Though American to the core, Bob and Ray practiced what is widely regarded as a specialty of British humor: deadpan silliness. Take an example from their faux-show “John J. Agony’s Bad Will Hour.” A guest being interviewed starts out by saying, “I came to the city six-months ago with my life savings in a pillow case. . . .” “Hold on!” interrupts John J. Agony. “Let me see if I have your story straight to this point.” That exchange, and heaps more zaniness, took place between Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, the subjects of David Pollock’s admiring dual biography, “Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Persons.”
Although they appeared on television (notably as frequent guests of Johnny Carson) and had a Broadway hit with “Bob and Ray: The Two and Only,” they were born to cavort on radio. Having grown up with the medium, they drew some of their biggest laughs by spoofing it. John J. Agony was based on a real program that featured a certain John J. Anthony giving advice to one sad-sack guest after another, and the first subtitle of Pollock’s book comes from Bob and Ray’s parody of a show called, improbably, “Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.”
Their joint debut on a local station in Boston came about by accident in 1946. Right away, they settled into the kind of creative rapport that can’t be earned or learned — it just happens. They explained their longevity by simply saying, “Well, we made each other laugh.” The result was a 40-year run that survived a move to New York City in 1951, flourished with national exposure on both radio and TV, and outlasted the partnerships of Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis.
Bob Elliott (who recently turned 90), the smaller and less assuming of the two, played one of the team’s enduring characters, Wally Ballou, an on-the-air reporter whose contributions tended to begin midstream and end prematurely — supposedly because of inept techies, but in fact Elliott would start with “allou” and eventually cut himself off. In time, family members came along: Wally’s wife, Hulla Ballou, and his child, Little Boy Ballou. Ray Goulding (1922-1990) was a big, bumptious fellow who alternated between using his naturally deep voice for male characters and his falsetto for women. Some of what listeners heard from “the boys” was impromptu (often, the sound-effects guy would surprise them by throwing in a sudden noise, inspiring them to scamper off in a new direction), but they usually relied on scripts, many of them supplied by Tom Koch. Koch, who worked from home in St. Louis and then California, rarely set eyes on Bob or Ray.
Some ideas went unrealized. The world is a worse place because NBC-TV nixed “The Kertencalls, an animated version of Mary Backstayge” — a sendup of the radio soap opera “Mary Noble, Backstage Wife” — “involving ‘fleebus,’ the mysterious disease that causes its victims to walk as if they were sitting down.” Many other brainstorms, blessedly, were aired, among them “The Gathering Dusk,” the ongoing saga of Edna Bessinger (Ray, of course), a confused Midwest spinster who encountered misfortune ‘by hunting for it where others have failed to look.’ ” Not the least of Edna’s misfortunes was to live in egregiously named Red Boiling Springs (there actually is such a burg, in Tennessee), where she was victimized by her own “chronic, unwarranted assumptions” — at least until the town’s long-suffering authorities straightened her out, giving her the opportunity to declare, “Oh my stars! It’s as if I’m no longer standing in The Gathering Dusk.”
Pollock doesn’t say so, but some of this material presages Monty Python and Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella. Pollock cites other entertainers, though — from Woody Allen and Bob Newhart to Harry Shearer— as fans or followers of B&R. Pollock also highlights the path-breaking nature of their cartoon-commercials for Piels Beer in the 1950s, in which they won over drinkers by kidding the product, an approach that ushered in a new era of American advertising.
Pollock may spend too much time on the boys’ private lives (I’d be happy to stipulate that they were pretty great dads in return for more excerpts from their broadcasts), and he gets the title of an early radio and TV serial wrong: It was “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” not “Rocky Corbett.” But otherwise, his research is impressive, and he sprinkles in enough quotes from Bob and Ray’s routines to keep the reader yukking. Sometimes, all it takes is the title of an imaginary production: the musical comedy “The Zachary Taylor Story,” the action-adventure show “Bullets Never Kiss,” the game show “Ladies Grab Your Seats.”
And then there were the boys’ unforgettable signoffs:
“This is Ray Goulding, reminding you to write if you get work.”
“And Bob Elliott, reminding you to hang by your thumbs.”
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
BOB AND RAY
Keener Than Most Persons
The Backstayge Story of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding
By David Pollock
Applause. 318 pp. $27.99