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A Look Back at the Legendary Comedy Duo Bob and Ray

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Fri, Aug 2, 2013 at 4:00 AM

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If there's such a thing as a funny gene, Abby Elliott inherited it. When she showed her comedic chops during four seasons of Saturday Night Live, she became the third generation of her family to grace the show. Not only is her father, Chris Elliott, an SNL veteran, but so is her grandfather, Bob Elliott.

Now 90, Elliott and his longtime comedy partner, the late Ray Goulding, starred in an SNL special in 1979. In one bit, the plain-looking, middle-aged guys sat wearing business attire, singing Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" while SNL ladies danced disco.

That's just one of many goofy moments described in Bob and Ray, Keener Than Most Persons by TV writer David Pollock. The book maps a four-decade partnership that included radio shows, television, movies, Carnegie Hall and a hit Broadway show.

Along the way, Bob and Ray amassed ardent fans, some of whom later found success in entertainment and journalism. "If you grew up listening to radio, these guys were pitch-perfect," veteran network journalist Jeff Greenfield says.

The team had an inauspicious beginning in 1946, with Elliott reading seafood prices on a radio program called Fisherman's News Service. New hire Goulding showed up and asked, "This is what you do for a living?"

They ended up chatting on and off the air. Writes Pollock: "As Goulding's spontaneous on-air kibbitzing with Elliott increased, what listeners heard was not a comedy team but essentially two neighbors talking over a fence."

The kibbitzing expanded to become a universe of beloved characters -- clueless reporter Wally Ballou, teacher Mr. Science, sportscaster Biff Burns, cowboy Tex Blaisdell, book reviewer Webley Webster and cooking expert Mary McGoon, to name a few.

"Even as a youngster I could tell these guys were not hooked up right," David Letterman writes in the book's foreword. "The ridiculous was taken for normal. Silliness was reality. They would state the premise, and off they went. They were both loons. This is a pretty irresistible form of comedy."

In an email to the Weekly, Abby Elliott recalls exploring her grandfather's old radio paraphernalia as a 5-year-old: "My sister, Bridey, and I would spend hours in there, not really understanding but being fascinated by his past. ... He showed me (just as my dad did) that it is possible to make a living making people laugh."

Of Bob and Ray, she adds, "They were all characters everyone could relate to. They were never lowbrow. Never swearing or doing anything for shock value."

The humor was not cruel, writer-satirist Harry Shearer observes via email: "They just noticed what was funny about those people and brought it to our attention." Lessons from Bob and Ray helped inspire Shearer's characters on The Simpsons and his radio program, Le Show.

While the pair's work generally was not political, one legendary exception was their 1954 radio skewering of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a move that took considerable guts. As a character in their faux-soap "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife," Goulding did a dead-on impersonation of the much-feared senator.

"It was a revelation," says broadcast journalist Keith Olbermann, himself no stranger to political controversy. In a phone interview, he calls these sketches the "holy grail" for Bob and Ray fans.

Olbermann recalls becoming hooked on their work as a teen in the 1970s after his father brought home a recording of the duo's Broadway show, Bob and Ray -- The Two and Only.

When he was 15, Olbermann was thrilled to meet the pair at WOR Radio in New York. Years later, he worked in the same building. "I realized that it was the studio that I had been in to watch Bob and Ray," he says. "To this day, that coincidence gives me chills."


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