Soft-sell humor, brought to you by Bob & Ray

A well-tailored businessman, riding soberly in an elevator, breaks into a laugh for no apparent reason, drawing uneasy glances from his fellow passengers. Job pressure finally get to him? No, he's OK -- he was just recalling a ``Bob and Ray'' radio routine he'd heard. It can happen to the best of us.

In fact, Americans have been laughing at the renowned comedy team -- now marking its 40th year -- long enough to make it one of the most durable and well-loved duos in the annals of American humor. Even Bob and Ray themselves laugh when reminded of their memorable spoofs.

``The types of people are still around that you can poke fun at that were here 30 or 40 years ago,'' chuckled Bob Elliott as we spoke in their offices here.

``Yeah,'' adds Ray Goulding, ``the targets are still there: your automobile salesman, the insurance man, the oil companies.''

Nowadays you can hear these routines on one of the team's wry radio or TV commercials -- some people tune in just to hear them -- or on an audio cassette of a Carnegie Hall show they did in 1984. They show up on the late-night Johnny Carson and David Letterman TV shows several times a year. And a one-hour special -- ``Bob & Ray, Jane, Laraine and Gilda'' -- is popping up on various public TV stations across the nation (check local listings).

On commercial radio Bob and Ray were regulars for some 25 years, and there have been lots of other high points, such as TV series, a 1970 Broadway show, film appearances, a 1982 retrospective in the Museum of Broadcasting here, the Carnegie Hall concert, and their most recent volume, ``The New! Improved! Bob and Ray Book,'' with a foreword by longtime fan Garrison Keillor, a humorist who is host of public radio's ``Prairie Home Companion.''

``We've spent our whole lives trying to make each other laugh -- and gotten paid for it at the same time,'' explains Ray with a quick look at his partner. Bob is the smaller man with pale eyes, who often plays an announcer or reporter unaware of his own absurdity. Ray is the one with the soaring eyebrows, in whose rising voice listeners can catch echoes of their own frustration with an unreasonable world.

Their easygoing yet subtle humor -- often satirizing radio and TV stereotypes -- has proved so lasting and close to people's hearts because ``we were never vitriolic in our satire,'' Ray says. ``It was always soft, done in a gentle sort of way. We never had a strong message to sell.''

``Yes,'' says Bob, ``that's why we survived, I think. We weren't ever poisonous. Never had a particular ax to grind. Basically, we try to entertain each other.''

The results provide a satisfaction that comes, fans will tell you, only through an acquaintance with the team's beloved gallery of comic characters: reporter Wally Ballou; Mary Backstayge, noble wife; Mr. Trace, keener than most persons; and innumerable other spoofs -- including a sendup of TV's ``Dallas'' called ``Garrish Summit.''

The way this comedy style was born is like a Bob and Ray routine itself. At Boston's WHDH in the '40s, ``Bob used to spin the records and I'd come in and do the news every half hour,'' Ray recalls. ``After the news I'd sit and kibitz with him.''

Did it take long to develop their special style?

``Usually it took the end of a record,'' Bob recalls.

``We used to have a 2-minute deadline every 2 minutes,'' Ray remembers. ``The record ended, we had to say something we hoped would be funny, like kidding the banks or the insurance companies. And that's how it happened. It wasn't, `Let's sit down and become Bob and Ray.' ''

What did the station management think of this ad hoc comedy?

``They didn't want to say anything, because they might think we'd ask for more money,'' says Ray. ``We took that as tacit approval.''

``By the time we left,'' Bob says, ``we had developed a group of fans that would show up at the studio.''

And that, explains Ray, ``was more or less becoming Bob and Ray.''

Their improvisation moved on to the NBC radio network in 1951 -- in a program that used to start with ``Bob and Ray present the National Broadcasting Company.'' As their popularity grew, it also did something less common in broadcasting: It deepened, making a niche in the national consciousness that no longer depends on constant media exposure. Bob and Ray have a permanent constituency that considers them irreplaceable and has remained faithful through long stretches off the air.

If there's a key to this indestructible appeal, it may involve a keen ear for speech patterns and a genius for on-target ad-libbing. Unlike Keillor's thoughtfully planned monologues, Bob and Ray's lines, they point out, are impromptu.

Impromptu? You mean to say those famous dialogues weren't rehearsed?

``No, we never took things that seriously,'' Bob asserts. ``We decide what we do while we're walking to the studio, usually,'' says Bob. ``We used to come in here in the morning and go to WOR, across the park, and we would discuss things on the way over there -- like where we would go with the `Mary Backstayge' soap opera that day for five minutes -- so we could tell the engineer what kind of sound we want, such as a railroad station when the dialogue was all boarding the train. We had sound guys and engineers and a producer who thought the way we did.

``We weren't even required to submit a script when we began. Nobody had been given that freedom before. Scripting really came along quite a while afterwards. We wouldn't have had time to do scripts when we first began.''

If you'd known Bob and Ray in the old days, you just might have ended up in one of their sketches. ``That was the origin of our humor,'' says Ray. ``We studied people, and all our humor was based on real live characters. It would be types -- like the housekeeping man at the radio station would talk an unusual way. He never picked up on who we were kidding. I had a relative who would give your idea back to you in about a minute and a half after you had expressed it. We had a character based on him. Or we'd do a convention of bankruptcy referees, things like that.''

These characters have definite personalities. Says Bob: ``The slow talker, for instance, annoys Ray to the point where he goes crazy. But Mary McGoon, on the other hand, we always treated with great respect. What did we used to call her . . . ?''

``. . . our conscience,'' Ray says.

``There was so much on radio at that time that you could parody,'' Bob recalls, ``the soap operas and all the clich'e shows -- the farm program, which every station had and which you seldom hear at all now. We would listen avidly and use those as the basis for ad-lib bits, interviews, or soaps.''

But ``today radio with me is a classic bore,'' says Ray. ``It's either all music or all talk. Like all news, which is usually all bad. You hear it all over and over in 20 minutes. I can drive for hours in my car without turning my radio on. In 1947 that would not be the case. I couldn't get out of the driveway without turning it on. Now the disc jockeys all sound alike.''

``Every town you drive through, they're saying the same thing,'' Bob observes. ``When I go to Maine I hear it; in Hartford, Boston, Portsmouth . . . .''

``That's because the phone-in people are all the same three guys,'' says Ray. ``They move to each city.''

So is Bob and Ray's humor a lost art, or could it be carried on by others someday? They seem to have mixed feelings.

``I know we couldn't do on radio now what we did in Boston,'' Ray asserts. ``Somebody's going to say, `Hey, you talked for five seconds -- music or station break!' There'll be no Bob and Ray coming out of radio today. Absolutely not. But I think what we're doing will always be done in some form.''

``Somebody will do it. Not necessarily a team,'' Bob agrees.

Ray adds: ``It's an open field.''

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