Bob Elliott: ‘Bob and Ray’ Comedian dies, aged 92

Bob Elliott: Comedy legend dies, aged 92

Bob Elliott, part of the classic radio and TV comedy duo Bob and Ray, died at his Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, home at age 92 on Tuesday, February 2.

The cause was throat cancer, his son Chris Elliott said. The younger Elliott is a comic actor.

In a comedy partnership that was born in a Boston radio station after World War II, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were blessed with what a writer for The New Yorker once described as an “infinite sense of the ridiculous.”

Vocally adept comic actors with perfect timing and delivery, Bob and Ray were masters of subtle, unabrasive satire delivered in two-man sketches featuring an array of colorfully memorable characters.

Their primary target was radio itself.

As Mr. Elliott told the New York Daily News in 1992: “Our original premise was that radio was too pompous.”

Sketches ranged from the “Bob and Ray Mystery Tune” (winners received $18 “in cash,” plus a free breakfast at Rudy’s House of Dry Toast) to the call-in opinion program “Speaking Out” (“I think the Prince of Wales should be a civil-service job”). And they poked fun at commercials, with “sponsors” such as Cool Canadian Air (“Packed fresh every day in the Hudson Bay and shipped to your door.”)

Other ersatz advertisements included exhortations on behalf of the Monongahela Metal Foundry (“Steel ingots cast with the housewife in mind”), Einbinder Flypaper (“The flypaper you’ve gradually grown to trust over the course of three generations”) and Height Watchers International.

Bob Elliott — he was the shorter, thinner, balding one — was best-known as Wally Ballou, the inept, adenoidal newsman whose reports always began a split-second late (“ … ly Ballou here”). Wally was a self-promoter, but a modest one; he was known to introduce himself as “radio’s highly regarded Wally Ballou, winner of over seven international diction awards.”

His interview subjects (all played by Goulding) had even more to be modest about than he did. They included a farmer who was plagued with bad luck, even though his crop consisted of four-leaf clovers, and the owner of a paper-clip factory whose idea of efficiency was paying his workers 14 cents a week.

After Goulding died in 1990, many feared they would never see or hear Mr. Elliott again, so inseparable was he from his partner. But he continued to work.

He became a cast member of Garrison Keillor’s “American Radio Company of the Air,” which briefly replaced “A Prairie Home Companion” on public radio. He appeared in the Bill Murray movie “Quick Change.” He played the father of his son Chris in the 1990-92 television series “Get a Life” and the 1994 movie “Cabin Boy.”

Among many other characters, Mr. Elliott also portrayed Dr. Daryll Dexter, the world-renowned Komodo dragon authority from Upper Montclair, N.J.; and Harlow P. Whitcomb, president and recording secretary of the Slow Talkers of America.

Johnny Carson called Bob and Ray “two of the funniest — and most influential — humorists of their time.”

Among those who were influenced by — or simply called themselves fans of — Bob and Ray were Jay Leno, David Letterman, George Carlin, Garrison Keillor, Al Franken and Kurt Vonnegut.

Comedy is an Elliott family affair. Chris Elliott — who in 1989 wrote a parody of celebrity tell-all books, “Daddy’s Boy,” with “rebuttals” by his father — has two daughters, Abby and Bridey, who also went into the business. Abby Elliott is a movie and TV actress who spent four seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” where Chris had earlier been a cast member. Bridey Elliott co-starred in the 2015 movie “Fort Tilden.”

In the 2003 book “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” author Gerald Nachman called Bob and Ray inventive comics whose “dry, laid-back, on-target sensibility transcended broadcasting and their own time.”

“Astonishingly,” Nachman wrote, “they lasted nearly half a century and remained funny long after radio comedy was dead and buried.”

Bob Elliott, an only child, was born in Boston on March 26, 1923, and grew up in suburban Winchester.

After graduating from high school, he attended the Feagin School of Drama and Radio in New York City, where he worked nights as an usher at Radio City Music Hall and later as a page at NBC.

Returning to Boston in 1941, he became an announcer at radio station WHDH. In the Army during World War II, he went to Europe with the 26th Infantry Division but was transferred to Special Services. In 1946, Mr. Elliott returned to WHDH as the morning disc jockey. Goulding, a fellow Army veteran and Massachusetts native, also worked there.

Bob Elliott was the morning newscaster. Their comedy partnership began simply as on-air banter. “We knew that we were on the same wave length,” Mr. Elliott said in an interview with Nachman.

The station quickly gave them a daily half-hour show of their own, “Matinee with Bob and Ray.”

“They had to have that rhyme, and it’s the only reason we’re Bob and Ray and not Ray and Bob,” Mr. Elliott said in a 1973 interview with The New Yorker.

In 1951, the two headed to New York City, where they landed their first network-radio show on NBC.

The same year, they became the stars of “Bob and Ray,” an evening TV comedy-variety show that ran on NBC until 1953. (Although Bob and Ray supplied the female voices on radio, first Audrey Meadows and then Cloris Leachman played the female characters on the TV show.)

Bob Elliott and Goulding also launched a longtime side career in the early 1950s doing radio and television commercials.

Bob and Ray, who improvised their comedy sketches during their early years and began using writers sometime in the ’50s, gained further attention in 1955 when they began a long stint doing live comedy spots on NBC’s national weekend-radio program “Monitor.”

“We weren’t ever poisonous; never had a particular ax to grind,” Elliott once said. “Basically, we try to entertain each other.”

Bob and Ray, whose radio show also appeared on the CBS and Mutual networks — as well as New York radio stations WINS, WHN and WOR — opened on Broadway in 1970 with “Bob and Ray — The Two and Only,” in which Mr. Elliott appeared as Wally Ballou and as, among other characters, the president of the Slow Talkers of America, who talked so slowly that he drove his interviewer, Goulding, into a rage. (He was still talking as the curtain fell for intermission — and still in midsentence when it rose again for the second act.) It ran for five months before going on tour.

By the early 1980s, Bob and Ray’s gentle approach had largely been supplanted by a louder and angrier brand of comedy. But they were not forgotten — perhaps, Mr. Elliott theorized, because the “hilarity of pomposity” had not gone out of style — and in 1982, they returned to the airwaves with “The Bob and Ray Public Radio Show” on NPR. They remained on the air for as long as Goulding’s failing health allowed.

In 1984, they did two sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall.

“We get rediscovered every generation,” Bob Elliott once told the Los Angeles Times.

In 1990, Goulding died of kidney failure at 68.

They won three Peabody Awards for their radio work and were inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1984 and the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.

When not performing, Mr. Elliott liked to paint, and he kept a studio in Manhattan for that purpose. He also liked carpentry and prided himself on personally having built at least half his house in Maine.

His marriage to Jane Underwood ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Lee Pepper, died in 2012.

In addition to his son Chris, he is survived by another son, Robert Jr.; three daughters, Colony Elliott Santangelo, Amy Elliott Andersen and Shannon Elliott; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Sportact Editors and Wire Services