Today’s the 92nd birthday of the great Bob Elliott of radio duo Bob and Ray, one of the few comedians whose work I truly value. Kings of absurdity, Bob [at right in the photo] and Ray [Goulding, who passed away in 1990] mined much of their observational, character-based humor from the mundane, like a radio serial in which the story never progresses because the characters spend all their time walking around the house to catch up with one another, or the “Where are they now?” expert who specializes not in former celebrities but in obscure figures like the man who invented the clip that holds a menu upright on the table in a diner.
The conventions of the media were a frequent target; Bob and Ray satirized other popular radio shows and tropes, man-on-the-street interviews, roving reporters in search of human interest stories, talking head punditry and commercial sponsors, and somehow managed to create something timeless while mocking the contemporaneous. While the shows and personalities they lampooned are largely forgotten, Bob and Ray’s routines remain funny and evergreen today; removed from context, they stand as little dada masterpieces that highlight—without ever being mean-spirited—human characteristics that never go out of style: greed, narcissism, aspiration, disregard, ignorance, deception, perseverance, hubris, and general foolishness.
Being a bit too young for the golden days of radio comedy, I discovered Bob and Ray through their public radio show in the ’80s. Having honed their craft for 40 years by that point, they’d achieved a mastery of appearing entirely conversational when in fact much of their material—even moments when one appears to catch the other off guard with an unexpected turn, eliciting a chuckle—was meticulously scripted to seem off-the-cuff.
Today the Bob and Ray torch is kept alive by Larry Josephson, who produced and developed their public radio show and maintains a site devoted to their work, collections of which can be purchased from there as well as all the usual places like Amazon and iTunes. And of course Bob’s comedic legacy is carried on by son and well-known comedic actor Chris Elliott, and Chris’s daughters, Saturday Night Live alum Abby and comedian Bridey Lee.
As a tribute, here’s a nearly-hour-long ‘best of’ mix of some of my favorite Bob and Ray routines, culled from over 24 hours worth of shows I taped off the radio in the ’80s (which accounts for the varying sound quality). The first voice you’ll hear is Ray’s.
Happy birthday, Mr. Elliott, and keep hanging by your thumbs.
The mix includes:
- Harlow P. Whitcomb, President and Recording Secretary of the Slow Talkers of America
- Tippy, The Wonder Dog: cattle stampede [begins 2:43]
- Elmer W. Litzinger, Spy: investigating a secret airstrip [begins 7:09]
- Wally Ballou reports from the Transatlantic Bridge [begins 11:05]
- Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelder: between jobs [begins 14:55]
- Fred Falvy, The Do-It-Yourselfer: making a pair of shoes [begins at 18:11]
- Music Time with Buddy Blodgett: Lloyd Fletch and his All-Male Orchestra, in the Skyline Room of the Historic Frimmler Hotel in Evansville, IN [begins 23:35]
- Wally Ballou reports from the Garden State School for Parking Lot Attendants in Bayonne, NJ [begins 29:37]
- The Secret Heart of Sayville [begins 33:23]
- Civil Court: Speed Malwick vs. Wilma Satchel over a sunken race car [begins 37:58]
- Dr. Daryl Dexter, Komodo Dragon Expert [begins 42:36]
- A Word on Behalf of the Monongahela Metal Foundry [begins 45:13]
- One Fella’s Family: going like 60 [begins 45:56]
- Hubert R. Gruber, Memory Expert [begins 48:50]
- Wally Ballou interviews Ward Smith, cranberry grower / Outro [begins 51:38]
As a bonus, here’s Beatrice Kay singing the original version of “Mention My Name In Sheboygan”, an instrumental version of which Bob and Ray long used under their show’s closing credits. I’d never heard the lyrics until I decided to write this post.