Remembering Bob Elliott (1923-2016)

Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott
Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott razz other shows with props like the paper plate with newsprint (“so you can get the news while you eat”). (Photo by Larry Fried)
Bob Elliott
Bob—with a table-tennis kit “for people who like to play the game alone.”
He signs off the daily radio show by suggesting, “Hang by your thumbs.” (Photo by Larry Fried)

Modern comedy was born in the 1950s. It was an underground revolution in humor that took place while television and movies were still focusing on big-name comedians telling jokes about mothers-in-law and women drivers. The new comedy skewered the hyperbolic pronouncements of advertising, social conventions and pomposity in general. Arguably two of the most important exponents of the new humor were Ray Goulding (to give him top billing for once) and Bob Elliott, who passed away February 3, 2016.

Instead of telling structured jokes with punch lines, Bob and Ray developed an improvisation style that was gently zany and refreshingly unpredictable. If their delivery was soft spoken, the humor was powerfully subversive, particularly in the conformist ’50s.

Their growing number of fans relished their humor of the surreal, but also appreciated the satire beneath it, which parodied the tired conventions of the media: the cliché-ridden sportscaster, the unimaginative ads for products no one needed, and the tedious, overblown soap operas.

In December 25, 1954, the Post profiled the pair in a feature article, “Funniest Pair on the Air?”
As writer George Sessions Perry notes, despite their satirical bent, the pair were “never mean or vicious.” An even greater tribute is that the routines of Bob and Ray are still hilarious today. Following are some selections from the article describing their wry sense of humor.

No Script Whatsoever

Frequently on radio these two men play the parts of a whole stageful of characters, each with his or her own distinct and individual voice and personality. The feat appreciably adds to the enjoyment of those listeners who, with a sense of being on the inside, know that all those voices emanate from only two men. Their accomplishment becomes all the more incredible when you know that the performance, which is always smartly paced, is done with no script whatever. This flowering of multiple characters, adorned with an endless variety of human foibles, represents the natural spontaneous effervescence of two brilliantly creative young minds.

Ad Parodies

Philip Hamburger, television critic of The New Yorker, recently noted: “Bob and Ray generally finish up their programs with a plug for one of their seemingly endless supply of imaginary products. The other night it was Woodlo, a product ‘all America is talking about.’ Speaking rapidly. Bob and Ray said that Woodlo was the sort of product ‘that appeals to people who.’ Moreover, it was ‘immunized.’ ‘You can buy Woodlo loose!’ one of them cried. ‘Yes, mothers and dads!’ cried the other. ‘Available at your neighborhood!’ cried Bob. ‘Drop in on your neighborhood!’ cried Ray.”

Then, there are items which they wish to sell “at laughably low prices” from their “overstocked- surplus warehouse” —for example: sweaters with “O” on them. “If your name doesn’t begin with O, we can have it legally changed for you. Sweaters come in two styles: turtle neck or V-neck. State what kind of a neck you have.” Bob and Ray are concerned nowadays, among other things, with their “Make it Yourself” Kits. “Why buy an expensive, ready-made car, when from our kit, with parts numbered from 1 to 10,000, you can build a 1927 Jewett for $28.35?”

The “Mean Man Kit”

By October, 1951, they’d caused so much stir on the radio that they were offered an evening spot on NBC television. Here’s a sample sketch:


ANNOUNCER: Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding take pleasure in presenting the National Broadcasting Company, which presents the Bob and Ray Show.

Well, friends, Bob and Ray have done it again! In the past, you bought their all-purpose kits … the Burglar Kit, the Amateur Doctor Kit … the Home Brain Surgery Kit … and others too numerous to mention. Now, tonight, direct from their laboratory, Bob and Ray introduce a conspicuous first.

BOB: Are you tired of being nice to people?

RAY: Are you fed up with being a sweetie pie?

BOB: Would you like to get back at people?

