As the team of Bob and Ray were on the air, either on radio or television for 44 years, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding had an immeasurable impact on generations of fans and peers. That is, if you accept the idea they had any peers.
Unlike other comedy teams of their era, Bob and Ray didn’t come to prominence through vaudeville or Hollywood circuits. Their wry, dry, deadpan and incongruous routines were born on radio, crafted for radio in the late 1940’s, and were essentially unchanged when they began appearing on television in the 1950s. Many of their parodies played with broadcasting itself, mocking sports announcers, man on the street interviews, soap operas, and commercials. They were intentionally far from slick, often improvising and ad libbing their lines. Such a team has long deserved a credible history that looks behind the curtains the pair kept tightly closed for all those years.
Thankfully, David Pollock’s Bob and Ray, Keener than Most Persons: The Backstayge Story of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding is a welcome, authoritative biography of this team that chronicles their career with almost day-by-day detail. Drawing from interviews with Elliott and Goulding’s widow, Liz, along with many who knew the team or were inspired by them, Pollock successfully traces a story that involves a plethora of radio series on different networks in various formats, their many performances on television, a handful of movie roles, and their hit Broadway show, Bob and Ray—The Two and Only.
Along the way, Pollock shares the origins of the team’s best-known bits such as “Mary Backstayge, Noble Housewife,” “Mr. Trace, Keener than Most Persons,” and the interviews conducted by the nonplussed and inept news reporter, Wally Ballou. In the main, Bob and Ray were responsible for much of their own material, although writers such as Tom Koch were eventually brought in when they were able to capture the unique sensibilities of Bob and Ray. While Elliott and Goulding provided the voices for most of their characters, noteworthy figures, as it were, like Audrey Meadows and Cloris Leachman added a feminine presence on the NBC television broadcasts. Many of their characters were recycled and sometimes updated on various programs until 1987 when Goulding had to retire due to failing health before his death on March 24, 1990.
The most surprising aspect of the team’s success was their longevity. Once, they lampooned celebrities like Arthur Godfrey and Mary Margaret McBride, personalities now long forgotten. By the time Bob and Ray appeared on shows like Saturday Night Live and SCTV, they had long, long outlasted fellow comic teams like Martin and Lewis, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello.
Blended in with the history of the two men, their personal lives, and indeed the history of American broadcasting itself, Pollock’s insights help remind us why Bob and Ray deserved their ongoing success. While some sketches were topical and reflected the times in which they were created, other bits are just as funny today as when they first debuted. Take, for example, the “Slow Talkers of America” and the mock interviews regarding the importance of Komodo dragons. No wonder comics like Harry Shearer and Jerry Seinfeld point to Bob and Ray as inspirations for their own turns in the comedy spotlight.
Speaking of currently famous comics, I’m usually unimpressed with celebrity introductions that normally don’t provide much of interest to such books. David Letterman’s short joke fest here is a case in point. However, I felt a bit forgiving this time around as, for many folks living today, Bob and Ray may be dimly remembered entertainment or only as once famous names Useful in trivia games. If Letterman’s pages inspire potential readers to try out this volume, then they did their job.
In the end, interest in this book will reside mainly with readers who are likely already familiar with Bob and Ray or are curious about entertainment and broadcast history. It’s easily a tome appropriate for both general and academic libraries. Radio was once king, and the kings of radio deserve long after-lives.