from ‘our field station up at Lackawanna’ were punctuated by the ‘ptui!’ of tobacco hitting spittoon.
Possibly determined to avoid typecasting, Ray also took on the really loony -- or as the man himself might put it, the ‘hysterometrically capricious’ -- Word Wizard, Elmer Stapley. Bob got into the academic act via avuncular Mr. Science and, uh, impressionable young Jimmy ("Gee whiz, the pencil fell right off the table! Wait'll I tell the guys at school I saw gravity in action!"). All brought to you, of course, by the Philanthropic Council to Make Things Nicer.
There were also various forerunners to Dr. Phil, whose own neuroses kept getting in the way of their advice, and later, an even more ambitious medical feature, "You and Your Symptoms" -- “just from the mail last week...boy, you listeners seem to have a lot of symptoms” -- with Dr. Arlington Garment, whose advice was punctuated by checks to see if he was still licensed to practice medicine.
When their expertise failed these men, Bob & Ray hauled in pretty much every other specialist they could find, though where they found them was never quite explained. In their most famous skit, Ray interviews Bob as Harlow P. Whitcomb, the president of the Slow... Talkers... of... America... -- for about the twenty seconds that his sanity will allow. In their second-most famous skit, Ray interviews Bob as a world-renowned Komodo Dragon expert "from Upper Montclair, New Jersey", while apparently thinking about the baseball game. ("The Komodo Dragon, the world's largest living lizard..." "So...they're of the lizard family, then?")
Bob & Ray were wise enough to understand that, most often, satire is a simple matter of letting pop culture tropes hang themselves. In the course of an interview, Alfred E. Nelson, immensely patrician author of The History of the USA, admits his authoritative tome might contain a few, little, understandable errors -- like the passage in which Lincoln rides to his inauguration in a limousine -- but it is leather-bound, after all. As an outraged Bob pushes further, the goofs pile up until it emerges that Nelson was working off memory. Having dropped out in the eighth grade. “We had very extensive history courses!” he sniffed; besides, “the paper is glossy!”
If gentleness did not necessarily translate to patience, still less did it have room for mercy. Their comment on the worst of sentimental excess was also the most direct: Charles the Poet, who couldn’t make it through even a stanza of his Kinkade-esque verse without breaking down into helpless laughter. They would also often bring in human interest, blandly explaining that "We've found you listeners enjoy hearing these pathetic people tell their tragic stories", which had moved "our generous Bob & Ray Organization" to lend a hand. The tragedies, as you may be able to guess by now, involved the likes of a ten-and-a-half-inch tall guy who spent his life savings trying to get to Dublin find a specialist to work on his "tiny little teeth" -- see, they have leprechauns in Ireland, and.... Anyway, having impressed the Organization with his tale of woe, he was gravely handed a deluxe racing bike. “No thanks are necessary, sir; just seeing the smile on your little face is reward enough.”
Thusly the Organization sailed serenely on, orchestrating such touching proto-Oprah moments as the reunion of a brother and sister after seventy years apart... that the two then had nothing whatsoever to say to each other couldn’t be called their fault. Neither could the fact that any attempts at encouraging discussion of real issues tended to elicit comments like “I am firmly of the opinion that Calvin Coolidge was elected President in 1924!” They were doing their part, after all. Once a month, they handed the "Bob & Ray Good Neighbor Award" to people like the man who played a piano ("for a full fifteen minutes!") for the accident victim trapped under it.
In a less morose vein, there were the hobbyists and entrepreneurs, like the guy who minded other peoples’ Ps and Qs for them (“It’s a living…but sometimes you just wish for a good old-fashioned ‘S’ or ‘E’, y’know?”), or the do-it-yourselfer who let the newspapers pile up on his lawn in the hope that the elements would degrade them back to wood pulp, thus... eventually... saving money on fire logs. Generally, these particular guests get less whacky and more alarming the deeper we slide into the Internet age. Like, for instance, the guy whose hobby is "collecting numbers from places that ask you to take a number", or the Longest Letter record holder -- 11,000+ pages, and the judges strictly checked for rambling. (But not checked for mentions of the weather, unfortunately for listeners who had to sit through a sample, as that's all the letter contained.) The man who spent years lovingly crafting toothpick replicas of Columbus's fleet, though, that was kind of touching. At least, it was until first Webley, then Bob, sent a little ship smashing to the ground. ("Well, Web, looks like we're in the same boat here..." "No, your inna Pinta and I'm inna Santa Maria!")
