The surviving member of the legendary comedy team Bob and Ray, Bob Elliott, has died at age 92 near his home in Maine.
The death was confirmed by his son, Chris Elliott, who said his father succumbed to throat cancer on February 2. His partner in comedy, Ray Goulding, died in 1990.
Bob leaves behind three kids from his second marriage (to Lee Knight, who died in 2012), two adopted step-daughters, 11 grandkids, and five great-grandkids.
Bob and Ray were most famous on radio, but appeared on Broadway, film, and television, enjoying success over the decades as generation after generation discovered their wry, absurd comedy. They inspired comics Woody Allen, David Letterman, Jonathan Winters, Al Franken, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. And Bob Elliott raised a family of comics — his son, Chris, is an actor and writer, and his granddaughter is an actress and comedian. Both were cast members on SNL.
According to Elliott’s obituary in the Washington Post, Bob and Ray were considered one of the “drollest and most inventive pop-culture satirists of their generation as writers, producers and actors.” Together, Bob and his comic partner in crime poked fun at newscasts, politics, sports, and advertising, playing people who were “inept, pompous or shady — logic-free ‘experts,’ sore political losers, dense reporters and dimwitted everymen.”
While Goulding had the deeper voice and was a bit more animated, Elliott was quiet, although both took turns playing the straight man, mocking TV and radio and its special brand of nonsense with silly and strange jokes.
“[They] never felt a need to destroy their targets, preferring to tickle them to death with a well-aimed feather,” according to cultural historian Gerald Nachman, the New York Times reported.
Among Elliott’s more famous characters was the modest, self-promoting reporter Wally Ballou (who always reminded the audience that he won” over seven international diction awards”). He’d interview various ridiculous characters, always played by Goulding: a bad-luck farmer who grew four-leaf clovers, a paperclip factory owner who paid his workers 14 cents an hour.
“How can anybody possibly live on 14 cents a week?” Elliott’s character Ballou would ask.
“We don’t pry into the personal lives of our employees, Wally,” responded Goulding’s industrialist.
Robert Brackett Elliott was born in 1923 in Boston to an insurance salesman and a mother who refinished antiques. Growing up in Massachusetts, he practiced his radio skills over his school’s public address system. Bob went to school with Angela Lansbury, Jeff Chandler, and Gordon MacRae at the Feagin dramatic school in New York. He then served in the Army during World War II.
When he got home, Elliott got work as a disc jockey at the Boston radio station WHDH, where he met Ray, a news announcer. During the dead air between segments, they ad-libbed for amusement.
“It wasn’t always funny,” Bob recalled, “but it was something.”
Not long after, the pair got their own show, Matinee With Bob and Ray, which the locals loved so much they got another, called Breakfast With Bob and Ray. This eventually turned into a contract with NBC radio by the early 1950s, then a transition to TV. Their career blossomed during the next decade. They appeared on variety shows as guests on Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, David Letterman, and others.
The end of their career as a team didn’t come until the 1980s, when their brand of comedy wasn’t quite as popular anymore. Nonetheless, they had enough of a following left that they continued The Bob and Ray Public Radio Show on NPR as long as Goulding was able. Bob Elliott kept working after his partner’s death.
Elliott was quietly proud of the legacy he and Ray had built, saying of their popularity, “By the time we discovered we were introverts, it was too late to do anything about it.”
As to why they remained so popular, Elliott had a theory.
“Maybe the secret of our success is that we emerge only every few years. We don’t saturate the public, and new generations seem to keep discovering us.”
[Photo via YouTube]