From ON THE AIR: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OLD-TIME RADIO By John Dunning. 1998. Oxford University Press

The Bob and Ray Show was a happy accident, created by Robert Brackett Elliott and Raymond Walter Goulding, a team of avant-garde comics who each – when on the air – seemed to know the other’s mind. They came along late and played the networks sporadically. But at their best, in their 1959-60 daily series for CBS, they were as funny and fresh, as clever and witty, as anyone who ever used the medium.

Using no script, they performed with a single sense of timing, pace, and direction. A single word or phrase might send them veering into new directions, with only instinct and a keen understanding of each other to guide the way.

Fluffs didn’t concern them: their show was so offbeat that it sometimes seemed like a continuous chain of fluffs. They did outrageous satire, parodies on everything American, from eating habits to radio shows, including their own.

They worked together for 40 years. Elliott, born in Boston March 26, 1923, had landed a job at WHDH during the war, returning there after his release from the military. He was doing a morning disc jockey show when the station hired Goulding, another New Englander, born March 20, 1922, a few miles away in Lowell. Ray read the news on the hour, then occasionally engaged in impromptu on-air discussions with Bob. This rambling buffoonery expanded when WHDH got the rights to Braves-Red Sox baseball, and Bob and Ray were asked to do 25 minutes before each game. They began to satirize radio serials with spoofing continuations. Their first such serial was Linda Lovely; in such later, more polished epics as Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife, they used many of the techniques actually in practice on the serials of Frank and Anne Hummer. The exaggeration was minimal, the comedy achieved in the delivery. As on the real Backstage Wife, the identifying adjective became a first name; for instance, Wealthy Jacobus Pike was the backer of the play in which Harry Backstayge was starring. Supplementing the serial was a company of characters, all played by Bob and Ray, who chatted inanely about everything. Among the earliest were Mary McGoon, who had a recipe and menu show; Tex Blaisdell, who did rope tricks, impossible on radio but all the funnier because of that; Uncle Eugene, a stuffed shirt said to be “soft as a grape”; and Wally Ballou, reporter extraordinaire. Radio was their natural medium. “All you have to do is say you’re in Yankee Stadium,” Ray told Newsweek: “on TV, you’d have to have it painted on a wall.”

With his deep baritone voice, Ray did all the low, gruff parts and the falsetto females. He had one female voice-his Mary McGoon was every woman on The Bob and Ray Show. Bob handled the adenoids: Wally, Tex, the European accents, the straight parts, the old men. Ray did the tough guys and the roars. Most of the flat dullards, of which there were many, were done by Bob.

NBC welcomed them in 1951. An agent had given a Bob and Ray audition record to Bud Barry, a network executive, and now they were heard nationwide while chatting and playing records for the local audience on WNBC in the mornings. Within a year they had won a Peabody and were considered by their peers the up-and-coming comics to listen to. Among their biggest fans were Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, and Groucho Marx. J. Edgar Hoover was less thrilled, especially with such “premium giveaways” as the “Little Jim Dandy Burglar Kit.”

They would make the full circle of network radio, broadcasting on NBC, ABC, Mutual, CBS, NBC’s Monitor, and finally NPR. Their comedy was adaptable to all timeslots, being heard as live five-minute skits (Monitor, NBC, circa 1955-59) as well as four-hour marathons between the records and weather reports of local radio. They did extensive commercial work from 1960-62, returning that year with an all-afternoon show on WHN. A Broadway show, Bob and Ray: The Two and Only, opened in 1970. In 1973 they were heard on WOR.

In private life they were ordinary, said their friends, and some people thought them dull. On the air, they were something else. Their mid-1950s director-producer-soundman, Vic Cowan, sometimes tried to throw them by putting in a sudden sound effect. It never worked: one or the other (or both at once) would veer immediately into this new traffic, incorporating the sound into their dialogue. Their greatest influences were each other, though Bob told the New Yorker that he had been influenced as a child listening to Raymond Knight’s Cuckoo Hour. Knight wrote for Bob and Ray in the early ’50s, when their network shows were scripted, and when Knight died Bob married his widow. Ray died March 24, 1990, of kidney failure.

