Thursday, February 4, 2016

Bob Elliott, R.I.P.

Bob Elliot, partner with Ray Goulding in the team Bob and Ray, father of Chris and grandfather of Abby died Tuesday at the age of 92.

You could make a case for Bob and Ray being the most influential comedy act of their time and the one that has held up the best, but it can be extraordinarily difficult explaining just what was and is so funny about them. In an era when the familiar sobriquet "man of a thousand voices" was often not much of an exaggeration, they had maybe a half-dozen voices between them. The other shows of the time, whether they were comedies like the Goon Show or the latest from Stan Freberg, dramas like Gunsmoke or anthologies like CBS Radio Workshop featured large, versatile casts, elaborate production and beautifully edited sound montages.

By comparison, Bob and Ray were mainly just two guys talking in bland voices, deadpan, minimal, but once you get into the rhythms and the world, they were funnier and have aged better than any of their contemporaries. It's not comedy that lends itself to ready explanation but Adam Bernstein doe a remarkably good job in his Washington Post obituary:
With masterly comic timing — Mr. Elliott with a nasal deadpan, Goulding with booming authority — Bob and Ray mocked the cliches and banalities of newscasts, politics, sports and advertising. The characters they played were inept, pompous or shady — logic-free “experts,” sore political losers, dense reporters and dimwitted everymen.

One of their favorite skits involved Wally Ballou interviewing a paperclip company tycoon who tackles “waste and inefficiency” by running a sweatshop of indentured servants. Employees, who earn 14 cents a week, are bound by a “99-year sweetheart contract” and imprisoned if they try to quit.

“How can anybody possibly live on 14 cents a week?” Ballou asks.

Goulding, as the industrialist, replies defensively, “We don’t pry into the personal lives of our employees, Wally.”

Their playfully warped sensibilities often involved sly commentaries of the conventions of radio and TV, and the people who take those mediums seriously.

New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes once wrote: “They work masterfully close to the very things they are gently mocking, and this gives their sensible nonsense its special flavor. For one thing it shows just how much arrant nonsense we actually accept in television.”


The venture into political lampooning was rare. More typical of their output were fake commercials hawking membership in Heightwatchers International (sold with “six ample servings of low vitamins and nutrients in artificial colorings”) and series such as “Down the Byways,” which spoofed broadcaster Charles Kuralt’s TV essays on vanishing Americana by visiting with “one of the last of the small-town grouches.”

They always closed their show with the same signoff: “This is Ray Goulding, reminding you to write if you get work.” “And Bob Elliott, reminding you to hang by your thumbs.”

Bob and Ray’s admirers extended far beyond show business figures such as Allen and Letterman. One of their most devoted fans was novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who once wrote in a foreword to the 1975 collection “Write If You Get Work: The Best of Bob & Ray”: “They feature Americans who are almost always fourth-rate or below, engaged in enterprises which, if not contemptible, are at least insane.

“And while other comedians show us persons tormented by bad luck and enemies and so on, Bob and Ray’s characters threaten to wreck themselves and their surroundings with their own stupidity. . . . Man is not evil, they seem to say. He is simply too hilariously stupid to survive.”

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