The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Long ago in From the Archives we took a look at the long career of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding by starting towards the beginning and looking at their first show with Audrey Meadows in the early days of television. Today we look at the other end of their careers, jumping from 1951 to 1979, with a special that aired on March 31st of that year as a replacement for Saturday Night Live when that show was in its white-hot 4th season. In addition to its stage, and its time slot, this special borrowed a few familiar names from SNL. Today we look at a special presentation from Bob and Ray entitled: Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda.
This special (I don’t want to have to write Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda every single time) is a weird hybrid of the classic Bob and Ray shtick that the pair had been practicing for the previous 33 years and the new, counter-culture attitude of Saturday Night Live. The program operates under the same framing device as SCTV: tonight NBC is broadcasting a program from a different television network, in this case the Finley Quality Network. Throughout the evening we are shown commercials for strange items and services from the good people at Finley, short snippets of shows also on the Finley Network, as well as musical performances from a young, beardless Willie Nelson (the last one isn’t related to the fake network thing but it seemed like as good a place as any to toss that in).
The evening begins with a cold open, and with a visual update of the traditional Bob and Ray sketch. Bob Elliott stands on stage next to the ladies of SNL and calls Ray at home, who is playing a character, Mr. Alonzo Becky of Michigan, who has been selected at random as the Bob and Ray Lucky Phone Number. Mr. Becky, who was decidedly not watching the show at home, is irritated to be called so late at night as he owns a Dodson dealership and has to be up early, but once he learns this is for television, gradually grows more excited at the prospect of winning a prize. However, this excitement completely vanishes when Elliott reveals his prize to be a Bob and Ray scroll, formally declaring him the recipient of the lucky phone call.
Our three ladies then introduce themselves (Jane: I’m Jane. Laraine: I’m Laraine. Gilda: And I’m Bob and Ray.) and Bob and Ray’s storied career to the viewers at home. It is here that we learn that Bob Finley Elliott was raised by wild groundhogs before his surrogate parents adopted him and that Ray Finley Goulding has no memory of where or when he was before being hired as a childhood apprentice to Marconi, who invented the radio. (In case you’re a dumb person, you should know that all the “facts” are actually jokes.) The ladies tell us about the duo’s jobs during WWII: Ray worked as an FDR impersonator and sat on the White House lawn to distract Nazis and Bob joined the Red Sox where he played left field and called the game. (“It’s going back! Back! I’m going to the warning wall! I think I’m hurt. Don’t move me.”) After the war, Bob and Ray make their way to television, go to Woodstock for no reason in particular, and Bob draws Ray’s portrait, which becomes enormously popular.
Their next sketch returns to the tradition of Bob as a straight man interviewing Ray as a weird character, but this time utilizes the medium of television to make it something a little different. As part of the Finley in Focus program, which was meant to be this network’s answer to 60 Minutes but unfortunately only ran 5 minutes, features Bob interviewing a man from Lansing, Michigan who is only 11 inches tall. Using what was then some pretty sophisticated green screen technology, Ray appears on Bob’s desk as a very tiny man, but adds, “I hasten to caution you: I’m not what you’d call an oddity in that I don’t want to call attention to myself. Let’s set a few ground rules. You treat me as a gentleman I’ll treat you as a gentleman.” The tiny man then sits down on an ashtray and falls over backwards. While there are a few good puns involving miniature golf and the “little woman,” this sketch mostly feels like a showcase for 1979’s state of the art technology.
Like the show that usually filled this timeslot, Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda features a number of fake commercials. These, in general, seem to be a bit more surreal than the ones that would air on SNL during this time. My favorite is for Friedolf and Sons Shoelace Wash which features the ladies in cleaning lady uniforms and hairnets, joylessly removing a customer’s shoelaces with tiny tongs, put into tiny washtubs, towel dried and steam pressed. Another commercial is for Bob and Ray in the new action adventure film Bullets Never Kiss. In it Ray chases Bob over small obstacles such as a puddle, and a large number of stairs, all filmed in super cinematic ways. They hop into their parked cars and then, in the middle of traffic, slowly inch forward and back out, attempting to get their parallel-parked cars out on to the road. When Bob finally gets out first, Bob gives chase, but refuses to run a red light and hits his steering wheel in frustration.
I mentioned that Willie Nelson sings a few songs but Bob and Ray also perform one as well. The intro to the song features the pair, sitting on chairs in a darkened room. Ray states that he’s not a big fan of disco. “I prefer the acid rock of the 1960s.” However, to appease the teenagers that are watching they’re going to play some disco. A number of lighting effects start up behind them, and the ladies appear behind them dressed in flashy costumes and begin to sing Rod Stewarts’ “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” However, once we hit the chorus Bob and Ray join in singing “If you want my body/ and you think I’m sexy…” while remaining seated, proving they know exactly what the teens want.
If you’ve ever watched the early seasons of Saturday Night Live, you might come away feeling that even though the episodes are loaded with powerhouse cast members and memorable characters, some of the cast don’t get nearly the screen time. One nice element of Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda is that everyone gets a chance in the limelight, including Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin who weren’t quite the household names of Belushi, Akroyd and Radner. However, I think it’s safe to assume that the hope was that these three names would be big enough to expose a new generation to the world of Bob and Ray, though sadly, it didn’t seem to have worked. The following year they taped a one-hour special for CBS featuring much of the cast of SCTV which was followed by their final foray into television in the form of a series of specials for PBS before Ray’s death in 1990. However, luckily for us, their fantastic routines on television and radio will live on for generations to come.