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I first heard of them 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 audiobook of their 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. Currently, I'm working my way through a cache of their 15-minute CBS radio shows from 1959-60.
Actually, listening to Newhart's 'phone call' routines is probably the easiest route to accessing Bob & Ray's own peculiar brand of inside-out edginess; you can also hear echoes of it in Garrison Keillor, Johnny Carson, George Carlin, Keith Olbermann, Al Franken, David Letterman (who featured Bob's son Chris in the early years of his own show) and a host of other 'hip' comics. Even Jerry Seinfeld owes them a debt, and Woody Allen was a fan.
They all built the modern definition of American comedy - challenging, consumed with absurdity, ferociously unsentimental - more or less on the foundation that Bob (the slight one with the prominent blue eyes) & Ray (the burly one with the rich baritone voice) had patiently been laying for decades.
Albeit their career, typical of most comics of the time, contains a wildly varied hotchpotch of commercial VOs, TV variety shows and albums (plus one hit Broadway retrospective, 1970's The Two and Only) they're best known and revered for their various series of satiric radio shows.
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'. It moved permanently to New York and a national audience in 1951, covered every major network at one point or another, and ended on the National Public Radio circa about 1987. Ray died three years later, of kidney failure, at age 68; Bob kept on, lecturing on what's now known as Old-Time Radio and taking the occasional movie or TV role, and is still going yet at 84.
Their classic format was very simple: two guys on the same comic wavelength, their imaginations and their microphones. Originally the whole was in fact ad-libbed, growing organically out of the on-air relationship between a disc jockey (Bob) and his newscaster (Ray). Between official chores they began riffing, in much the manner of over-bright drones in any time and place, off their particular corner of the Establishment – shows, sponsors, guests and interviewers alike.
That both were Army veterans 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 was a suburban kid with a diploma from dramatic college, who had started in showbiz as a page at NBC; Raymond Walter Goulding was a blue-collar prodigy who’d first picked up a small-town mic (beating out some guy named Ed McMahon in the process) after graduating from high school at age seventeen.
Without ever quite meaning to, they discovered they were the natural halves of an unique performance whole; their shared understanding of the absurd so fundamental it was effortless, their offhand comic timing in fact so acute it suggested telepathy.
"Our original premise was that radio was too pompous," Bob says now. What that would mean in practice was a forty years’ deconstruction of American media culture - right down to the bare fundamentals of how we listen and what we expect to hear - and rebuilding it with the help of the funhouse mirror that was their collective imagination.
Trying, as they would neatly summarize it years later, to make each other laugh.
Eventually, the shared realization started organizing itself into recurring characters and scripted skits – and after that, all bets were off. That audience, picture window, bird and so on I mentioned above? All in their heads, and given life via their voices. So was everyone else. They were an entire Monty Python troupe without the troupe.
Bob's soft, precisely adjustable adenoids were perfect for journos and announcers; also the old men, children, and all the various hopefully hopeless nebbishes that paraded through the Bob & Ray arena. Like for instance, the President of the Society for the Protection of Birds ("Tell me, sir, is there anything the audience at home can be doing to protect birds?" "No, not really.")
As 'himself' he was calm, meticulous, 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 - that made his reporters, especially, vivid media parodies before they ever asked a question. 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 all its own, 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.
At that, neither of the duo was a classic straight man in the comedic sense. However, on-air Ray - of the wide-open Irish face and that Warners-esque accent that pronounces 'idea' as 'ideer' - fulfilled 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 begins to approach real flair.
Together - with the sometime help of 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, in a time when 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 started out, in Eisenhower's America, it was difficult even to realise it was there, let alone that there was room outside. Listeners accustomed to offhand satire on the order of That's My Bush! can barely grasp the concept of a time when Bob Newhart was being dubbed a 'sick comic' because one of his routines "made Abe [Lincoln] out to be kind of a dolt."
In that wilderness Bob & Ray were the ideal pioneers - very subtle and gentle, nitpicky almost, deflating the monolith one tiny failure of the spirit at a time. It’s not surprising that, as the New Yorker once pointed out, their satire could come from so deep within the middle-class American experience; they themselves had been saved from becoming Auden’s Unknown Citizens through the merest quirk of self-awareness.
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; in fact, they may have been the only comedy team on record to sincerely think of themselves as guys who got paid for making each other laugh.
