This is going to sound a little name-droppy, but I was interviewing Paula Poundstone Wednesday, and we got on the subject of Bob and Ray. We both grew up as comedy nerds and we both owned copies of a book of B&R scripts which we read obsessively.
Neither one one us was aware that the death of Bob Elliott had just been announced, but producer Betsy Kaplan typed that news onto my screen and I shared it with Paula. (You’ll hear this interview — which sprawls all over the place — the week of the 15th.) So we had a moment to digest that news together.
The spoken material of comedians often doesn’t look that good on paper, but Bob and Ray were sublimely readable. One reason for this, of course, is that they never relied much on delivery. Someone once wrote that they looked like bank presidents. Their occasional attempts to do other voices sounded pretty much like their own voices. Contrast them to, say, Jon Stewart, the most vocally virtuosic comic of his generation, with that arsenal of whispers and screams and everything in between. The other reason is that Bob and Ray’s premises, when described, are intrinsically hilarious. To wit:
Among the hundreds of memorable characters Bob and Ray have created is Farley Plummer from Tulsa, one of their ”hard luck cases” who is 10 1/2 inches tall and has spent his life savings to come to New York to have his ”tiny little teeth” fixed. Bob and Ray give him a deluxe racing bike and Plummer complains. Bob cuts him off with, ”No thanks are necessary, sir. Just seeing the smile on your little face is enough. And now back over to Ray at our main anchor desk.”
Another B&R trope contained in that description was incompletely contained indignation. One of their bits involved a man who kept wild boars in his New York apartment and took them out into Central (a name he struggled to remember) Park to look for truffles. When the interviewer calmly raised the possibility that it might be cruel to keep wild boars in such a small space, the gentleman blustered, “I didn’t come here to be insulted!”
None of us do. The night before the news of Bob’s death came, I happened to be watching the PBS special on Mike Nichols, and Nichols said this amazing thing about comedy: There are two reasons to say something. One is that it’s funny. The other is that it’s you. By “you,” he meant universal. The best comedy scrapes against some bare wire in the human experience. Bob and Ray kept walking us into these hilarious dungeons in which somebody was impossibly inept or didn’t get it or was missing some giant piece of life’s puzzle. And the thing is, we live in these dungeons. Think about your week. I can almost guarantee you ran into one of their characters. We really do feel, a lot of the time, like a 10.5-inch man being given a deluxe racing bike.
Nichols is the right guy to quote because he and Elaine May were another important doubles team in the 1960s. Both duos did the opposite of today’s smash-mouth comedy. They made you do a little of the mental work. My father, another Bob, loved them for that reason. It hardly needs to be said the Bob and Ray did not traffic in profanity, sex or anything else that smelled cheap. They perfected the soft, placid tennis stroke that Garrison Keillor, at his very best, would later lob for game-winners.
Many of Bob and Ray’s bumbling characters seem to have arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time, which was a little bit of their own vibe as performers. Elliott famously said, “By the time we figured out we were introverts, it was too late to do anything about it.” They often seemed mildly perplexed to find themselves onstage.
They also kept at it, right up to Ray’s death. Their 1980s NPR show was full of treasures including, as I recall, a “name that song” contest. The song was always “Begin the Beguine,” but the characters who called up never seemed to know that. One week a man (Ray) called in and asked if it was the Star-Spangled Banner. No, said Bob, it was “Begin the Beguine.” How could the caller have confused the two? “I work in a machine shop,” said Ray. “It’s very loud here, and I couldn’t hear what you were playing, but there were some people across the way who seemed to be standing at attention, so I took a guess.”
Some of the Elliotts live, off and on, in Old Lyme. I’m always hoping I run into one, so I can thank them, on behalf of myself and Bob McEnroe, for stuff like that. And now…