Usually I write about film-related subjects, but I just
spent a happy weekend devouring David Pollock’s biography Bob
and Ray: Keener Than Most Persons (Applause Books) and feel
impelled to spread the word about this wonderful and exceptionally well-written
book. An Emmy Award-winning comedy writer (with his longtime partner Elias
Davis), Pollock clearly spent a great deal of time preparing this thorough and empathetic
volume, which not only charts the durable careers of Bob Elliott and Ray
Goulding but paints a vivid picture of the broadcasting world in which they
thrived—first in Boston, then in New York, and across the country in the waning
days of network radio.
As Pollock puts it so well, “By network radio comedy conventions of the day, Bob and Ray were game-changers. Without a studio audience present, it fell to the listener to determine what was funny. Each was being let in on one big private joke between these two new, often overlapping voices, which suddenly could become three, four and five voices, all bouncing off one another from every direction. It was like entering a house of mirrors for the ears. You had to pay attention. The satirical bits came and went throughout each program. You either got them, or you didn’t. Explanations were not provided—ever. B&R listeners never heard the words: ‘And now we present our version of…’ Nor was there even a sense of the two striving to be funny... their jabs landed slyly. Neither was a cutup, nor a joke teller. They were pleasant, but not effusive. Their total lack of spurious affability and slickness set the two apart from the very institution they were making fun of, yet were still a part of. This authenticity also had the effect of legitimizing their characters. All were rooted in their own reality: it just was not necessarily our reality.”
(I always found them funny, long before I understood that most of their continuing audio skits were parodies of long-running radio series I’d never heard as a kid. You didn’t have to know the larger context to appreciate the absurdity of their pieces.)
They also got in on the ground floor of television and years later found a home on talk shows hosted by comedians who were unabashed fans like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and David Letterman.
Like Laurel and Hardy, Bob and Ray liked each other but led separate lives, which may have been a reason their partnership lasted so long. They had similar backgrounds and sensibilities and developed a unique simpatico that enabled them to create a memorable ensemble of patently ridiculous characters, from hapless reporter Wally Ballou to sportscaster Biff Burns to silver-tongued announcer Word Carr.
Pollock doesn’t paint his subjects as flawless, but one still comes away with enormous admiration for their decency and gentility. Bob Elliott, who’s still going strong, and Ray Goulding’s widow cooperated with the author, as did the duo’s eleven children. Their insights make this more than a mere fan tribute, but a full-fledged biography. If you love Bob and Ray, you’re bound to enjoy this definitive book.