Friday, February 5, 2016

The Late Great Bob Elliott

Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott
Bob Elliott, one half of the comedy team of Bob & Ray with Ray Goulding, died on February 2 2016 at the age of 92. The cause was throat cancer.

Bob Elliott was born on March 26 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts and attended Winchester High School. It was while he was in high school that he developed his talent for radio over the school's public address system. After he graduated from high school he went to New York City where he attended the Feagin School of Drama and Radio. He also worked as an usher at Radio City Music Hall and a page at NBC. In 1941 he moved back to Boston where he worked as an announcer for radio station WHDH. During World War II he served in the United States Army with the 26th Infantry Division in Europe before being transferred to Special Services.

Bob Elliott was demobilised in 1946 and returned to WHDH. Bob Elliott was a morning newscaster, while Ray Goulding was a disc jockey. The two began to banter between records and their repartee soon became popular with listeners. WHDH gave Bob and Ray their own weekday show, Matinee with Bob and Ray. As to why Bob was listed first, Ray Goulding joked that it was because Matinee with Bob and Ray sounded better than Matinob with Ray and Bob. Bob and Ray proved so popular that they were given another show, Breakfast with Bob and Ray. 

In 1951 Bob and Ray made the move to New York City and national radio, signing a 13 week contract with NBC. It was not long after the debut of their Saturday night radio show on NBC that they first appeared on television as well. Bob and Ray debuted on NBC-TV on November 26 1951 and ran until 1953. Initially on the TV show the female characters were played by Audrey Meadows and then by Cloris Leachman.

In 1955 Bob and Ray began a long stint on NBC's weekend radio show Monitor. The two were often expected to go on at a moment's notice in case a planned segment experienced difficulties. That same year the two of them became the hosts of the TV game show The Name's the Same. Bob and Ray also appeared on The NBC Comedy Hour, The Revlon Revue, The Tonight Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1957 Bob and Ray had a show on the Mutual radio network and in 1959 Bob and Ray moved to CBS for Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network. They voiced themselves in two animated shorts directed by Ed Graham: "Test Dive Buddies" (1959) and "Kid Gloves" (1960). They also released two comedy albums during the Fifties: Write If You Get Work in 1954 and Bob and Ray on a Platter in 1960. In 1960 they published a children's book, Linda Lovely and the Fleebus.

In the Sixties Bob and Ray appeared on television on such shows as The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Dick Frost Show, and Happy Days (a 1970 summer variety show, not to be confused with the later sitcom of the same name).  In 1966 they released the comedy record Bob And Ray Ask: Whatever Happened To The Hard Sell?.  In 1970 they appeared on Broadway in their show The Two and Only. That same year it was released as an album.

From 1973 to 1976 Bob and Ray were the hosts of WOR's afternoon drive time show. Both Bob and Ray appeared as various characters in the movie Cold Turkey (1971). On television they appeared on The Tonight Show, The David Steinberg Show,  and Saturday Night Live. Bob Elliott appeared without Ray Goulding in an episode of the sitcom Happy Days. They released the album Bob & Ray Present - Mary Backstayge Noble Wife in 1976. That same year they published the book Write If You Get Work: The Best of Bob & Ray. Without Ray, Mr. Elliott appeared in the movie Vengeance (1990).

In 1984 Bob and Ray's last show debuted on National Public Radio. It continued until Ray Goulding's health would permit them to go no further. They appeared in specials on PBS. They provided voices for the TV special B.C.: A Special Christmas. They guest starred on episodes of Trapper John M.D. and Coming of Age. Without Ray Goulding, Bob Elliott guest starred on Newhart. Bob and Ray appeared in the film Author! Author! and provided voices for the animated feature The Gnomes' Great Adventure (1987). Without Ray Goulding, Bob Elliott appeared in the films Kidco (1984) and Quick Change (1990).

Ray Goulding died in 1990 from kidney failure. Bob Elliott continued his career in the Nineties without his long-time partner. He appeared on Garrison Keillor's radio show The American Radio Company of the Air. He played the father of real life son Chris Elliott's character on the sitcom Get a Life. He guest starred on an episode of Lateline. He appeared in the movie Cabin Boy (1994).

In the Naughts Mr. Elliott appeared on the radio show The O'Franken Factor and was a guest voice on the animated TV series King of the Hill.

In addition to their work in radio and TV shows, Bob and Ray also appeared in commercials. They were particularly well known for providing the voices for the characters Bert and Harry in a series of animated commercials for Piels Beer.  They also did ads for Massachusetts Electric and The Hartford Insurance Company. Their popularity with Madison Avenue was perhaps ironic given their many spoof commercials over the years for such fictional products as Einbinder Flypaper and Cool Canadian Air.

Bob Elliott once said of Bob and Ray and their rise to fame, “By the time we discovered we were introverts, it was too late to do anything about it.” It perfectly summed up their brand of comedy. Their comedy was definitely low-key. While they were well known for their sharp-witted satire, it was of the sort that involved droll understatement rather than biting sarcasm. In many ways that made Bob and Ray all the more effective as they spoofed Madison Avenue, politics, business, and even the media. Indeed, their humour grew not out of a need to necessarily attack any person or thing but instead from keen observation of life in the United States of the late 20th Century.

Not only were Bob and Ray's brand of humour different from many comedians of the late 20th Century, but so was the way they operated. Traditionally comedy teams have consisted of a straight man (George Burns, Bud Abbott) who reacts to the comedy of the gag man (Gracie Allen, Lou Costello). At various times Bob and Ray each played the straight man to the other, often switching roles within minutes.

Over their long career Bob and Ray created a number of characters who would become famous in their own right. Bob Elliott played inept reporter Wally Ballou. sportscaster Biff Burns, Arthur Godfrey parody Arthur Sturdley, and old time radio announcer Kent Lyle Birdley. Ray Goulding played book critic Webley Webster, farm reporter Dean Archer Armstead, Charles the Poet, and home economics expert Mary Margaret McGoon. They were also well known for their parodies of radio shows, parodying Backstage Wife with Mary Backstage, Dr. I.Q. with Dr. O.K., and One Man's Family with One Fella's Family. They would even parody shows on whatever network they were on at the moment. When they were CBS they spoofed both Gunsmoke and Johnny Dollar.  In addition to their parodies of various shows and genres, Bob and Ray were well known for their many send ups of radio and television news. One of the most famous of these sorts of sketches involved Bob Elliott as a representative of the Slow Talkers of America who would take forever to even finish a sentence.

Alongside Ray Goulding, Bob Elliott was one of the funniest men of the late 20th Century. With their quiet brand of comedy Bob and Ray could accomplish much more than many louder comedians. It is little wonder that their career as a team lasted over forty years, while Bob Elliott's career lasted yet longer. Indeed, over 25 years after Ray Goulding's death, new generations are still discovering the comedy of Bob and Ray.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Wonderful remembrance and appreciation of this legendary performer! All your posts are so cognizant of the historical place held by entertainers of all varieties -- you always utterly understand why these performers WILL be remembered, and must be.

Such a great blog always!!