Valete Bob and Ray

In the NYT yesterday, “Bob Elliott, Half of the Deadpan Bob and Ray Comedy Team, Dies at 92” by Peter Keepnews & Richard Severo (with a companion piece, “Recalling Bob and Ray, Who Paved the Way for Today’s Deadpan Humor” by Jason Zinoman):

Bob Elliott, who as half of the comedy team Bob and Ray purveyed a distinctively low-key brand of humor on radio and television for more than 40 years, died on Tuesday at his home in Cundy’s Harbor, Me. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his son Chris Elliott, the actor and comedian, who said his father had had throat cancer.

Mr. Elliott and his partner, Ray Goulding — Bob was the more soft-spoken one, Ray the deep-voiced and more often blustery one — were unusual among two-person comedy teams. Rather than one of them always playing it straight and the other handling the jokes, they took turns being the straight man.

The pair early in their career:

Together they specialized in debunking gasbags, political airheads, no-talent entrepreneurs and Madison Avenue hypemasters. Their weapon was not caustic satire but wry understatement.

A typical bit of theirs was called “The Bob and Ray Overstocked Warehouse,” in which Mr. Elliott announced, deadpan: “We have 124 full cases of canned corned beef, which are clearly stamped ‘San Juan Hill, 1898.’ If you do not find this corned beef all you had hoped it would be, just leave word with the executor of your estate to return the remaining unopened cans to us.”

Perhaps the most enduring, and endearing, character they created was Mr. Elliott’s mild-mannered but indefatigable radio reporter, Wally Ballou.

Wally, whose reports always began a split-second late (“…ly Ballou here”), was a self-promoter, but a modest one — he was known to introduce himself as “radio’s highly regarded Wally Ballou, winner of over seven international diction awards.” His interview subjects (all played by Mr. Goulding, of course) had even more to be modest about than he did. They included a farmer who was plagued with bad luck, even though his crop consisted of four-leaf clovers, and the owner of a paper-clip factory whose idea of efficiency was paying his workers 14 cents a week.

Almost all their characters were disconnected from reality to some degree by their obsessions, or even outright delusions. Yet Bob and Ray treated them with gentle, absurdist humor.

From Zinoman’s piece, another example:

At the opening of a show in his first year as a late-night host, David Letterman told his audience about a quick way to find out if someone has a good sense of humor: “If they like Bob and Ray, they’re O.K.”

The comedy team of Bob Elliott, who died on Tuesday at age 92, and Ray Goulding, who died in 1990, were an ideal litmus test because their humor was so ingeniously subtle and low-key that less discerning listeners could easily miss the joke. Together for more than 40 years (1946 to 1987), their slow-burn silliness drew explosive laughs not through jackhammer punch lines, but with long pauses, unorthodox word choices and a total commitment to characters.

On radio and television, their sly routines had none of the conventional show-business slickness, and they played to each other more than to the crowd. Stealth surrealists, they created deadpan exchanges that proved that comics could be hilarious without leaning heavily on jokes, making them the godfathers of a wide swath of alternative comedy.

In their satirical focus on the absurdities of the media, Bob and Ray were also a forebear to “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live.”

… A skilled ad-libber, Mr. Elliott delighted in the silliness of certain words and the power of repetition. In a bit from their 1970 Broadway production, “Bob and Ray: The Two and Only,” he plays a ridiculously dull expert on Komodo dragons who is interviewed by a man so disengaged that he keeps asking the same questions. Mr. Elliott gamely fields every one, moving around the clauses, to relay the same bland recitation of facts.

Quickly, a tedious interview becomes an exhausting micro-version of the movie “Groundhog Day” in which after every question, the interview begins again. “The Komodo dragon, world’s largest living lizard,” Mr. Elliott says wearily, “is found on the island of Komodo.”

The Komodo Dragon piece is one of my great favorites. You can watch it here. And here’s a 11/30/09 posting about it, A lovely feature is that both participants are out of touch: the interviewee is, as Zinoman wrote, ridiculously dull in his obsession with the creatures, and the interviewer so far from engaged with his subject that he keeps asking the expert about facts the expert has just given him; apparently, he’s not listening at all.

Then there’s the “House of Toast” sketch, which I posted about in “The House of X formula” on 8/12/10 and in “Ziegler on toast” on 10/28/12.

There’s more, oh so much more. I’ve enjoyed them from childhood and still get to enjoy them via their recordings, and on the radio Saturday mornings on the Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show from KFJC

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