Robert Brackett Elliott, the Bob of Bob and Ray, died last month. Ray Goulding died more than two decades ago. Bob’s passing can’t really be called the end of an era, because Bob and Ray belonged to the era of radio, which was already on its way out when their long career began in the late 1940s. Bob and Ray had, among other gigs, a TV series, a Broadway show (The Two and Only), and a farewell at Carnegie Hall (“A Night of Two Stars”), but their genius was for creating a world, slightly off kilter and gently surreal, using just the purity and intimacy of two voices.
Bob and Ray entered my world through the Mad magazine of the late 1950s and early ’60s;Mad was not only a humor magazine but, at the time, funny. Its sensibility was Borscht Belt hipster, big on the Beats and full of Yiddish slang, and it seemed to an Italian Catholic in junior high school in upstate New York the epitome of cool. Mad was filled with parodies of things often unknown to me, and so it offered a reverse-Platonic view of the world: Reality, the ideal Form, was a parody, and the thing it mocked only an imperfect copy. For a brief time, Mad published adaptations of Bob and Ray routines in the form of cartoon strips, inking lots of mugging into the background of each panel.
The real thing turned out to be much better. It began, says the Bob and Ray website, when the two were working at a Boston radio station and improvising sketches to fill air time during Red Sox rain delays. Popular demand soon got them a show of their own, which eventually evolved, three minutes at a time, into a world. It was peopled with a large cast of characters, including the indefatigable though inept newsman Wally Ballou, “winner of over seven international diction awards.” A mistimed entry always cut off the opening of his broadcast, which would begin: “—ly Ballou.” Bob and Ray world had its own radio programs (sports and news; soap operas such as Garish Summit, Search for Togetherness, and The Gathering Dusk; and features such as You and Your Symptoms); and these were supported by loyal advertisers, including Height Watchers International and the Monongahela Metal Foundry, which manufactured “steel ingots cast with the housewife in mind.”
Their most famous routine is Ray’s interview with the president of STOA, the Slow Talkers of America. Bob plays Harlowe P. Whitcomb, who separates the words of every utterance with painfully lengthy pauses. Ray grows increasingly anxious and impatient, and interrupts with attempts to finish Whitcomb’s sentences, but no power can deter the unflappable slow talker from completing any thought he has ever begun. The sketch steadily builds, trapping Ray in a comic hell that seems to have no exit as he desperately tries to bring an end to one of Whitcomb’s monologues. A fragment:
. . .
Whitcomb: . . . All . . . two hundred . . .
Whitcomb: . . . and fifty . . .
Whitcomb: . . . seven . . . members . . . speaking . . .
Whitcomb: . . . slowly. . . . As opposed . . . to the members . . . of the . . . F . . .
Whitcomb: . . . T . . .
Whitcomb: . . . O . . .
Whitcomb: The Fast . . .
Ray: Talkers of America! . . .
This paralyzingly funny sketch contains not a single “joke” — not a line that, in isolation, could so much as raise a smile. It is the archetypal Bob and Ray routine: Construct a premise from some small piece of pedantry or pomposity or cluelessness or oddity, and push it, deadpan, to absurdity. Their universe is made of ordinary things that are slightly out of place. (Bob’s son, Chris Elliott, became known for absurdist jokeless comedy on the Letterman show by portraying, among others, “The Guy under the Seats,” “The Panicky Guy,” and Marlon Brandon doing “the banana dance.”)
There’s a lot of Bob and Ray, and it’s not all gold; but when the two are in top form, there is a sheer rightness to every word. “Brilliant” isn’t quite apt, because the writing is never showy. “Felicitous” seems fitting. There’s no sweaty straining to (as comics say) kill. Listening to them is like watching a tennis player with great touch.
When sampling Bob and Ray world it’s hard to avoid gorging: There’s the restaurant franchise called The House of Toast. Einbinder Flypaper, “the flypaper that’s always in good taste,” is a major advertiser; it’s “the brand you’ve gradually grown to trust for three generations.” (That “gradually” could be the basis of a dissertation.) The practical tips of home-economics expert Mary McGoon include her recipe for frozen-ginger-ale salad. The host of Berne Voyle’s Vanishing World of Vanishing Animals narrates his travels portentously: “We plied our way through the dense rain forest that the natives have long referred to in their native tongue.” A contestant in the Bob and Ray spelling bee fails on the word “paleolithic” with “p-a-l-e-o-l-i-t-h-i- . . . m.” Wasting Time Magazine interviews Mulford B. Thaxter, leader in the field of “collecting numbers from places where they ask you to take a number.” The female lead in The Gathering Dusk, Edna Bessinger, is “a girl who’s found unhappiness by hunting for it where others have failed to look.”
A popular half-truth proclaims that comedy necessarily threatens or offends, and much current comedy, or would-be comedy, trades in shock, outrage, and excess a kind of gigantism that seems cognate with, if not derived from, the ever more frantic commotion of action movies and their special effects. Excess is not necessarily unfunny, but freakishness is alienating, and the sublime goofiness of frozen-ginger-ale salad exists in another universe, out of reach.
There are comic geniuses whose currency is delight. Their world is a kind of home. Bob and Ray world is a skewed version of the one we actually live in; its non sequiturs and shaggy-dog stories and reality-challenged characters are oddities on a human scale. It contains nothing sentimental, but after an assault from some laff riot at the megaplex, a visit there feels cleansing.
Every year, my father, who cared nothing for baseball or any sport other than bowling (if that’s a sport), would take the family on an epic one-day car trip to and from a game at Yankee Stadium. The drive back along the Thruway felt endless, and we mainly wanted it to be over. Passing a radio station we might pick up The Lone Ranger or Have Gun — Will Travel and be temporarily distracted by the novelty of hearing on radio a show we knew only from TV. But it never stayed in range long enough to finish a story. A Bob and Ray sketch offered a satisfying whole in a few minutes. Hearing one of those could feel like reaching home.
– David Guaspari is a writer and lapsed mathematician in Ithaca, N.Y. His nontechnical works have appeared in Commentary,The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and literary journals, and in theaters throughout the country.