Bob Elliott, the surviving half of Bob and Ray, the legendary radio comedy team that came to national fame in the 1950s and continued to be a cult favorite decades later, died Tuesday at his home in Cundy's Harbor, Maine. He was 92.
The cause was throat cancer, his son Chris Elliott said in an email. The younger Elliott is a comic actor. Bob Elliott was also grandfather to comic actress Abby Elliott.
In a more-than-four-decade comedy partnership that was born in a Boston radio station after World War II, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were blessed with what a writer for the New Yorker once described as an “infinite sense of the ridiculous.”
Vocally adept comic actors with perfect timing and delivery, Bob and Ray were masters of subtle, un-abrasive satire delivered in two-man sketches featuring an array of colorfully memorable characters.
Their primary target was radio itself.
As Elliott told the New York Daily News in 1992: “Our original premise was that radio was too pompous.”
Sketches ranged from the “Bob and Ray Mystery Tune” (winners received $18 “in cash,” plus a free breakfast at Rudy's House of Dry Toast) to the call-in opinion program “Speaking Out” (“I think the Prince of Wales should be a civil service job”). And they poked fun at commercials, with “sponsors” such as Cool Canadian Air (“Packed fresh every day in the Hudson Bay and shipped to your door.”)
Elliott — he was the shorter, thinner, balding one — was best known as Wally Ballou, the inept, adenoidal newsman whose field reports invariably were picked up by his microphone a second late: “-lly Ballou here.”
Among many other characters, Elliott also portrayed Dr. Daryll Dexter, the world-renowned Komodo dragon authority from Upper Montclair, N.J.; and Harlow P. Whitcomb, president and recording secretary of the Slow Talkers of America.
Johnny Carson called Bob and Ray “two of the funniest — and most influential — humorists of their time.”
Among those who were influenced by — or simply called themselves fans of — Bob and Ray were Jay Leno, David Letterman, George Carlin, Garrison Keillor, Al Franken, Kurt Vonnegut and L.A. radio's Bob and Ray-inspired Al Lohman and Roger Barkley.
In the 2003 book “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” author Gerald Nachman called Bob and Ray inventive comics whose “dry, laid-back, on-target sensibility transcended broadcasting and their own time.”
“Astonishingly,” Nachman wrote, “they lasted nearly half a century and remained funny long after radio comedy was dead and buried.”
An only child whose father was an insurance salesman, Elliott was born in Boston on March 26, 1923, and grew up in suburban Winchester.
After graduating from high school, Elliott attended the Feagin School of Drama and Radio in New York City, where he worked nights as an usher at Radio City Music Hall and later as a page at NBC.
Returning to Boston in 1941, he became an announcer at radio station WHDH. In the Army during World War II, he went to Europe with the 26th Infantry Division but was transferred to Special Services. In 1946, Elliott returned to WHDH as the morning disc jockey. Goulding, a fellow Army veteran and Massachusetts native, also worked there.
Elliott was the morning newscaster. Their comedy partnership began simply as on-air banter.
“We knew that we were on the same wavelength,” Elliott said in an interview with Nachman.
The station quickly gave them a daily half-hour show of their own, “Matinee with Bob and Ray.”
“They had to have that rhyme, and it's the only reason we're Bob and Ray and not Ray and Bob,” Elliott said in a 1973 interview with the New Yorker.
In 1951, the duo headed to New York City, where they landed their first network radio show on NBC.
The same year, they became the stars of “Bob and Ray,” an evening TV comedy-variety show that ran on NBC until 1953. (Although Bob and Ray supplied the female voices on radio, first Audrey Meadows and then Cloris Leachman played the female characters on the TV show.)
Elliott and Goulding also launched a longtime side career in the early 1950s doing radio and television commercials.
Bob and Ray, who improvised their comedy sketches during their early years and began using writers sometime in the '50s, gained further attention in 1955 when they began a long stint doing live comedy spots on NBC's national weekend radio program “Monitor.
“We weren't ever poisonous; never had a particular ax to grind,” Elliott once said. “Basically, we try to entertain each other.”
Bob and Ray, whose radio show also appeared on the CBS and Mutual networks — as well as New York radio stations WINS, WHN and WOR — opened on Broadway in 1970 with “Bob and Ray — The Two and Only.” The comedy sketch show ran for five months before they took it on tour.
Their last regular radio show, on WOR, ended in 1976, but they continued doing commercials and making occasional TV appearances. In the early '80s, they underwent a national revival with “The Bob and Ray Public Radio Show,” which aired on public radio stations around the country; and in 1984, they did two sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall.
“We get rediscovered every generation,” Elliott told the Los Angeles Times that year.
In 1990, Goulding died of kidney failure at age 68.
“I think the main reason we worked well together was that we really appreciated each other,” Elliott told the New York Times at the time. “We had no rivalry, just great mutual respect. We always got along well.”
The semi-retired Elliott played his son Chris' father on Chris' 1990-92 Fox sitcom “Get a Life;” and he appeared again as his son's father in Chris' 1994 movie comedy “Cabin Boy.”
Elliott also wrote chapter “rebuttals” for Chris' 1989 “tell all” mock autobiography “Daddy's Boy: A Son's Shocking Account of Life with a Famous Father.”
Bob and Ray, who received three Peabody Awards over the years, were inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.
McLellan is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.