Sadly, this week we lost a legend of comedy with the passing of Bob Elliott at the age of 92. Bob had a long career in comedy, beginning in 1951, much of it alongside his longtime partner Ray Goulding. As a tribute, today we look back at their final live performance together from May 31, 1984, recorded live at Carnegie Hall in a show called A Night of Two Stars.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bob and Ray, first of all, enjoy. Now, let’s zoom in a little. It’s hard to precisely define Bob and Ray because they were constantly shifting roles within their own duo from sketch to sketch. At different points, one might be playing a character and the other an interviewer, or they both might be appearing as characters on a sitcom, or they both might be interviewing. It all depended on what the scene called for. Bob Elliott himself, in an interview with Mike Sacks for his book Poking a Dead Frog, aptly described them as a pair of “straight men reacting against the other.”
The pair met at a radio station in Boston, initially working as a DJ (Bob) and a newsreader (Ray). But when a rained out Red Sox game forced them to fill time together, their hilarious bantering and easy rapport was discovered, and a comedy duo was born. They moved from radio to one of the earliest television shows on NBC, back to radio, making occasional stops on stage and television as their long careers marched forward. Bob and Ray remained active from the 1940s until Ray’s death in 1990, constantly being rediscovered by each new generation that came along.
The pair did two nights of shows at Carnegie Hall, though in my research it would seem that the recording of A Night of Two Stars is composed solely of their first night on May 31, 1984. The performance was a compilation of many of their best sketches, but with one major difference: there’s a live audience. When performed on the radio, Bob and Ray are able to find a natural rhythm which allows them to fluctuate between rapid and slow-paced, depending on what the piece requires. The audience reaction doesn’t slow them down much (except for when the audience recognizes a particular character and cheers their arrival), but the laughter does occasionally interrupt where a straight man may have originally jumped in a little earlier. I want to be clear: this is by no means a complaint. The laughter is infectious and the crowd is clearly very passionate and affectionate towards the duo. It simply gives the recording a different flavor if one is only familiar with their radio or TV shows.
The entire recording of the show can be heard here, but I’m going to embed video of the original sketches when available for comparison.
The show opens with a brief announcement about an unfortunate incident involving the show’s supply of chocolate bunnies, but their loss is our gain. Their surplus was stored a little too close to the steam pipes, and as a result the bunnies are now shaped in a wide variety of new shapes for the “little kiddies” to recognize new shapes such as “teradactyls, and vultures, and your mother-in-law.” (One added bonus of viewing the clip from their 1950s show is that the younger Bob and Ray are wearing fuzzy rabbit headpieces.)
Later, Bob and Ray reunite a brother and sister, Frank and Tabitha (pronounced “Ta-beth-ah” as Ray, in character, informs Bob) Wurley who haven’t seen each other in 70 years. Shortly after being reunited, after barely exchanging a “nice to see ya,” Frank (also played by Ray) asks if he can go to his dental appointment. Bob, a little confused, allows them to separate.
Just as their radio and television shows did, the live stage show also plays with the form, and is probably one of the few shows played at Carnegie Hall to have commercials in the middle. One such commercial was for Bob and Ray’s House of Toast, which offers a wide variety of bread options, toasting intensities, and each slice is buttered to suit you, on either the near or far side. Here is a video of this commercial, paired with one of my favorite Bob and Ray bits, another commercial, this one for Friedolf and Sons’ Shoelace Wash, from their live 1979 special, Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda.
Perhaps the pair’s most famous character, reporter Wally Ballou, makes an appearance, reporting live from The Great Lakes Paperclip Company. Bob’s character is barely able to get his opening catchphrase out, a cut off “-ly Ballou reporting…”, before the audience greets him with applause. The Great Lakes Paperclip Company cuts costs by bending all of their paperclips by hand. Also they only pay their workers 14 cents. When Wally asks the owner how their workers can afford to live on such low wages, the boss counters “we don’t like to pry into the private lives of our employees.” Somehow, the sketch only gets more insane from there.
Also included on the recording are a few sketches that weren’t performed live, but still work well in audio. In that batch is another Wally Ballou field piece, also from Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda in which Wally finds the big story in Times Square in the form of a very ineffective cranberry farmer.
Bob Elliott was a true master of the comedic form with impeccable timing. This is just a small sampling of some of his amazing work that he amassed alongside his partner Ray Goulding. There is little doubt in my mind that their hours and hours of humor will continue to be studied and treasured for generations of comedy fans to come. He truly will be missed.