From RAISED ON RADIO By Gerald Nachman. 2000. University of California Press.
By any rational measure, Bob and Ray should have been washed up along with the rest of radio in the 1950s, but they hung on until Ray’s death in 1990, ending a partnership of almost half a century. In various formats, and rarely sponsored, the pair were at once anachronistic and contemporary, finding new ways to mock a medium whose original satirical targets had long since surrendered or died and gone to radio heaven.
Bob and Ray’s comedy transcended time and radio. It hardly seems to matter that Anxiety! was a send-up of Suspense, a show twenty years earlier, because it was enough like TV’s Amazing Stories and other current spook shows. Their parodies were generic enough to span generations. A specific show may have expired, but its TV counterpart lingers on; melodramatic dialogue, clueless characters, and wheezing dramatic devices are ageless. In an appreciation, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Their jokes turn out to be universal, although deeply rooted in old-time radio, because so much of life presents itself as the same dilemma: how to seem lusty and purposeful when less than nothing is going on.”
Robert Brackett Elliott and Raymond Walter Goulding were true radio offspring whose entire career consisted of mocking radio in all of its vast, unending inanities and banalities. Their work was never done. They just followed their ears wherever they led them from “Jack Headstrong, All-American American” to arrogant sportscaster Biff Burns (“This is Biff Burns saying until next time, This is Biff Burns saying, ‘So long’ “) to mush-mouthed critic Webley Webster and mumbly farm reporter Dean Archer Armstead. Elliott once said, “Our original premise was that radio was too pompous.”
Bob and Ray debuted in 1946 as staffers on Boston’s WHDH, where Bob played records and Ray did the news in the morning, ad-libbing bits after the ball games and eventually creating their two-man repertory of bores, boors, dolts, jerks, nerds, and windbags. They had been hired at WHDH nearly simultaneously. “We found out almost instantly that we were on the same wavelength, and after the news, we’d bat it back and forth a little.” Their original ad-lib show, said Ray, “kept spreading, like a fungus.” Ray’s specialty was falsettos and gruff blowhards; Bob’s was nasal twerps and fatuous frauds. Bob’s classic befuddled newscaster was the ubiquitous Wally Ballou, or “-ly Ballou” as he was always known, coming in a split-second before his mike was live on the cut-in and introducing himself in a snuffly voice as “winner of over seven international diction awards.” Like all Bob and Ray people, Wally was always a beat out of sync.
Between routines they inserted equally hilarious commercials and special offers from “The Bob and Ray Overstocked Warehouse,” such as Chocolate Wobblies, chocolate Easter rabbits that had been stored too close to the heater, with a guarantee that each Wobbly had somewhere inside it a purple ribbon.
In 1951, they left Boston for New York and, through Ray’s older brother, were hired to fill in for Morey Amsterdam’s show, The Gloom Dodgers, after which they went network on NBC, moving to a rival network in the late 1950s with this cheeky introduction: “Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding present the CBS Radio Network.”
They created new parodies while revamping and refining their standbys, working half extemporaneously and half scripted; one staple, “Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife” (their sendup of the radio serial Mary Noble, Backstage Wife) was usually all ad-libbed. Although they began 90 percent unscripted in Boston, by the 1950s they would rough out ideas on tape before going on the air. Several of the routines were supplied by Tom Koch, a Mad writer.
Their influences were Fred Allen, Vic and Sade, and a 1930s satirical radio team, “Colonel Stoopnagel and Budd,” played by Frederick Chase Taylor and Budd Hulik. Bob was also a young fan of Raymond Knight’s KUKU Hour, a show he would attend with his parents. Knight played Ambrose J. Weems, who ran a radio station and commented on events with a sidekick named Mrs. Pennyfeather. Knight did another show – Wheatenaville, set in a small town – that was a major influence on Elliott. Later, he and Knight became friends, and Knight was hired by the team as a writer in the early 1950s. It was one of the few times they had ever used outside help for a crowded schedule that included two radio shows a day and a fifteen-minute TV show; Elliott wound up marrying Knight’s widow. John Crosby, the most influential radio and TV critic, gave the young team a rave that launched Bob and Ray nationally, at which point (1953) they began bouncing from network to network, station to station, and format to format for the next thirty-seven years. They were unusual for comedy teams in that neither half was a straight man, and like Henry Morgan, Jean Shepherd, and Stan Freberg, their satirical peers, they came of age in radio, not in vaudeville.
