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.
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.”