On the Late Bob Elliott, and Remembering the Longest, Deepest Laughter of My Life

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Winner of the Most Beautiful Face Contest. Photo: Owen Franken/Corbis

I have never laughed harder than I did on the night of June 2, 1984, and I doubt I ever will.

I don't recall exactly how it happened in those pre-internet days, but in the previous couple of years I had stumbled upon some tapes of the comedy team Bob and Ray. What I am sure of is that I'd never heard anything like them: Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were so deadpan that you weren't even quite sure that they were joking. There was no straight-man-and-punch-line-guy split; they were both playing it dead straight, a couple of guys in suits. Often, the sketches involved one interviewing the other — Wally Ballou, Bob's dopey-journalist character, appeared regularly, always missing his entry cue by a half-second — and most often the subject of the interview would turn out to be spectacularly clueless. Once in a while, a character would have a goofy voice to get a few extra laughs, but that's it. The deep, deep restraint meant that their funnier lines arrived at weird angles, and because they'd never telegraphed what was coming, the jokes, which didn't even usually sound like jokes, absolutely exploded out of the speaker.

As it turned out, that night pretty nearly marked the end of their performing run. Health problems were beginning to close in on Ray, and he died in 1990, at 68. And now Bob is gone as well: He died Tuesday, at 92, at the family home in Maine.

Bob and Ray in 1951. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

On that evening in 1984 Bob and Ray had reunited for a two-night show at Carnegie Hall, and the room was full; this was the second night. I can't tell you what the best sketch was, because it was essentially a greatest-hits performance for the true fans. I remember seeing Al Franken in the crowd, and I doubt he was the only comedy writer there, because Bob and Ray were — are — royalty in that circle. (And dynastic royalty at that: Bob was the father of writer-comedian Chris Elliott, and the grandfather of the former SNL performer Abby Elliott.) They did plenty of TV, with some success, but radio was the medium on which they thrived; their act was pretty undynamic onscreen, centering as it did on two guys who looked like accountants, usually sitting down. They did make good talk-show guests, however, and a few Letterman appearances make it clear that Dave and they were cut from the same cloth.

Their comedy, even more than most, disintegrates when you try to explain it, but a few bits and pieces may help get it across. If they had a specialty, it was playing off the conventions and hack language of broadcasting. ("Forbush Dinnerware: The Plates America Eats Off ... Of.") From a fake radio promo in which listeners were offered free sweaters: " ... at laughably low prices, sweaters in two styles: turtle or V-neck. State what kind of neck you have." Or on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, another interview segment, in which Bob played a male beauty queen: "My neatly chiseled features do stand out." When the critic John Simon wrote a vicious pan of their (actually quite excellent) Broadway revue in this very magazine, a character based on him soon appeared on their radio show, where he would consume a large, messy sandwich directly into the microphone. (Ray: "He's eating the sandwich right through the wax paper!") He wasn't called John Simon; he was simply referred to as "the Worst Person in the World."

And if you want to lose the rest of today, please make your way down the deep YouTube rabbit hole of B&R clips, beginning with "The Great Lakes Paper Clip Company," about a factory that makes office supplies in a very, very special way.

I won't spoil the payoff line, which is the one that begins "we don't pry ... " But suffice it to say that when I heard it onstage at Carnegie Hall — and I'm pretty sure this clip is from that pair of concerts, which were recorded — I knew I had seen and heard something that wasn't going to come around again.