The two men, who seemed so inseparable that even some lifelong Bob and Ray devotees were unsure which was which, kept fine-tuning their parodies, retiring “Mary Backstayge” and their first soap sendup, “The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely,” replacing Mary with “Garrish Summit” and “The Gathering Dusk,” their masterly parodies of Dynasty and Dallas, doing in five minutes the work of more elaborate TV soap opera parodies like Soap, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, or Fresno. “Garrish Summit” – which began, “There in stately splendor, far removed from the squalid village below, the beautiful people fight their petty battles over power and money” – was the story of the Murchfield clan, headed by stuffy but powerful grand-dame heiress Agatha Murchfield, whose fortune was founded on lead ingots. Her ne’er-do-well son, Caldwell (whose entrance was invariably announced by his good brother Rodney, “Here comes my ne’er-do-well brother, Caldwell”) tried to wrest away her wealth with various nefarious schemes. Agatha was so rich that she sent her watch out twice a year to have it reset for Daylight Savings Time.
Bob and Ray took a sure, unhurried approach to the pomposities of nearly every radio life-form that stood before a microphone. They never translated very well to TV, yet their 1970 revue, The Two and Only, ran for five months on Broadway and later toured. In fact, they were superb comic actors who worked in a small circumference but whose funny, pliable faces – cartoons of the voices they lampooned – were also made to be viewed. Larry Josephson, who produced their Carnegie Hall concert in 1981 and their later NPR revival, says that despite their success they were insecure about their fame. “They never thought they’d fill Carnegie Hall, and I could’ve filled it three times over.”
Their acting was mostly vocal, but seated before the microphone, they suddenly would grow quite lively. The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett, observing them at work at a V-shaped table in their WOR studio in New York, described the scene. Prior to the show, Ray would loosen his shoelaces as Bob chose the sound effects from a case; all the while, both of them were continually clearing their throats. “The moment [the show] started, Bob and Ray seemed to draw closer at their table and a bell of intense concentration descended over them.” Bob always sat to the right of Ray. “They became extremely active; they lifted their shoulders and eyebrows, kicked their feet, and swayed back and forth in their chairs. Their in-place motions suggested the furious twitchings of dreaming dogs. They also looked at one another steadily as they slipped in and out of various voices, and when they were finished the tension dissolved immediately in a barrage of throat-clearings.”
Kurt Vonnegut observed, “Bob and Ray, who could have looked like anything, looked as wistfully funny as they sounded, and secretly wise. Moreover, they seemed as unlikely a pair of pals as Laurel and Hardy. Ray was the big bluffer. Bob was the smaller, more intellectual, more pessimistic, more easily disappointed one.” Their humor was too cerebral and surreal for the screen, large or small; Vonnegut compared their work to Dali’s limp watches. “Bob and Ray’s humor,” said Andy Rooney, “isn’t like a joke that depends on remembering the last line. Their sketches are just as funny in the middle as they are at the end. ”
Their satire was also Benchleyesque, gently cutting without turning crude or cruel, with an inherent civility nearly unknown now among satirists. Bob and Ray were quiet minimalist wits in an age of maximum farcical noise, and the more far-out or gross their rowdy comic colleagues grew, the less Bob and Ray seemed to notice – they were always true to themselves and to their private comic vision. In fact, the wackier the concept – the McBeebee twins, who speak simultaneously; the dawdling spokesman for the Slow Talkers Association; the Komodo Dragon expert who repeatedly asked questions he’s just answered; the owner of a cranberry processing plant who never heard of cranberry sauce – the more calm their approach. Somehow it all sounded not only unforced but improvised, which it originally was.