Cover of a Bob & Ray album, illustrated by
Mad artist Jack Davis
The entertainment angle? They had that covered too, natch. Even if they'd done nothing else worth remembering, their naively ferocious contempt for the idea of 'assisted' comedy is a joy to behold. For one 1959 show, they set up with an automated ‘laugh machine’, since “we don’t seem to be getting the effect we want out of you people.” That particular experiment tanked -- the domestic sitcom script they tried it out on just wasn’t worth it -- but the ‘augmented audience’ would remain a constant Greek chorus to their satire.
Their main conduit for media parody, though, was Ray’s Barry Campbell, star of stage, screen, and occasionally all-girl orchestra. In a way, poor Barry is more reflective of the kinder, gentler media times the duo worked in than any other of their satires. His shows inevitably opened and closed on the same night, his on-set exclusives always marred by blown takes... but nobody ever caught him in an indiscretion with his trombone player, no matter what gender said player was at the time. The most exciting life in the spotlight ever got for the guy was when he tried to cash in on the 'live album' trend by making a recording of big-band music at Jake's Bar & Grill & Food to Take-Out on Route 51 in upstate Jersey.
If all else failed, Bob and/or Ray hauled people with unusual talents or stories out of the 'audience', like the tree imitator (two words: Weeping Willow) and the guy who discovered how to change a tap washer without turning off the water and was now touring all the big plumbing conventions. We were also introduced to "one of the very few people in America with a name that is completely unpronounceable", spelled W-W-Q-L-C-W. ("I'd like to say hello to my brother on your program, but I don't know how to pronounce his name, either.")
All of these people are -- as per accepted convention -- pretty completely inept, total nerds, the kind of people who not only believe their own clichés, but glory in them. But the enduring endearingness of Bob & Ray is that they nevertheless cannot be dismissed without understanding. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, they turn out to illumine one of the universal dilemmas of the average human life: how to maintain your own importance in a world where not much of importance ever happens to you. It's a remarkably surefire formula, human nature being what it is. The more furiously you insist into the vacuum, the funnier you become. There's a sequence in a 1959 show that illustrates this beautifully. Wally Ballou launches into a heartfelt tribute to his hosts -- he was nothing before Bob & Ray took him up, and now he's being invited to "five supermarket openings just this week!" Substitute any of dozens of modern reality show contestants and the transition is seamless.
Not even Bob & Ray themselves were exempted from the deflation process. At the height of their fame, they capitalized by 'sending' a dead whale (accurately) called Smelly Dave round the country as a promotional gimmick. Then, midway into the tour, they had Dave kidnapped, and sent Kato -- yes, late of The Green Hornet -- off in a "black limousine" to find him. Later, they replaced Dave with the Bob & Ray Trophy Train, enhanced by Wallace, the Bob & Ray Midget, who was fired from his in-studio gig (seating guests by size before the show) due to surliness, but as he was leaving it was discovered that he actually had a lovely singing voice, so they stuck him on the train to sing goodbye at every stop.
You can see where it's easy to get carried away with this stuff. Listening to Bob & Ray shows as a continuous reel, the whole shtick resembles a surrealist tightrope act -- sometimes too normal, sometimes too outré, and sometimes just so very right that they could achieve a sort of lunatic ballet of irrelevance mid-walk. Entire episodes of a show go by without anything even resembling a joke being presented, and those are usually the funniest ones of all.
How carefully planned those episodes were, and by whom, varied noticeably throughout the years. The earliest Boston shows are in one way an excellent argument for their later reliance on scripts. They have all the chaotic quality of twentysomething friends batting it around, except that the sophomoric double-entendres come before the six-pack (although, as one episode reveals, not before the takeout Chinese). The progression from enthusiastic amateurs to polished pros was a natural one, and probably inevitable. Then again, that enthusiasm -- what one reviewer dubbed "comedy jazz" -- was what landed them a career in the first place. Regardless of what Bob & Ray became, Elliott and Goulding never lost that uncanny ability to just be funny. The moments when they stop reciting and start improvising are one big reason I love listening to their shows as a whole, rather than as packaged skits.