Which may well have been why they ended up as legends anyway. While they never did become angry, even when faced with the social tumult of the 60's and 70's, they never lost their relevance - in 1978 they were handed a showcase Saturday Night Live special, and the 18-25 demographic was still attending their NPR shows years past that. Another decade, and they'd've become the darlings of the Internet.
They had made themselves representatives of a very different but equally powerful archetype of cool: the 'innocent fool' of the fairy tale – or, in the closest 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.
It was 'comedy as conversation', as Newhart puts it, deadpan drollery that flattered the audience’s sophistication and rewarded their literacy; and as obvious as this all sounds now that ‘snark’ is a part of the common lexicon, the concept revolutionised the comedic landscape then. Before, funny men told jokes; afterwards, they told stories.
To that end, Bob & Ray ran serials called One Fella's Family (sample episode: "Looking for the Christmas Ornaments") and Grand Motel (I still wonder off-and-on if they ever figured out the right hour to serve the continental breakfast) and Jack Headstrong, All-American American and Matt Neffer, Boy Spot Welder - oh, and my personal favourite, Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons.
Soap operas were the most obvious target. Anybody who’s tried to watch one with your average young male can imagine how gleefully Bob & Ray leapt for the bullseye; the result was an exercise in truly freewheeling lunacy, The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely. (She would go on to be played on TV by a very young Audrey Meadows.)
Their next effort, 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 - is widely conceded to have left more of a mark than its original, Mary Noble, Backstage Wife. Partly because it contained that McCarthy parody sequence mentioned above: during the Army hearings, the Backstayges’ plans for a summer home were thwarted daily by a zoning commissioner (Ray) whose oily growl was unmistakeable.
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
I'm also fairly sure Gene Roddenberry listened to Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate ('brought to you by Chocolate Cookies With White Stuff In-Between") and was just too embarrassed to admit the inspiration in public. He especially must've been paying attention the week Fechtenberger went to Venus and fell in love with the dubbed-in voice of a do-it-yourself hypnosis record ("I want you to lean back, close your eyes...")
Eventually confidence led them to more exotic targets, like Tippy the Wonder Dog, who if ever sent to rescue Timmy from the well would probably toss him a towel. They even ventured into multiculturalism with The Adventures of Charlie Chew, fearlessly exploding the myth of Oriental politeness ("No.1 son like all-night gas station: Never shut up.") The civil rights movement, like most specific political comment, fell way outside their scope...but it's noticeable that the 'comic Negro' of the era never once made an appearance in their act.
Back at base, in the intervals, they marshalled a loyal staff that the Today Show could only envy. The most famous of the motley crew is probably Bob as crack[ed] roving reporter Wally Ballou ("-ly Ballou here!"), whose nose for news was permanently stuffed up. Placid, resigned, certain only that he was a Newsman and his job was therefore to Get The Story come hell or high water, 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 to find and honour businessmen leading the fight against inflation, he ended up at the Great Lakes Paper Clip Company, where every clip was made by hand - maybe ten, twelve 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...")
Rebounding nobly from that disappointment, Bob & Ray sent him...well, hey, do I really have to go into what happened when Butterfingers Ballou showed up at the glass fruit factory? Actually, a lot of his segments ended with cutting off his expense allowance. I think the visit to the invisible screen factory alone ran him about $3K.
Sent to Great River, Wyoming, for the dedication of the $33mil Pfeffernick Memorial Stadium, capacity 368,000...well, that one fell into a second major category of Ballou interviews, in which he actually asks the right questions only to have the whole thing kinda fall apart beneath him as a result. Like for instance, discovering from the builder (a Mr. Pfeffernick) that there weren't actually any team sports played in Green River, and even if there were those 'sturdy concrete pillars' all over the field would prevent it. ("I suppose you could get a rousing game of hide-n-seek going down there, but I can't imagine getting 368,000 people in there to watch it...Funny, how I never thought of that before...")
Occasionally Wally was paired with Artie Schemerhorn, who was in patented Goulding fashion just as clueless, only better at bluffing. Their big Go Team! moment came when they covered the local Fourth of July parade...which 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.
Bob also ended up as most of their beat reporters, notably Biff Burns, the sportscaster usually described as 'snappy'. Which is sports-media code for, well: "This is Biff Burns saying, 'This is Biff Burns saying goodnight!'" Steve Bosco, another sports correspondent, spent most of his broadcasts begging for bail money. Also hot on the can-you-spare-a dime beat was Kent Lyle Birdley, 'last of the old-time radio announcers', with whom 'the boys' - especially Ray, who had to take his calls - had what I suspect was an extremely...realistic...relationship.
