Splitsider

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Revisiting the Long Careers of Bob and Ray

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Odds are, you've heard of Bob and Ray before. Though their names probably haven't reached the level of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello in the American cultural reference guide under the heading of "two man comedy teams," their legacy and influence continues to this day. Bob Elliott (father of Chris Elliott) and his partner Ray Goulding had a lifelong career on radio, starting in 1946 where they met at WHDH in Boston and ending in 1987 on National Pubic Radio when they retired the partnership. Throughout their very long careers, however, Bob and Ray also appeared on a variety of television shows, including a few that they hosted themselves. Today we're going to take a look at their very first one from 1951, but before we get into that, let's talk a bit about Bob and Ray and their dynamic.

The thing that is perhaps most striking about the style of Bob and Ray is how at home it feels with a lot of modern comedy. The pair did do a lot of specific parodies, so there are a lot of soap opera and hard-boiled detective pastiches that maybe aren't the most relevant things anymore, but the main thing they did was satirize whatever medium it was that they were on. And the thing about that is… radio and television hasn't really changed that much in it's basic structures. When Bob and Ray were on the radio their sketches involved a lot of interviews with the man on the street about the latest news event, or a local expert on a relevant issue. When they were on television they made fun of how difficult it was to make educational material entertaining or the clichés of drama's cliffhangers. Their tone could fluctuate from the driest of the dry to the silliest scene imaginable, but it all fit into the world that they had created, under the big marquee of the Bob and Ray show.

In the early days of television, the three national networks, NBC, CBS and the DuMont Network, were willing to try a lot of different things in order to find the thing that would stick. As one simple example, J. Fred Muggs was an early co-host of NBC's Today show who also happened to be a chimpanzee. One less stupid move that was tested during this time was to program shows into timeslots smaller than the 60 minute or 30 minute slots that we generally have today, in 15 minute increments. The original program, Bob and Ray premiered on November 26, 1951 on NBC at 7:15PM in one of these 15-minute slots and aired until 1953.

The Paley Center has two of these episodes in its collection and from what I was able to see, they seem to follow the same pattern each time. The show begins with a one-off sketch of some kind. In the first episode I watched, this featured Bob and Ray as the inventors of the “emotional cash register” for lonely storeowners. The cash register reacts to the day’s receipts as they’re typed in with excited “oohs! for high priced items and grumbles for the cheaper items. As the sketch continues, the reactions get more and more specific as, for example, a special order foundation garment, size 48, is rung up. Suddenly the cash register has a female voice. “Size what?” Bob repeats “48.” “Oh, brother,” says the cash register.

One of the neatest things about the Bob and Ray show that I didn't realize going in was that besides the announcer, Bob and Ray, the only other cast member was Audrey Meadows, who would later go on to play Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners. This was her very first television role, but you really can't tell. She feels totally natural and is able to improvise right along with the boys throughout. In the second episode in the archives, the first sketch is a satire of industrial training films called “So, You Want to Be a Smelter.” In it, John (Bob) and Jane (Audrey) are in front of a blast furnace, shoveling molten pig iron in. Throughout the scene the characters try very hard to shoehorn in many specifics about the iron smelting industry while trying to keep things interesting with a shoehorned in soap opera romance between the two. For example, there is this exchange: “John, did you know that in 1919 pig iron production dropped to 1,015,630 tons, but rose to 36,295,896 tons in 1920?” “Jane…I love you!”

The final segment of each episode seems to be a serialized storyline that continues from day to day, which was pretty common practice on television shows of the day. After all, it’s a great way to get people to tune in the next day if they get invested in a storyline. However, when you’re watching two non-sequential episodes without any way of ever getting to see any other episode of the series, it does make it a little difficult to A.) figure out what’s going on or B.) get invested in the plot. The first episode in the archive is actually the last episode of an ongoing serial entitled “The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely” which was a parody of the soap operas of the day. The final episode of this serial, for a little while at least, featured private eye Wynn Wingage visiting a hospital to learn that the entire Lovely family had been in an accident, and as a result would need to stay there for a long while, so we’ll have to say goodbye to them for the next six months. But not to worry, we have “Hatford Harry: Private Eye” to replace them! The second episode features a scene from the middle of the Hatford Harry saga, and quite frankly, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. Two villains were hiding out in a country home, on the run from Hatford Harry, but anything more than that I couldn’t say. As I said above, these segments kind of needed to be watched every single day.

Throughout both of the episodes there is a definite charm to their quality. These are clearly very low budget, and there are constant production mistakes like microphones not being turned on, video fading at strange time, and music cues being dropped. But that’s kind of what makes it fun; Bob and Ray was slapdash and seemingly off-the-cuff, but consistently entertaining, and if you didn’t like what they were doing, they’d be doing something different in a few minutes (and if you didn’t like any of it, it’d be over in 15.). Long after this TV show, Bob and Ray continued to make comedy together until Goulding’s death in 1990. Bob continued on his own appearing on his son Chris Elliott’s show, Get a Life as well as the occasional guest appearance on a wide variety of programs since then. Though they have influenced many, there truly is no compare for the two, the only Bob and Ray.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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  • Kenneth Toilet Hole

    Thanks for sharing some history on Bob Elliott's comedy career! I enjoyed Bob's work with Chris in Get A Life and their book, Daddy's Boy, and have long wondered how his wry sensibilities developed.

  • Old_Dragoon

    National Pubic Radio? I am studiously avoiding any of the obvious comments that I could make. Reluctantly.

  • Rob

    I may be the only one here who actually listened to Bob and Ray as a kid. They had the afternoon drive time slot on WOR and delivered FOUR HOURS of solid sketch comedy every day. Not all of their stuff holds up, but some of it is pretty damn good, and it has a very modern, semi-absurdist sensibility. Years later when I did sketch comedy every now and then people would come up with an idea that would remind me of something Bob and Ray did many years prior. (They did it for so many years, with so many sketches a day, and ran through A LOT of premises.) Anyway, if you want to check them out, go to archive.org, and they have plenty of their old radio sketches, all free. And they decently represented at Youtube as well.

    • BonzoGal

      @Rob: Take heart, you're not the only one! My parents had some Bob & Ray LPs, and I also heard them on the Dr. Demento show once in a while. "Slow Talkers of America" still makes me laugh.

    • Jerome Horowitz

      Archive.org indicates over 250,000 downloads of Bob and Ray, so, no, you are not alone.
      And, yes, I listened to them when they were on WOR.