Bob Elliott, who died yesterday at the age of ninety-two, was the longer-lived member of Bob & Ray, a much-loved comedy team whose subtle, at times near-surrealistic routines were developed for radio and never sounded quite right anywhere else. Alas, they first won fame (of a sort) in the waning days of network radio, and so they spent the rest of their lives as fish out of water, never quite connecting with the public at large but attracting a small but intensely loyal cadre of passionate fans, myself very much among them, who loved their oddly tilted brand of humor.
In 1970 they cheated obscurity by putting together a warmly reviewed two-man show called The Two and Only that ran for five months on Broadway and was, thank God, recorded in its entirety. The time-and-place line in the program was utterly characteristic of their sense of humor: “The setting is quite cluttered. Time: the following Tuesday.”
Whitney Balliett wrote beautifully about them in The New Yorker three years later:
Bob & Ray invented, dreamed up the lines for, and then played, mainly on radio and television, a surrealistic Dickensian repertory company, which chastens the fools of the world with hyperbole, slapstick, parody, verbal nonsense, non sequitur, and sheer wit, all of it clean, subtle and gentle…Bob & Ray’s humor turns on their faultless timing and on their infinite sense of the ridiculous. It is also framed by that special sly, dry, wasteless vision of life perfected during the last couple of centuries by middle-class New Englanders.
Ray died in 1990, but Bob soldiered on, co-starring with Chris Elliott, his son, in the short-lived but fondly remembered sitcom Get a Life and doing, as was his wont, this and that. He was one of the last remaining ties to the long-gone golden age of network radio. I will miss him very much.
UPDATE: A friend writes to pass on his favorite Bob & Ray line. It, too, is wonderfully characteristic: “You’re not trying to slip the old rubber peach to a gullible kid, are you, Mr. Science?”
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Bob & Ray perform two of their routines, “Most Beautiful Face Contest Winner” and “Four Leaf Clover Winner,” on TV:
Bob & Ray appear on Late Night with David Letterman