Ray, meanwhile, was maintaining his own legend as Mary Margaret McGoon, basically Martha Stewart via Mad magazine. Wielding the flat falsetto twang that became the duo’s go-to female voice - suggesting, if not a nephew’s honoured 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’, ie. shaped mashed potatoes and two hot dogs. Keeping meatballs warm by knitting them individual spaghetti cozies, that was another Martha-worthy concept.
Mary even contrived to get herself in legal hot water, after the Vermont inn she opened during the CBS year burned down in a suspicious fire...that she blatantly admitted live on-air to Wally Ballou she set herself, after getting tired of all the hotelier hassle.
In leisure moments she hung around reading the society news, trying to advance her theatrical career - which in 1949 spawned a novelty recording of I’d Like to Be a Cow in Switzerland - and just generally playing den mother to ‘the boys’ and their staff. In return, they both privately thought of her as ‘our conscience’. (As it happened, Ray’s wife Elizabeth was a dietician...no, I have no clue what if any connexion there was, but it does strike me as a great way to keep a marriage interesting.)
Also in Ray’s repertoire from nearly the beginning was mushmouthed book reviewer Webley Webster, whose live dramatizations of "weawwy excitin' shcenesh" from this week's tome - one week it was the Baseball Almanac - rarely had anything to do with the actual plot. When he wasn’t required to enlighten the masses, he also filled in as a general office boy (along with ‘Wilbur Conley, young squirt who works for us’...primarily, by tossing the mail through the control-room window).
‘Web’ eventually accrued the most elaborate backstory of any of the cast - he lived at the Waldorf Astoria, where he seesawed between high style and hiding from creditors, and spent much of the CBS year in a snit because his renditions of Jealousy at the Great Bob & Ray Organ kept getting cut off at the intro. Most memorably, on April Fool's 1960 he threw himself a 'coming-out party'. When Bob tried to explain that those were only for 'young ladies', Web protested: "No, no, I c'm out fr'm behin' the curtin, an' then I'm offishu'ly out!" Either the 1950's really were that innocent or Bob & Ray were a lot less innocent than some historians give them credit for.
Over the years, the duo would create a whole pantheon of other flamboyantly mediocre in-house experts, as the sociological fad of the moment demanded. The most memorable included Ray’s 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 a 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 act via the reminisces of Ralph Flinger, Mr. I-Know-Where-They-Are; also 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!"). Which were brought to you, of course, by the Philanthropic Council to Make Things Nicer.
There were also various forerunners to Dr. Phil (my favourite is the one who couldn’t concentrate on a paranoid listener’s question, because the doc was busy worrying that he hadn't been invited to the imaginary party he heard next door)....and, later, a 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 these men failed – ah, that is, when their expertise failed them – uh...oh, never mind – Bob & Ray hauled in pretty much every other specialist they could find; albeit where they found them, that was never quite explained. In possibly their most famous skit, Ray interviews Bob as Harlow P. Whitcomb, the president of the Slow....................................
If gentleness did not necessarily translate to patience, still less did it have time 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 poetry without breaking down into helpless laughter. Ray, who voiced him, didn’t sound like he was having to fake it much.
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 have guessed by now, involved the likes of a middle-aged woman trying to raise money to walk across the USA on her hands, on account of Tubby Wurtsma dee-double-dared her to in grade school ("It's getting so I hate to go into his pinball arcade back home because I know he's going to make some smart remark...").
Having impressed the Organization with her tale of woe, this lady ended up with generous assistance in the form of a chrome-plated head block for the hot rod she didn’t have. The 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, he got the deluxe racing bike. “No thanks are necessary, sir; just seeing the smile on your little face is reward enough.”
No matter the occasional ingrate; the Organization sailed serenely on, orchestrating such touching proto-Oprah moments as the reunion of a brother and sister after seventy years...OK, that the two then had nothing whatsoever to say to each other was a bit of an oops. In one classic Christmas interlude, an audience member claims to want nothing more than his 'beautiful wife and four great kids'. Who are currently in Minnesota. While he works in in New York. Over the last four years they might have tried to visit him once or twice, but 'nobody left any messages at my apartment', so...
