Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding filled the airwaves in the 1950s with some pretty funny (and biting) parodies and satires. The question isn’t “how did they do it?” but “how did they not collapse from exhaustion?”
The NBC network plucked them from a radio station in Boston and, pretty soon, they were all over the schedule, kind of like Arthur Godfrey at CBS. The difference was Godfrey had oodles of sponsors. Bob and Ray didn’t—even though Elliott did a funnier Godfrey than Godfrey did.
By the time they landed on TV on November 26, 1951 (replacing half of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” from 7:15 to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays), they were already filling NBC’s and WNBC’s radio schedule in mornings and early evenings. Perhaps it got to be too much. By early January, NBC announced “The Goldbergs” would take over the Monday-Wednesday-Friday slots. By May 6th, a sitcom called “Those Endearing Young Charms” took over Tuesdays and Thursdays. No matter. The TV network moved them into a Tuesday night, 10:30 to 10:45 p.m. show for Embassy cigarettes called “Club Embassy.” It debuted October 7, 1952. By November, Billboard reported the sponsor wanted to dump them. Then the sponsor changed its mind. Then the sponsor changed its mind again. The show became a musical revue with Mindy Carson as of December 30th (Carson was gone the following May 19th).
The critics all seemed to love Bob and Ray. Here’s a story from the Amsterdam Evening Recorder of February 23, 1952 which sums up their show, if you haven’t heard or seen it.
Lights of New York
By L. L. STEVENSON
Only a little while ago the names Bob and Ray meant nothing to radio listeners and television -viewers unless they happened to be the monickers of friends or relatives. Within the short-space of seven months, Bob and Ray have become familiar from coast to coast. They are a couple of uninhibited zanies who are on radio and television something like 18 hours a week. Incidentally, so far as can be ascertained, they are the only air comics who have received a “cease and desist” request from the staid and dignified Smithsonian Institution. There is no "Mr. Inbetween" so far as Bob and Ray are concerned. Fans either dislike their programs violently or like them just as violently. That the latter are far in the majority is indicated by their air hours. The National Broadcasting Co. has efficient ways of ascertaining public opinion.
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Their full names are Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. Bob is 28 and Ray, 29. Both are married. Ray has three children. Bob none. Bob was born in Boston and Ray in Lowell, not so far away. The team was formed by accident—and by grace of favorable audience reaction. Earlier in 1946, while both were staff at WHDH, Boston. Ray read the newscasts on Bob's morning disc jockey show. They became friends and Ray would remain at the studio after his newscasts to indulge in on-the-air pleasantries and gags, with Bob. They soon realized they worked well together and began to work in routines. Their humor caught on. The station gave them a daily, half-hour program. By that time, they had developed numerous fictional characters for their satirical sketches. They now use eight of these characters, all voiced by Bob and Ray and when necessity demands, they invent another.
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Last July, Bob and Ray moved on to New York to do a 15-minute network show five days a week and 30 minutes Saturday night. In no time at all, they were on their way. At the end of 13 weeks, the network picked up their option. Now in addition to their six network shows they also have a two-and-a-half-hour local show which starts at 6 A. M. and runs five mornings a week. The first of the year, they made their television bow and now have five 15-minute shows each week. The morning show is strictly ad lib. For their other shows they wrote their own material until they went into television. Now they have writers but the main burden is still on them. To air time must be added rehearsal time. Their rehearsals for their daily TV show start at 3 P. M. They are really busy young men.
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Masters of satire, ingenious mimics and skilled deflaters of pomposity, Bob and Ray travel their own peculiar way. The first of their characters was Mary McGoon. Tex, representing all cowboy singers, Webley Webster, who conducts the forums. Uncle Eugene, a typical stuffed shirt who knows all the answers, and Arthur Sturdley, "Just a jerk," are among the familiars. They kid commercials by offering skits of various kinds. In fact, they kid anything and everything that comes into their versatile minds. They even needle their boss since they introduce their programs with the announcement, “Bob and Ray take great pleasure in presenting the National Broadcasting Co.”
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Being funny 18 hours a week is rather a strain, Bob and Ray admitted as we lunched at Café Louis XIV. They made that statement seriously. As a matter of fact, off the air they are rather serious young men. As we talked, they seemed more or less, detached. There was reason for that—they were soon due at a rehearsal. Asked for what they were ultimately heading, they replied in unison, “Ulcers.”
Bob and Ray continued to bounce around on the NBC schedule, then jumped to 485 Madison Avenue where their characters enlivened the airwaves on CBS. They were still on the air in the ‘70s at the former New York hub of the Mutual network, and later on NPR. Their routines perhaps evoked more nostalgia than anything else, but their humour still stands up. You don’t need to have listened to “Linda’s First Love” as you hear the banal dialogue of Bob and Ray’s soap “The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely.” And there’s still a nugget of reality stretched to the Nth degree of ridiculousness in the phoney products the pair would hawk on the air. And who can’t appreciate the know-it-all, all-American kid Jack Headstrong getting his comeuppance from his buddy Billy, even if one isn’t familiar with “Jack Armstrong” (and its breathless, condescending offers paid out of parents’ wallets)?
There was plenty of parody and self-parody on radio, but only a handful of great radio satirists. Bob and Ray were among the best.