Wednesday, February 10, 2016

In appreciation of Bob & Ray

Readers of a certain age will not know who Bob & Ray are. That age may be 50 and below. But they’re names that everybody who loves comedy should know. They were brilliant.

Bob Elliott & Ray Goulding were a comedy team that worked primarily in radio but also did TV and a little Broadway.

Bob Elliott passed away last week. He was 92. For my younger readers, he was Chris Elliott’s father.

Bob & Ray were absolute masters of comic timing. They would deliver the most outrageously absurd material completely deadpan.

They would take turns being the straight man, they would conduct ridiculous interviews, do soap operas and movie parodies, and pitch goofy products. Among those fictional items: the Monongahela Metal Foundry (“Steel ingots cast with the housewife in mind”), Height Watchers International, and of course, Einbinder Flypaper (“The flypaper you’ve gradually grown to trust over the course of three generations”).

Their material could be very broad, but they always performed them deadly serious, which only made them funnier. And they could be incredibly subtle. One of Bob Elliott’s most famous characters was correspondent Wally Ballou. Whenever they would throw it to him to conduct an interview he always came in a split-second late. So he would announce himself as “ Ballou here.”

At this point I need to take a moment to also acknowledge that many of their inspired bits were written by Tom Koch. Gotta give credit to the writer.

I had the pleasure to work with Bob Elliott once. It was 1999 and I was directing an NBC sitcom in New York called LATELINE (starring now-senator, Al Franken). We used Bob to do his Wally Ballou character as a voice over. I got to spend the lunch break with him and then ushered him onto the stage to record his part. I announced to everybody that we had a very special guest in the studio, Bob from Bob & Ray. Most of the crew was young and had no idea who he was. He received a tepid smattering of applause at best. Bob turned to me and said, “Fifty years in show business and it was worth it all for this one moment.” Here’s a photo of me and Bob – this was during the Cosby sweater era. (I now hate him for that too.)

From the ‘50s through the ‘70s Bob & Ray were a mainstay on New York radio and on national radio. During the early days of television they also had a network TV show. And they were spokesmen for several national products. Over the years they appeared on many TV variety shows from ED SULLIVAN to SNL, and even had a Broadway run performing their understated silliness to SRO crowds.

What’s amazing is that even though some of their bits are fifty and sixty years old, they still hold up.

Thanks to the internet, I don’t have to describe their bits. I can let you hear for yourself. Here are just a few of the classic routines from Bob & Ray. As many of you know, I’m a radio freak. And I just revere these gentlemen.

If you would like to read more about Bob & Ray, there is a sensational biography of them called BOB & RAY, KEENER THAN MOST PERSONS by David Pollock.

Here now are some classic, BOB & RAY routines. Especially if you aren’t familiar with them or their brand of humor, I’d love to hear what you think after listening. Thanks.


Jim S said...

Their bits were also funny when just read. I remember being in my college's library and coming across a book with their best routines. One featured a radio interview with a man who was fighting for the heavyweight championship of Connecticut. Just reading that made me laugh out loud.

Now that's funny.

Igor said...

Ken, thanks for this.

BTW, while it is quite fair to say "For my younger readers, he was Chris Elliott’s father," for your actually young readers you could also say he was actress Abby Elliott's grandfather. She was on SNL from 2008-2012.

Rock Golf said...

I'm 58 and I only heard of Bob & Ray from radio shows that played classic comedy, but dear God, what comedy! Most comedy of that era just sounds dated, but their best, like "Slow Talkers of America" can still make me laugh myself sick.
I finally saw them on TV when they did a SNL special with the ladies of the original cast. You can see some of it here:

H Johnson said...

Thanks for that heartfelt reminder. I hadn't heard that he had passed. Bob & Ray were always funny. Any time they played even small bits in sitcoms they always made it better.

And those clips are still funny and surprisingly current.

Thanks again.


Arthur said...

I grew up on Long Island where there was a magical period on WOR where you could listen to Bob and Ray every afternoon and Jean Shepherd every night, which, of course, I did. I started collecting all the compilations I could of Bob and Ray’s material and was struck not just by the volume of material they created but how they were able to maintain such a high standard throughout their long career. They were also great at creating and shifting between multiple memorable characters within a sketch such as in the wonderful soap opera parody “Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife”. After his partner passed away it was great to be able to see him on “Get A Life” with his son. Rest in peace, Mr. Elliot, you will be missed.