Those scripted bits are hysterical, but within set bounds. They're about something, and when written by others, often rather consciously so. By contrast, the ad-lib bits just spiral up and out, into the great creative unknown where genius lives, until eventually we find Bob interviewing "the guy who voices Ray", or Ray auditioning Bob as his own replacement for when he goes out with a bad haircut, or Bob welcoming Ray as a surprise contestant on their house game show: "Name... ah, right, sorry... What're you doing in New... Oh yeah, never mind. You don't have any hobbies, do you?"
“By the time we figured out we were introverts," Bob supposedly admitted once, "it was too late to do anything about it."
"[They] have three distinct personalities," Andy Rooney said in a foreword to one of their script collections. "There's Bob's, there's Ray's, and then there's Bob & Ray's." A Saturday Evening Post profile circa 1954 divulges that, having served their country with distinction, both had settled in the New York suburbs to raise their families; Bob on the East Side of Manhattan, and Ray on Long Island. Bob’s wife Lee looked like an Alajalov Post cover illustration. Ray and his Liz had met in wartime, while both were stationed at Fort Knox. Both men, the article continued, were ‘temperate with a capital ‘T’”. Bob smoked cigarettes -- three packs a day -- and preferred bow ties, while Ray was a ‘stogie burner’ and wore a four-in-hand... also, somewhere in the murky past, a phony mustache. Bob was/is an accomplished amateur artist whose specialty at the time was watercolor seascapes (which honestly sounds like it should’ve been worked into a routine somewhere). Ray enjoyed photography, besides the Red Sox, golf, and above all ‘puttering’ proudly about his new house.
Although the same article makes mention of an autobiography project, the idea seems to have been quietly dropped, and over the years there would be very little more in the way of celebrity spotlight shining on either household. Even during their stint as "the grand old men of TV appearances" during the 1970s and early '80s (some of which are available on YouTube, along with their classic routines), the heads thereof tended to duck behind their characters as soon as decently possible.
Under the expert guidance of a Carson or Letterman or Dick Cavett -- all of whom eagerly sought Bob & Ray as guests -- Bob could occasionally be induced to chat about his other interests, and later, of course, his participation and pride in his son’s career, but Ray, as far as I can tell, managed to get through 40 years of interviews without divulging anything more intimate than (to The New Yorker, not long before his death) “A daily radio show is a bit of a grind... I wouldn’t want to do that again.”
Trying to make each other laugh. It was an impulse that apparently never struck with anyone else, not even their families; Rooney said that "[they were] interesting to meet separately because two duller people you never talked to," and Chris Elliott claims he was eleven before he realized what his father did for a living. "I thought he was in some kind of business."
It must've been a little unnerving for most, trying to look in at the partnership from the outside. "I've been married to my wife for thirty-seven years," Ray said in a late interview, "and to Bob for thirty-five" -- but they would never really became close friends outside of ‘work’. What's especially disarming is that they apparently never saw any reason why they should. Admirers watching them in action repeatedly commented on the flashes of melancholy, boredom even, that accompanied the funny-making process; others described moments of huge and innocent enjoyment. After awhile, it becomes hard to avoid the overall impression of comic genius as child’s toy.
Meaning, as much as either would thank me for it -- which is to say, not much -- I’m glad they didn’t have to contend fully with the modern comedy scene, after all. They didn’t care for it a whole lot. In an engaging reversal of pattern, they considered the youngsters as taking it far too seriously; and the youngsters in turn were already beginning to hint strongly that to remain viable they might wanna, uh, spice up their act a little, you know...
Bob & Ray were inducted into the
Radio Hall of Fame in 1995
Ray Goulding died in 1990, of kidney failure, age 68. Bob is now quietly retired himself at 84. Gentle as their legacy may have been, it endures.
Shocking middle-American complacency is easy; exposing it is difficult. Exposing it on the basic, everyday human level that Bob & Ray did is a rare and special feat worthy not only of treasuring, but of hoarding, carefully, against the times of intellectual drought. They never hurt anyone (well, excepting the people who got whacked with "two dozen country-fresh eggs" fired from the Bob & Ray cannon for being irritating); they simply gave the heartland exactly what they wished for. The lucky ones got it.
A prior version of this story originally ran on Kerrie Mills's blog, Butterfly Mind.