RAY: Would you really like to be mean, nasty and lowdown for just a while?

BOB: What you want, then … is the Bob and Ray Mean Man Kit.

RAY: With this you can really be mean … get a load off your chest, and feel good all over again.

BOB: First, is a thing so simple as to be ridiculous … yet very effective. A salt cellar. The point is … that when your hostess is not looking you sneak into the dining room and place this salt cellar, with the top carefully unscrewed, on the dining-room table. Then you say to your host, “Won’t you use the salt first?” (Hands salt cellar to Ray.)

RAY: Thank you very much, Lord Dufflebag. How kind of you. (Ray sprinkles imaginary plate and all salt comes out of cellar.)

BOB: This will cause no end of merriment and will also be the last invitation you’ll have to this house.

RAY: To be mean in the office, we devised this.

BOB: This item is seemingly elementary, but can cause havoc in a well ordered organization. This is what is called in business terms, “an incoming and outgoing mailbox.” A messenger appears in your office several times a day, deposits mail in the incoming section and removes mail from the outgoing section. All you do is to substitute this card for this card. This means that all incoming mail will go out . . . and all outgoing mail will come in.

RAY: Here’s a mean man’s “ phony report card.” Confuse the young ones! When they come home with fairly good report cards . . . say two A’s, four B’s and two C’s . . . you substitute this phony report card … flash it in front of the children’s eyes, and then really give it to them.

BOB: And there you are. Don’t be a good guy all your life. Be just plain mean and nasty once in a while. Get this Mean Man’s Kit by writing NASTY NBC NEW YORK 20, N.Y.

RAY: And say … “I loathe myself.”


News of the Week: Bob Elliott, Amazon’s Bookstore Plans, and Why I Used the Oxford Comma in This Headline

RIP, Bob Elliott

Bob Elliott
Bob Elliott

Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Martin and Lewis. These are classic comedy teams. I’d add Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding to the mix too. As Bob and Ray, they did very smart and very funny comedy routines on stage and on television for four decades. Goulding passed away in 1990, and this week Bob Elliott died at the age of 92.

I could write something really long about Bob and Ray, but that The New York Times obit says a lot. You can also check out Bob and Ray’s official site, where you get recordings of their routines on CD, iTunes, even on a Flash drive.

Elliott was the father of comedian Chris Elliott, who has appeared on everything from Everybody Loves Raymond to David Letterman’s late night shows. Bob Elliott also starred with Chris in the short-lived but cult-favorite sitcom Get A Life on Fox in 1990. He leaves four other children as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Maybe Bookstores Aren’t Going Away After All?

Did you know that Amazon has a brick-and-mortar bookstore? It’s called Amazon Books, and it’s located at Seattle’s University Village mall. But according to Sandeep Mathrani, CEO of mall-builder General Growth Properties, the online retail giant is planning on opening 300 to 400 more bookstores across the country. Of course, the next day, he released a new statement saying that his previous statement “doesn’t reflect Amazon’s plans.”

But if this is true, it’s one of the biggest retail stories of the year. What a plot twist it would be if Amazon, which has been accused of destroying large bookstore chains like Borders, would actually become a large bookstore chain itself. Suddenly, Barnes & Noble would be the plucky underdog!

Amazon hasn’t commented on the story yet, but people are already making jokes about it on social media. This might be my favorite:

Archer Meets Magnum

I haven’t watched FX’s animated spy spoof Archer since its first season, but this new promo for the seventh season of the show (which starts on March 27) makes me want to get back into it.

That’s real dedication by the artists. Compare it to the original:

Breaking Groundhog Day News

I wouldn’t necessarily go by the predictions of groundhogs Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck, who both said this week that we’re going to have an early spring. For one thing, how can a regional groundhog give a forecast for an entire nation? Second, I don’t even think either of these animals have meteorology degrees. Though that’s never stopped Al Roker.