Gary West said...

Bob and Ray (pretty much) invented comedy improv. Loved their WOR-AM show in the 1970's. Bob's "50 years in showbiz" line - great! Thanks Ken.

sk85 said...

I am 30 years old. I discovered Bob and Ray via XM radio about 10 years ago. I love there humor. As you said they are masters of timing. I had not heard the Slow Talker bit before and I am glad you posted it. It made me laugh out loud which is something that I do not do very often.

As a side note thanks for running this blog, I have been entertained and educated because of it.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Absolute comic brilliance! To all young people who are interested in doing comedy, study them. Listen to them. Take note of the fact that they were never crude or vulgar. They were subtle and witty...and drop dead funny. Another key word to remember when listening to them: TIMING! Much like Jack Benny who, I'm sure, most younger people have sadly never heard of, Bob & Ray could do more with a pause, and get a bigger laugh, then most so-called comedians with their deliveries of joke after joke.
Two of their most hilarious bits: Slow Talkers of America (talk about timing!) and Wally Ballou doing the most mundane man-on-the-street interview while in the background we hear a woman screaming, gunshots, sirens ... total chaos. The best.
Thanks for all the laughter Bob & Ray. And thanks for leaving us a treasure trove of the best humor I have ever heard!

BA said...

I loved them for a TV special the they did in the late 70s(?) with the SNL women. "IF you want my body AND you think I'm sexy..." Plus, the Mononagahela Iron Foundry spots.

Milton the Momzer said...

It broke my heart when I learned Bob & Ray had a ghostwriter. Some years ago I wrote a Bob & Ray style sketch for them and sent it to their offices in New York's Greybar building (across from the Chrysler Building.) I got a nice note from Bob (or was it Ray?) stating it was a funny sketch, and in their style, "BUT WE WRITE ALL OF OUR OWN MATERIAL." I accepted that, until I read the recent obit for Tom Koch.

Brian said...

They were wonderful!

Bob Elliott said that Chris was funny from a young age. They were visiting Washington, D.C. and Michigan Ave. was clogged with traffic, making crossing the street difficult. Chris looked up at him and said, "Well, Michigan impossible!"

Also, younger readers may remember him from the show "Get a Life!", which, I believe, featured Bob Elliott in his bathrobe in every appearance.

Ryan from Canada said...

I am one of your regular readers who's under 50 and who's never heard of Bob & Ray prior to your post. That being said, the 'Slow Talkers' routine had me in stitches! Interestingly enough... Disney just released a trailer, which you can Google, called 'Zootopia' (look for the Sloth Trailer) which is basically the 'Slow Talkers' bit. I'm not sure who wrote the film, but I'm curious to know if the writers did in fact use the Bob & Ray 'Slow Talkers' bit as inspiration would they have to credit them at all?

Elf said...

I fit in the under-50 category for only a few more weeks, but I've been a Bob and Ray fan since my early teens. The manner in which they could say the most absurd things with such deadpan delivery just struck a chord with me. They never did silly voices or hammered home a punchline.

David S. said...

Thank you for mentioning Tom Koch, who wrote thousands of scripts for Bob and Ray over a thirty-plus year association, working anonymously most of the time. Bob and Ray could and did ad-lib -- prolifically so, but they did have an extremely talented writer in Koch, who wrote most of the best-known routines, including "Slow Talkers of America" and "Komodo Dragon." Tom didn't mind the anonymity. It goes with the territory, after all. (Ask all those writers who turn out material for stand-up comics.) Bob and Ray are still two of the funniest guys you'll ever listen to, and I don't think it takes a thing in the world away from them to acknowledge the very talented gentleman who created so much brilliant material for them.

julian said...

it occurs to me that the seinfeld 'low talker' was probably in part an homage to the 'slow talker'.

haven't heard these guys in awhile. i think cbc radio in canada had a tribute program years back when they re-broadcast some gems.

thanks, ken.

Craig said...

Love Bob and Ray! Genuinely funny stuff.