They ran features like This Place for Heroes to honour those ordinary types who’d selflessly fought the system...and lost; and 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. Who may have been related to the lady that, after busting some little trick-or-treaters for trespassing, went right down to the police station and begged they be given a light sentence.
In a less morose vein there were also the hobbyists and entrepreneurs, like the truffle hunter who was undeterred by claims that they're only found in Europe - after all, nobody had 'gone so far as to have a wild boar sniff around [American] trees, have they?" - or the do-it-yourselfer who’d let the newspapers pile up on his lawn in the hope that the elements would degrade them back to wood pulp, thus saving money on firelogs.
Generally, these particular guests' stories 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 one who criss-crosses the country snapping up ‘odd-shaped vegetables’, or the Longest Letter record holder - 11,000+ pages, and the judges strictly checked for rambling. Not mentions of the weather, unfortunately for listeners who had to sit through a sample.
The man who spent years lovingly crafting toothpick replicas of Columbus' 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..." "Naw, yur inna Pinta and I'm inna Santa Maria!").
They also interviewed prominent local artisans, like the mapmaker who just figured it was more convenient to stick Hawai'i in the Great Lakes, and the author who admitted his authoritative History of the USA had a few errors - like the passage where Lincoln rode to his inauguration in a limousine - but pointed out in his defense that the book was 'leather-bound' and had 'very high-quality glossy paper'. Then there was the four-leaf clover wholesaler who detailed an incredible string of disasters that had befallen his crops...
Commercial break: Come visit the Monongahela Metal Foundry, manufacturer of shiny steel ingots with the housewife in mind...perhaps picking up some nice, tastefully tan-coloured Einbinder Flypaper along the way. Or take a detour through the Bob & Ray Overstocked Warehouse, featuring such amazing bargains as barbells accidentally made of aluminum (have all the prestige of working out, with none of the effort!), monogrammed sweaters with unpopular initials (if your name didn't start with 'O', they'd gladly change it for you for no extra charge) and door chimes that happened to have been manufactured before it was discovered the factory foreman was tone-deaf. Also on the shelves were a thousand 'Chocolate Wobblies', ie. chocolate Easter bunnies that had been stored too close to the hot-water pipes. "Each one guaranteed to have a purple ribbon in it somewhere!"
The celebrity angle? They had that covered too, natch. From as far back as the Boston days there was Bob's Tex Blaisdell, who did rope tricks - yes, on radio - and moonlighted as leader of the Smokey Valley Boys, who would probably have been a great country band if they could have ever figured out where the intros ended and the songs began.
He was soon joined by the musical McBeeBee Twins, essentially a novelty schtick in which one man said the same thing a beat behind the other. Bob also handled various gossip columnists, and Ray was Ward Stuffer, 'roving [theatre] critic', who was just as liable to have stayed home that day and show up with a review of the local weather segment on the six-o'clock news.
Their main conduit for entertainment parody, though, was official Bob & Ray celebrity hanger-on Barry Campbell, star of stage, screen, and occasionally all-girl orchestra. In a way, poor Barry – voiced by Ray - 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-the-set exclusives were 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 had 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 of course completely inept, total nerds, the kind of people who not only believe their own cliches but glory in them; but they cannot be dismissed without understanding. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, they turn out to illumine one of the central 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 that vacuum, the funnier you become. There's a sequence in a later 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 capitalised by 'sending' a dead whale called Smelly Dave round the country as a promotional gimmick - then, midway into the tour, had Dave kidnaped and sent Kato (yeah, 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 goodby at every stop...
...you can see where it's easy to get carried away with this stuff. The key to Bob & Ray, though, is that they never, ever did. At no time (well, at no time past about 1951) did they even so much as hint that they thought they were running anything but a nice, upright, thank-you-Mr-and-Mrs- America-and-all-the-ships-at-sea radio program, albeit one that perhaps ran into a few more difficulties than your average nice, upright young radio hosts should have to put up with.
Listening to Bob & Ray shows as a continuous reel, the whole shtick resembles a surrealist tightrope act - sometimes too normal, sometimes too outre, and sometimes just so very right that they could achieve a sort of lunatic ballet of irrelevance mid-walk. Entire eps 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 it happens, not before the takeout Chinese). The progression from enthusiastic amateurs to polished pros was a natural one, and – in the decades before MTV was invented – probably inevitable.