To recap their many high spots is a delight. Mary McGoon spawned dozens of spinoffs, from Irma Shacktalloosengaard to Natalie Attired, and the fact that all these ladies had exactly the same voice was in itself a funny touch. Mary made “mock turkey” each Thanksgiving, a feast composed of mashed potatoes molded to look like a turkey and hot dogs for “drumsticks.” She chatted casually and occasionally sang, always terribly. Her 1949 recording of Mule Train and I’d Like to Be a Cow in Switzerland quickly sold out its 3,000-copy pressing and was soon a collector’s item. As Natalie Attired, Ray played a “song-sayer,” speaking song lyrics to the accompaniment of drums. Bob played Wally Ballou with an air of stony incomprehension: the bumbling reporter who has no idea how awful he is. He interrupted guests, talked over their voices, and often asked questions that had just been answered. He introduced himself as “radio’s highly regarded Wally Ballou, winner of over seven international diction awards, occasionally as “personable, well-preserved Wally Ballou.” He always had his microphone off for the first few minutes of his “remote” and was always cut off at the end, in the middle of a word. Wally’s wife was Hulla Ballou. They had a son, Little Boy Ballou.

Bob was also Steve Bosco, the often inebriated sports reporter who fretted constantly about being cut off the air and usually ended his reports with pleas for money. Ray was the other sportscaster, Biff Burns, whose trademark was the towering ego matched only by ignorance. At the height of the Arthur Godfrey craze, they created Arthur Sturdley, redheaded host of a talent scouts show, who was described as “just a jerk.” Webley Webster conducted the forum, and Dean Archer Armstead, farm editor, broadcast from the Lackawanna Field Station” in rural New York. Chester Hasbrouck Frisbie was listed as the scriptwriter of Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife, and, as the New Yorker told it, “discusses coming episodes as if he were talking about Proust or Joyce.” Another name that turned up in the serial writing credits was O. Leo Leahy. Barry Campbell was an over-the-hill bandleader who conducted an all-girl orchestra. Charles the Poet read unbearable verse to the faint, sentimental music of a violin and the chirping of birds. But he never made it to the end of a poem without breaking into fits of uncontrollable laughter.

One Feller’s Family was a spoof of the eternal Carlton E. Morse serial One Man’s Family. Bob played Father Butcher, who in the best Father Barbour manner puttered around the garden mumbling to himself. Ray, as Mother Butcher, would shout, “Oh, shut up and stop mumbling, you senile old man!” while Father Butcher kept muttering, “Fanny, Fanny, Fanny.” The writer was T. Wilson Messy, and the serial was a “Messy Production.”

There was also Mr. Treat, Chaser of Lost People, a poke at the prime-time Hummert detective series Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, which was also heard as Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons. There were Jack Headstrong, the All-American American; Wayside Doctor, Hawaiian Ear, Eye, Nose and Throat Man; and Kindly Mother McGee, the Best Cook in the Neighborhood. Then came The Gathering Dusk, “the heartwarming story of a girl who’s found unhappiness by leaving no stone unturned in her efforts to locate it,” sponsored by the “Whippet Motor Car Company, observing the 45th anniversary of its disappearance.” Among the numerous bogus premium giveaways were the burglary kit, the “Bob and Ray Home Surgery Kit,” and membership in “Heightwatchers International,” which came with “six ample servings of low vitamins and nutrients in artificial colorings.”

Their finest series was probably the 1959-60 quarter-hours for CBS. All the old cast was present, Mary, Tex, Wally, and Steve Bosco, still “rounding third and being thrown out at home.” Old serials and new held the air. Now there was Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate, sponsored by “chocolate cookies with white stuff in between them,” and teaming the hero with an ever-sneering sidekick, Mug Mellish. There was a tree imitator who had more than two dozen trees in his repertoire and gave a sobbing rendition of a weeping willow. On stage was the “great Bob and Ray bird,” a monster that doubled in size by the week, was frequently described as “a dangerous bird,” and one day ate the “Bob and Ray popcorn ball.” The show was coordinated by “Wilbur Conley, young squirt who works for us,” and had the usual array of crazy games and stunts. They made fun of TV laugh tracks, had an audience “warmdown,” and offered the game show Ladies, Grab Your Seats. Finally there was Smelly Dave, the dead whale obtained by Bob and Ray and sent for a weeks-long national tour on an open flatcar. Reporter Arthur Shrank sent back the details, which could be summed up in one gutteral word-uuuuggghhhh!

The signatures hinted at the content, from the opening words (“And now, from approximately coast to coast, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding present the CBS Radio Network”) to their traditional closing:

“This is Ray Goulding reminding you to write if you get work. . .” “. . . and Bob Elliott reminding you to hang by your thumbs.”

Copyright © 1998 John Dunning. Published by Oxford University Press.