Interesting about Tom Koch, their writer. Pretty much everything I've ever read about these guys (including things Bob and Ray themselves said) gave the impression that they were just making it all up as they went along

Rich Shealer said...

I was a senior in high school when the Bob & Ray, Jane, Loraine and Gilda special aired. It was an amazing show that is always mentioned when reminiscing about the team. I think I knew of them before that because I liked old time radio tapes and I know I had them on tape at some point.

The three things I remember from the special was the Do You Think I'm Sexy performance, a game show where they wouldn't let the less pretty contestant answer questions and giving the pretty one the benefit of the doubt and lastly a gag concerning a very topical story in the news.

It aired live Saturday night March 31, 1979.

I lived less than ten miles from the cooling towers of Three Mile Island where the Wednesday before there was a radioactive leak and fear of a China Syndrome meltdown at any moment. We were waiting for the announcement to evacuate.

Bob & Ray rolled out a full sized grocery cart full of money and said that it was the First Place prize for naming the new capitol of Pennsylvania. The plant was just a few miles from Harrisburg and thankfully still the capitol.

Unknown said...

I am 50, still have dark hair, but I know of B&R because I follow comedy. Which I get from my father. He would describe their routines (before the interweb), as well as Stan Freeberg routines. That allowed me to appreciate the talent they had.
So that is a lesson, teach your children, so things aren't lost. Remember, children are our future, so be nice to them, they will control the plug keeping you alive some day.

Mark Fearing said...

Mt father introduced them to me when I was kid and I still listen via iTunes often. Such wonderful deadpan wit and subversive and gentle at the same time. One of my favorites and I'm under 50!

gottacook said...

My first encounter with Bob & Ray was in their roles as (respectively) ex-astronaut Bud Williams, Jr., and Walter Gesundheit, who provided live commentary during the launch of a rocket carrying Stony Stevenson (William Hickey) into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, in the public-TV (pre-PBS) hour-long movie Between Time and Timbuktu. I happened to see it around 1975, a few years after the broadcast.

They were hilarious, of course - but there were no writing credits that I've ever been able to find. I once owned a trade paperback of Between Time and Timbuktu - the script plus a good selection of (black-and-white) photos - but the only credit was "based on materials by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." Most of the show, unlike the Bob & Ray material, was a mash-up of scenes and characters from Vonnegut stories and novels. Kevin McCarthy made an amusing Bokonon.

gottacook said...

I just now discovered that Between Time and Timbuktu is available on YouTube - a miserable but adequate recording. The main Bob & Ray segment begins around 2:55.

Harold X said...

Enough talk about the SNL appearance: here it is/.

Mike Danner said...

These are really funny...I particularly liked the Slow Talker bit. As Ryan from Canada mentioned earlier, that bit is basically re-done in the new movie "Zootopia". Here's a link to that trailer:

It's probably the funniest trailer I've seen in years, and it's very interesting to find out that it's basically copied and pasted from that Bob and Ray bit! I'm definitely going to check out more of their stuff. Thanks for sharing, Ken!!!

J Lee said...

If you were a kid in New York and other parts of the northeast in the 1950s and 60s, you first came upon Bob and Ray through their animated counterparts, Bert and Harry in the Piels Beer commercials. There are tons of them posted online -- here's 7 1/2 minutes worth:

Pat Reeder said...

Two of my all-time comedy gods. Having come out of radio, my friend George Gimarc and I have amassed thousands of hours of Bob & Ray from many sources, including carting off libraries full of syndicated bits that various stations were throwing out. The ones you posted are the most famous (I fall over laughing every time I hear the line in the paperclip sketch: "Well, we don't pry into our employees' personal lives...") But anything by them is worth hearing, and there are countless hours available online as free downloads, albeit in varying degrees of sound quality. Try to find what I think is both the funniest and most aggressively pointless sketch in history, "Matt Neffer: Boy Spot-Welding King of the Universe."

Another thing I loved about them was that they created such vivid characters that they could subtly play with reality. For instance, when Ray was playing a man being interviewed by Bob, he might say, "Well, Ray..." and Bob would correct him ("No, I'm Bob"). It would seem perfectly natural, even though the screwy sub-text was that Ray, like a casual listener, had just mistaken Bob for himself.