Revered is not too strong a term to describe their hold on a faithful following that stuck with them through thick and, mainly, thin, from five-minute sketches on NBC’s Monitor in I956, their national breakthrough, to a daily show for CBS in I959 to a four-hour afternoon broadcast on WHN in New York in I962. While the team never had a huge audience, they always seemed to catch on somewhere. As Andy Rooney observed: “A lot of people think, as I do, that they appreciate Bob and Ray more than anyone else does.” Perhaps one reason they remained a cult hit is that they were ambivalent about their careers, according to Josephson: “They had to decide at some point whether to put up with all the showbiz bullshit or to be true to themselves, and they decided on the latter. They’d been screwed over by so many broadcasters.”
Genuinely shy men (Goulding evaded most interviews), Elliott once said, “By the time we discovered we were introverts, it was too late to do anything about it.” He also said that “maybe the secret of our success is that we emerge only every few years. We don’t saturate the public, and new generations seem to keep discovering us.” He surmised, “I guess we’re the longest-running team on the air, or maybe even in show business.” Goulding once said, “We’ve spent all these years trying to entertain each other. And that’s a good way to earn a living.” They rarely disagreed, and while they thought enough alike to finish each other’s sentences, the men were never chummy.
The more of a blabbermouth radio became, the richer grew Bob and Ray’s satire. One reason they’re still funny, in an era of entertainment overload and high-tech dazzle, is that radio really never did die – it just became sillier and more self-imitative. It became television. The broadcast interview, Bob and Ray’s basic format, grew even more prevalent as newscasts, talk shows, and mind-numbing experts flooded the airwaves with babble, playing deliciously into their hands.
In most Bob and Ray sketches, the obtuse meets the overblown, as on “Speaking Out,” a phone-in opinion program (“I think the prince of Wales should be a civil service job”); the “Bob and Ray Mystery Tune” (winners receive eighteen dollars “in cash” plus a free breakfast at Rudy’s House of Dry Toast); “Down the Byways,” in search of smalltown Americana (a la Charles Kuralt), whose host once visited “one of the last of the small-town grouches”; “The Employment Office of the Air”; and “Mr. I-Know-Where-They-Are,” who dug up long-forgotten nobodies such as rodeo star Tumbleweed Gargon or child film star Fat Baby Moxford. Their one dip into political humor was the browbeating Commissioner Carstairs, a takeoff on Senator Joseph McCarthy who popped up from time to time on “Mary Backstayge.”
Most takeoffs on commercials merely exaggerate, but Bob and Ray, masters of understatement, twitted commercials by deftly tweaking the language. They delivered earnest spiels for Monongahela Metal Foundry (“Steel ingots cast with the housewife in mind”), Height Watchers International, and the Kretchfield Braid & Tassel Company (“The company that dares to stand behind its fringe for two full years”). For two years, they did a real commercial for Piels Beer, playing Bert and Harry Piel, who drew more laughs than drafts of beer.
Bob Elliott (the short moon-faced one with the big baleful watery blue eyes, who played all the adenoidal characters, led by Wally Ballou) and Ray Goulding (the burly one with the shaggy eyebrows, the swoopy Julia Child-ish voice of “Mary McGoon” and other biddies as well as pompous captains of industry) were the last of radio’s true wits. “Comedians” sounds too loud and obvious for their droll, low-key parodies that are so on the nose they’re only a notch more idiotic than real radio. Bob and Ray’s rubes and boobs, their gee-whiz scientists, smug reporters, and bloated businessmen, are radio versions of characters who might have stepped out of Sinclair Lewis or Ring Lardner.
The duo wore as well as any humorists can hope to, never turning angry, cruel, snide, bitter, or self-satisfied. They didn’t bludgeon their targets to death; they kidded human folly and bombast without feeling a need to destroy their objects. They attacked everything with a feather, tickling subjects into submission as if encouraging their hapless cast of characters and listeners to return for more fun another day. Their final series aired on National Public Radio in 1990, just before Ray’s death – not a bad run for a pair of low-budget satirists. Fifty years after Bob and Ray began in Boston, they’re still contemporary and funny. Little has aged except their listeners.