Then again...that enthusiasm (what one reviewer cleverly dubbed ‘comedy jazz’) was what had gotten them a career in the first place. Regardless of what Bob & Ray became, Elliott and Goulding never lost that uncanny ability to bounce off the walls - or each other, or the help, or whatever else might be at hand - and land in the right place every time. The moments at which 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?"
They didn’t break the fourth wall so much as blithely ignore it – “see, it says right there on the [sponsor’s] script: Do Not Ad-Lib.” They fooled around with the tech conventions of their medium like kids with playground equipment, spinning even minor flourishes to the finest edge of irrelevance. They held pre-show audience 'warmdowns' on the weirdly logical grounds that once everybody was good and depressed ("I was happy before I got here, but now I'm quite sullen, thank you") there'd be nowhere to go, humour-wise, but up.
Even if they'd done nothing else worth remembering, their naiively 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.
The equipment backfired in lively and unusual ways; Wally Ballou's cranky mic was the staple, but there were several cameos by other, newer media. Ray once got an entire brilliantly surreal routine out of an experiment in which a guest's pre-recorded answers couldn't be synchronised to Ray's live questions. Not to be outdone, Bob's demo of a 'tape recording device' came unravelled when it played back something different from what the audience volunteer actually said (owing to the volunteer and playback both being Ray, of course. I can never decide if this bit is intentional or not).
Away from the mic, ironically enough, Elliott and Goulding were by all accounts average, nice, rather shy men, husbands each of one wife and fathers of five and six children respectively. "By the time we figured out we were introverts," Bob is supposed to have 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 returned to the New York suburbs to raise their families; Bob on the East Side of Manhattan and Ray in 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.
Prime physical specimens (first and last time anybody ever praised Bob’s ‘depth of chest’) both men were ‘temperate with a capital ‘T’”. Bob smoked cigarettes – three packs a day, which may explain the subsequent lack of chest - 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.
There are a few more offbeat details. Bob was/is an accomplished amateur artist whose specialty at the time was watercolour seascapes (which honestly sounds like it should’ve been worked into a routine somewhere). Ray enjoyed photography, besides the Red Sox, golf, wing-shooting and above all ‘puttering’ proudly about his new house. He was also, it is strongly hinted, a lousy driver (the opening paragraphs find him filling out a report detailing ‘his car’s collision with a bus’).
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 1970’s and early 80’s (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 them as guests - Bob could occasionally be induced to chatter 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 forty years of interviews without divulging anything more intimate than (to the New Yorker, six years 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 realised what his father did for a living. "I thought he was in some kind of business."
(One YouTube clip is of Carson asking the duo - circa about 1977 - if any of their offspring 'showed signs of wanting to be funny?' Bob replies a little dubiously that 'my son Chris wants to be an actor, he's working on that...' and Ray, looking exactly like a baffled sitcom dad, adds that "None of my kids ever had an interest...I don't think.")
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. What's especially disarming is that they apparently never saw any reason why they should.
Admirers watching them in action repeatedly comment on the flashes of melancholy, boredom even, that accompanied the funnie-making process; others describe moments of huge and innocent enjoyment. After awhile, it becomes hard to avoid the overall impression of adults playing with comic genius as if it were a children’s toy.
Meaning, as much as either would thank me for it – which is to say, not very – I’m glad they didn’t have to contend with the modern comedy scene, after all. They didn’t care for it a whole lot - in an engaging reversal of pattern, considering that the youngsters were taking it far too seriously; and the youngsters in turn were already beginning to hint strongly that to remain viable they might wanna, ah, spice up their act a little, you know…
After Ray’s forced retirement, though, their peers were quick to try and fill the void. Bob managed to keep up with Chris, and Keillor, and Bill Murray (his scenes as a Ballou-esque bank guard in the latter’s Quick Change were hailed as instantly classic), and one of those 90’s sitcom tribute gigs as Bob’s dad on Newhart, among other things. As he concedes in a very recent interview, though, his “heart wasn’t really in it.”
That final loss must’ve felt like the psychic equivalent of a limb being severed, complete with the horribly poignant realisation of just how fundamental its function had been. Even after all the accolades received within their lifetime, the retrospectives, the sold-out shows, it appears that neither man seriously believed that they were really doing anything worth remembering… until “the stories that came out after [Ray’s] death” became a bittersweet revelation for the survivor.
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.
- feels like: hopeful
- listening to:Jefferson Airplane