I've been listening to some of my vast collection ever since news came of Bob's death and happened across one of their CBS radio 15-minute broadcasts I'd never heard before. They did a typical show while deconstructing the whole concept of their show. Whenever Bob would say, "--ly Ballou here," Ray would reply, "No, you're not, you're Bob," then their various characters would start arguing over whether it was dishonest to create a theatrical illusion, all while reminding the audience that they weren't real people. It was a regular show, except with asides like, "Let's go into the studio audience, although there's really no one here," or "Pardon me, while I pull up this chair, which is actually just a sound effect off a record." It was incredibly brilliant and surreal, while still being hilariously funny, something that a lot of performance artists and alternative comics try and fail to pull off.

Katherine @ Grass Stains said...

My dad posted the Slow Talker bit on Facebook when Bob died, and I loved it. Thanks for sharing your memories with us today. :-)

Pizzagod said...

My wife is younger, she doesn't know who they are (I asked and she said some morning team? Arggghhh! That's Bob and Tom, damn it!

But I'm a fan. I've always been a fan. I remember the chocolate wobblies, and the Piel beer commercials.

Gentle, funny humor like theirs will never be seen again-thank you so much for this lovely memoriam.

Jean said...

On one of their 1970s TONIGHT SHOW appearances to which I have the audio, Bob and Ray talk about basically being "radio guys," and how back in the '50s they'd done some shows for television but never really felt at home in that medium. They were used to radio, where it was pretty much just the two of them, goofing around and doing whatever they wanted. They talked about how, doing television shows, they often felt like they were lost amid all the glitz and production, and stifled by television's antipathy toward spontaneity. Everything had to be carefully planned and rehearsed and written out.

D. McEwan said...

Always loved Bob & Ray. I still have the Broadway album on vinyl. I used to have the published book of their sketches, but it has vanished sometime over the years.

When I was working with Lohman & Barkley at KFI, Al Lohman told me that when he and Roger Barkley first teamed up, they were sent by the station they worked for, to NYC to observe Bob & Ray doing their show. Al told me that all he really took away from the experience was that Bob & Ray did their radio show standing up, so Al & Rog did their show standing up --- for a while, until Al got tired of standing.

But Al was being a tad disingenuous. The influence of Bob & Ray on Lohman & Barkley was unmistakable, though Al Lohman was an authentic comic genius on his own, worthy of B&R.

Ken Seaholm said...

Tom Koch was a hugely talented comedy writer. According to the book "Bob and Ray and Tom" he was responsible for routines such as Anxiety and Garish Summit (among many others) while Bob and Ray wrote Slow Talker and Komodo Dragon (also among many others). Mr. Koch is acknowledged on the Bob & Ray CD's released in recent years, but he is still sort of an unsung hero among fans and I'm glad he's getting some delayed recognition.

mbk said...

I'm a long-time fan of Bob and Ray (being about your age, Ken). To add to all the bits you mentioned, I remember one time when they were on Carson's Tonight Show and, as celebrity chefs, proceeded to teach the audience how to make a bologna sandwich.

As for " Ballou", wasn't it really that Bob was coming in a split-second early, rather than late? (Or that the guy on the sound board was throwing it to him late.)

In tribute, when I dropped my 4-year-old granddaughter off at daycare the other day, after the usual "Bye-bye, Bailey", I added "Write if you get work"!

You'll be missed, B&R.

Buttermilk Sky said...

They also did PS spots for the United States mint ("Currency -- use some today!") and a character known as The Worst Person in the World who was based on Senator Joe McCarthy, later "borrowed" by Keith Olbermann. Bob and Ray played network news anchors in Norman Lear's underrated movie COLD TURKEY. Check it out.

alan0825 said...

Thanks so much, Ken. I came across the guys mostly from The Tonight Show (I'm from the Midwest)so I missed a lot of the radio shows at the time. I had the LP of The Two and Only and eventually lost it, but picked it up on Cd about a year ago. Always great material. You were right about the Pollock book-it's fantastic. I finished it 2 days after Bob passed and now I'm on a crusade to find as many of the recordings or transcripts of their routines as possible. Once again, thanks for the post and for your blog, which I read every night.

Johnny Walker said...