I wouldn’t necessarily go by the predictions of groundhogs Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck, who both said this week that we’re going to have an early spring. For one thing, how can a regional groundhog give a forecast for an entire nation? Second, I don’t even think either of these animals have meteorology degrees. Though that’s never stopped Al Roker.

I wouldn’t necessarily go by the predictions of groundhogs Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck, who both said this week that we’re going to have an early spring. For one thing, how can a regional groundhog give a forecast for an entire nation? Second, I don’t even think either of these animals have meteorology degrees. Though that’s never stopped Al Roker.

Google Buys

What’s the significance of $6006.13? More on that in a moment.

Have you ever forgotten to renew your domain name and when you go to do it you find out that someone has already grabbed it? That can also happen to multibillion-dollar international companies too.

For some reason, the domain was available to buy last September, so a former Google employee bought it for $12.00. And the funniest part is that he bought it on Google’s own registration page! It only lasted a minute though, as the system figured out what had happened and canceled the transaction.

This week Google disclosed that they did indeed pay the man to get the domain back. They bought it for $6006.13. If you look at that monetary amount closely you can see why they decided on that amount. It kinda spells out Google in numbers.

Do You Remember Remember WENN?

Mad Men is my favorite drama of all time, but it irritates me when people (including the people over at AMC) refer to that show and Breaking Bad as the network’s first forays into original scripted shows. There was actually a show on AMC long before those shows started. It was called Remember WENN. It was a half-hour comedy/drama set in the 1940s, about life at a Pittsburgh radio station, and it debuted in 1996. Even though the show ran for three seasons, it has almost been forgotten, except by hardcore fans. It’s not available to stream, and it’s not available on DVD either. Which is really odd, because it was a really good show. Here’s the first episode.

Rachel Syme remembers it though, and writes about it at The New York Times. The creator of the show, Rupert Holmes — yes, the man who did “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” — even went to AMC a few years ago, to see if he could get a DVD set made. They weren’t interested.

How Do You Use the Oxford Comma?

The Oxford Comma, also known as the serial comma, is one of the more controversial punctuation topics (if punctuation can indeed be controversial). In this video, Mary Norris, proofreader and “Comma Queen” at The New Yorker and author of the fun memoir/language guide Between You & Me, explains how to use it correctly. Sometimes when you leave this comma out, it doesn’t just make the sentence less clear, it can change the entire meaning of the sentence. A lot.

Super Bowl Snacks

I’m one of those annoying people that really does watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, and this Sunday will be no different. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the food. And there’s a lot of food consumed on the big day. According to various organizations and associations, we eat 11.2 million pounds of potato chips, 3 million pounds of nuts, and 1.2 billion chicken wings before the day is over, along with a lot of pizza too.

And dips! Here’s a recipe for a classic guacamole dip, and here are 11 more, including individual 7-Layer dip, a BLT dip, cheesy spinach and bacon, and something called a cookies and cream cheese dip.

And if you’re looking to save a few calories this weekend — though it’s probably one of the worst days to attempt that — how about homemade pita chips instead of potato?

Go Patriots! Oh, wait …

Upcoming Events and Anniversaries​

The Beatles land in NYC (February 7, 1964)

Read SEP Archives Director Jeff Nilsson’s article on why early critics hated the Fab Four.

Del Shannon dies (February 8, 1990)

The “Runaway” singer committed suicide at the age of 55.

Daylight Saving Time debuts (February 9, 1942)

Who is credited with the idea for the time change? Benjamin Franklin.

Little House on the Praire cover
By Laura Ingalls Wilder (scan from the Internet) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Laura Ingalls Wilder dies (February 10, 1957)

Paramount just announced that they’re doing a big-screen version of the TV series Little House on the Prairie, which was based on Wilder’s book series.

President Abraham Lincoln born (February 12, 1809)

During a debate with Stephen Douglas, who called Lincoln “two-faced,” Lincoln said “If I really had two faces, do you think I’d hide behind this one?”.