This New Year is off to a bad start. It’s not even two months in, and nearly every day now we hear of another famous person—particularly entertainers and comedians—who have recently died (and that’s not counting certain politicians who are now dying a slow political death in this presidential election year..). It is becoming eerie: Glenn Frey (“The Eagles”), David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Pat Harrington (building super Dwayne Schneider of “One Day at a Time”), Natalie Cole, Lenny Kilmister (front man for the “Motorheads”), Dan Haggerty (“Grizzly Adams”), Richard Libertini, David Margulies, Jason Wingreen (Harry the bartender in “Archie Bunker’s Place”), Abe Vigoda (you certainly know him: he’s the man who’s been “dying” for the last 30 years and now he’s finally went and done it…Detective Fish from “Barney Miller”). And now Bob Elliott.
For a certain segment of the population, the name Bob Elliott would not conjure up immediate recognition. For most people, even the mention of his name would not ring a bell. And even if he was here and actually rang a bell, they still wouldn’t know who he was. Perhaps if they saw a photo of him, or saw an old film of one his skits with his partner in comedic genius, maybe he’d be recognized.
This was the genius of the comic team of “Bob and Ray”—once known as “The Two and Only”—who quietly made their mark upon the comedic history of the United States: Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. Their secret was in their very “ordinariness,” that is, for comedians, they didn’t look like “comedians.” They were ordinary looking in their facial features and physical bearing. They looked like the two middle-age gentlemen they were. Bob Elliott’s distinguishing feature where his eyes: they seemed so far apart that he looked like a respectable relative of Marty Feldman—other than that, he’d pass for some nondescript accountant in Toldeo, Ohio. And as for Ray Goulding, he looked like some loveable blowhard you knew in your childhood who lived up the block and you learned not to talk to for very long or else a simple “hello” would turn into a 3-hour monologue on how the invention of sliced bread affected the gross national product of industrialized societies. But there was a time that when Mr. Goulding grew a mustache (and I saw a photo of him so “attired”) he could’ve been a double for the “most trusted man in America,” CBS newsman Walter Cronkite—the resemblance was so striking. Because they were so “nondescript,” Messrs. Bob and Ray could lob a comedic bomb without anybody knowing it—and by the time people got the point of the joke, they were already on to the next one.
Besides their looks, what distinguished their comedy was the fact that it was also “ordinary”—they didn’t rely on sight gags, elaborate sets or complicated meanings. They simply used ordinary people, ordinary words and ordinary situations from life as fodder for their comedy. They simply stood side by side doing their act or just sitting down, facing each other, ready to “out-deadpan” the heck out of each other, with millions of TV viewers spying over their shoulders, witnessing their commentary on contemporary life, in their special inimitable way.
As they say, people “of a certain age” will remember who this duo was, a comedic team who occupied their part of the comedic stage for the most part of the middle 20th century. With Mr. Elliott’s death, it seems that their style of comedy might well have died with him; and that would be a loss. Their kind of comedy is rare now; 21st-century minds might not “get” the humor of another, simpler time. In an increasingly complex world, everything—including comedy—has become even more complex along with it, making comedy ever harder to comprehend or appreciate. That was their gift: simplicity as comedy. There have been other comedians who were as simple and funny as they were, but they were a (if not the) first: they were intellectual vaudevillians. However, it says something about these two men, Bob and Ray—while never approaching the “superstardom” of other comics—were favorites of two of comedy’s greats, Groucho Marx and Johnny Carson (who themselves aren’t as appreciated as they once were).
I have avoided in describing in any detail any of their skits; words are inadequate to describe what they did and how they did it. It is best that you, the reader (whether you grew up with Bob and Ray or are only now finding out about them), see for yourself, in this clip from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In this segment (which is almost 10 minutes), you’ll see two of my favorites: the “most beautiful face contest winner” and the “four-leaf clover farmer.” If these two nondescript looking men could make “the king of late night” double over with laughter, then they must have been doing something right…
Bob Elliott was 92 when he died this past Tuesday, Feb. 2 (on Groundhog Day, no less—Bob Elliott was a comic with great timing to the end) at his home in Cundy’s Harbor, Me. It is an irony of ironies that the man who made comedy with a quiet voice had to die from throat cancer. Surely Mr. Elliott would have appreciated the irony of that. Perhaps now, when he entered the Pearly Gates and exchanged hearty felicitations with St. Peter, he has met up with his comedic comrade and performed some skits for the heavenly cohort—now that would be a “captive audience”! At least, I’d like to think so. And I would have no doubt that in the comedy section of heaven, they’re cracking everybody up with their “beautiful faces.”