It's strange that Bob & Ray's popularity shrank when their stuff still works for a modern audience and they were clearly so funny. I'd only heard of them recently, but immediately thought they were great. I get the feeling they just were behind the 60s culturally, and so got stuck looking old fashioned for a long time. It's nice that their stuff is online for people to enjoy now. I just wish there was more of it!

Johnny Walker said...

That SNL clip puts an end to my theory! Funny stuff, thanks for sharing it!

I wonder if it's because they didn't star in any movies?

Barry Traylor said...

I remember them well and always thought they were just so darn funny. I still love their type of humor.

Richard said...


Tudor Queen said...

My former husband had a number of good points, and one of them was that he introduced me to Bob and Ray. I know Slow Talkers is considered their high point by many people, but I loved their soap opera parody, and I have always had a soft spot for their "House of Toast" commercial.

Ray passed on a lot of comic ability to Chris, but to me Bob and Ray were sui generis, and funnier on an off day than a lot of comedians are on a good one.

Tim said...

Ken, here's a Friday question: Can you talk a little bit about the technique behind directing a multi-cam sitcom? I've directed short films, as well as live events like talk shows and news. Does multi-cam fall somewhere between the two as far as the director's role goes?

Mark Murphy said...

Ken: Thanks for recommending the Bob and Ray book. On your say-so I ordered it, then read it with near-lightning speed. It's wonderful.

The story you tell about directing Bob Elliott on LATELINE is pretty funny, but you didn't tell a related story from the book, about how some young nabob asked for a retake, saying Wally Ballou should sound more nasal, and you stood up to him, saying you weren't about to tell Bob Elliott how to play Wally Ballou.

Good for you.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Klinger's change to regulation clothing, I thought there was an episode in which Colonel Potter offered him the corporal's job if he changed his attitude and started dressing differently.

Bob Mills said...

I'm 76 years old, and I grew up with Bob & Ray in the 1950s. In fact, several of my school-age friends and I acted out Mary Backstayge episodes for anyone who cared to listen. The best skit for me was "The Gathering Dusk." Here's an edited version.

"As we enter the Bessinger household today, Edna is still bedridden. The city pound director, Mr. Ignoble, is just entering. And we hear..."

"Oh it's you, City Pound Director Ignoble. Thank you for answering my urgent call."

"Well, from the tone of your voice I could tell it was urgent. Have you caught some rare disease from a stray dog?"

"No, nothing like that, City Pound Director Ignoble. The last dog I had was 20 years ago. He belonged to my daddy, but daddy got sent off to the clink on a phony embezzlement charge, so I had to adopt him.

"Well, your father was guilty as sin, Miss Bessinger. He was caught with $40,000. in cash from the company till. But I'm sure you didn't call me out here to plead your corrupt father's case after all these years."

"No, I didn't, City Pound Director Ignoble. The neighborhood has been invaded by strange red birds. I can't sleep at night."

"Miss Bessinger, I think you're talking about those flamingo statues on your neighbor's lawn. They aren't real birds."

"My stars, I do believe you're right, City Pound Director Ignoble. This is such a relief. I almost feel as if I'm no longer standing in , "The Gathering Dusk."

(music fades out)

Bob Mills said...

"The Gathering Dusk" was Bob & Ray's best. Here's how I remember one episode.

"As we look in on the Bessinger household today, Edna is still bedridden. The City Pound Director, Mr. Ignoble, is just entering.

(Ray's voice) "Oh, it's you, City Pound Director Ignoble. Thank you for responding to my urgent call."

(Bob's voice) "Well, Miss Bessinger, you certainly sounded frantic. Has a stray dog attacked you?"

"No, City Pound Director Ignoble. I had a dog once. It belonged to my daddy, who had to give it up because he was sent to the slammer on a phony embezzlement charge."

"Your father was guilty as sin, Miss Bessinger. They caught him with $40,000. in cold cash. But I don't suppose you called me out here to plead your father's case."

"No, I didn't, City Pound Director Ignoble. This neighborhood has been invaded by wild red birds. I'm scared to death."

"Miss Bessinger, I think you mean those flamingo statues on your neighbor's lawn. I assure you they aren't real birds."

"My stars, I do believe you're right, City Pound Director Ignoble. What a relief this is. I almost feel as if I'm no longer standing in "The Gathering Dusk." (music fades)