I consider Bob Elliott a friend. We’ve traveled thousands of miles together. He’s made me laugh so hard I cried. Once, after he cracked a joke, I had to pull off the road so I wouldn’t run into a semi. He’s a long-time pal of my wife, Jaclyn, too. When she was five, he made her giggle until she fell asleep and cheered her up when she was railroaded into making macaroni art.
Until I interviewed him for this story though, we only knew Bob through the “Best of Bob & Ray” CDs and my wife’s 25-year-old NPR tape recordings. He and his partner-in-laugh Ray Goulding have long entertained me with their satirical shticks that were simple, ridiculous, and absolutely brilliant.
Their famous radio format would probably be as foreign as an eight-track tape is to most of today’s Twittering society, but the deadpan Bob & Ray skits are as wacky and hilarious as anything available on iTunes. Their fictitious characters, companies, and soap operas poked fun at politics, media, and the everyday man in a way that was not offensive or vulgar, but clever and innocent.
There was roaming reporter Wally Ballou, who once interviewed the “man in the street” about the president’s economic address and learned that the man’s underwear elastic never fully dried costing him more in the coin machine dryer; Harlow P. Whitcomb, president of the Slow Talkers of America, who took 35 seconds just to say his name; and E.L Worbly, who learned his hair was falling out because he came down with a bad case of the tree disorder Dutch Elm Disease. Then there were the oddball sponsors of “Bob & Ray”: Monongahela Steel Ingots (“Casting steel ingots with the housewife in mind”), The United States Mint (“One of the nation’s leading producers of genuine U.S. currency”), and The Croftweiler Industrial Cartel (“Makers of all sorts of stuff, made out of everything.”)
But to truly understand and appreciate this comedic duo, you have to listen to the impeccable writing that greatly influenced many comedians and writers from Johnny Carson to Garrison Keillor to Kurt Vonnegut. Here’s a typical exchange, between two characters named”Boden” and “Agatha.” They are talking about two sworn foes that went moose hunting together:
Boden: “Were both men carrying shotguns?”
Agatha: “No. I remember that part distinctly because it struck me as strange. Rodney had a gun, but he told Caldwell just to carry a shovel. … You can’t bring down a moose with a shovel!”
Bob & Ray’s radio and television stint spanned from the 1940s to early 1990s. They were on top of the comedic world, twice hosting Saturday Night Live, appearing on Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and David Letterman countless times, and inducted into the radio hall of fame in 1995. Today, 17 years after Goulding passed away, Bob & Ray can be found on iTunes, YouTube, and BobandRay.com.
Unlike many celebrities who define themselves only by their careers, Elliott is more than just Bob & Ray or his television shows. This individualist is and always has been a down-to-earth family man.
“We weren’t show business in any respect. We were very family oriented,” Elliott says. “We didn’t enjoy our free time sitting around with other people in the business. We never went to the Stage Deli to crack jokes with celebrities, and I think that contributed to our longevity.”
Bob Elliott has five children and all of them—including his movie star son, Chris Elliott—are coming to his place the day after this interview to celebrate Bob’s birthday.
"We weren’t show business in any respect."
“I pattern my career after his—certainly in how to view show business, not to take it too seriously,” says Chris Elliott, who has starred in such movies as Ground Hog Day and Something About Mary and has written several books including recently released Into Hot Air. “It’s a completely different feeling to get off a plane in L.A. and go work, and then to get off a plane here [in Maine] and come home. You suddenly realize: Oh that’s why I am doing that—to raise my family like Dad did his.”
“We have always had a real close family. It seems, as I get older, that was always the most important thing in my upbringing, and the business was always kind of joke. Even though all the work my dad did was brilliant, it was sort of like play time for him.”
Eventually, the two Elliotts would work together on several projects, including Fox’s Get a Life and Cabin Boy in which Bob played Chris’ father. “Some of the cameramen didn’t know I was his son,” Chris Elliott says. “The first time we worked together is when he had me on the radio to do Bing Crosby impersonations at 6 years old.”
Now, Abby Elliott, Chris’ daughter, is doing the impersonations on Saturday Night Live. When she was cast to the show, she became the first SNL legacy actor. Chris was on the show in the 1990s.
“That third generation is pretty rare,” Bob Elliott says. “She does a great [MSNBC anchor] Rachel Maddow. She does a special off-beat take, but it’s right on the money. She fits right into any role they give her.”
For Abby, it’s an honor to carry on the Elliott comedy legacy. “Grandpa or papa” originated the “whole deadpan thing. He was so sarcastic and dry, it was fun to watch,” she says.
Now that she is the center of attention, drawing rave reviews from Vanity Fair and People, Abby says family is still a major priority.
“My parents are my best friends,” Abby Elliott says. “We’re not extremely jokey or showbizzy at all. My dad was very much a dad growing up.”
Abby remains close with her cousins and her sister, Bridget (“Bridey”), who interned on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Show and “is the funniest person I know.”
While the Elliott family is full of laughs and talent, there is one sad note. Lee, Bob’s wife of 55 years, suffers from hydrocephalus. He spends every spare moment taking care of her. He says an upcoming birthday party at their Maine cabin will be great “because she’ll get to see everybody. And I think she gets tired of me,” he says with a chuckle.
Bob Elliott is a simple man who cares more about antiques than technology.
In Elliott’s upstairs loft—“where all the action is”—are posters from the 1920s, framed letters from past presidents, antique matchbox tins, his beautiful watercolor paintings, stacks of magazines dating back to the 1950s, and enough radio memorabilia to start a museum. To an organized neat freak, this room would be absolute chaos. It is in here that Elliott paints, types on his typewriter, and makes phone calls, albeit he hates the phone.
“I hate that we’re in a society where every two minutes you pick up the phone and you don’t have to,” Elliott says. “It’s a habit like laughing at somebody who isn’t funny.”
If he feels that way about making phone calls, imagine what he would think about Twitter, where people share details of their lives—in short snippets—24/7. Bob will most likely never discover Twitter though, since he doesn’t own a computer.
Almost every acquaintance and relative has tried to convince Bob Elliott to purchase a computer, to pick up on this creation called the Internet and maybe send an email here and there. Not owning one has even become a hindrance in writing his book; mailing full manuscripts back and forth for review isn’t exactly the industry standard anymore.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get him to use the Web,” Chris Elliott says. “But he won’t listen. …. He likes his typewriter.”
In Bob’s defense, he is quite the typist. He brags about how he typed 95 words a minute in school.
“I would become too involved with the Internet. If I learn of a word or fact that intrigues me, I want to physically look it up, not just type something,” he says. “Professional people compliment me on my handwritten notes,” he says. “Nobody gets notes like that anymore. I like writing them. They’re more personal.”
Because Bob & Ray’s main shticks were media and political parodies, Bob Elliott is frequently asked how he would make fun of today’s media and politics.
“I think the media is a joke in itself,” he says. “It’s become such a battle for ratings that they don’t cover the news like they used to. I don’t know where the news business is going.”
As for politics, it’s really no laughing matter anymore. People seem increasingly reluctant to accept personal responsibility and expect way too much from government, Elliott complains.
“The attitude is a lot different than it used to be,” he says. “I don’t have any great hope that the [Stimulus Package] is going to do much. I am appalled at the connection between the government and automobile industry—that is way off base. But I do think the average American is very patriotic…”
People seem increasingly reluctant to accept personal responsibility and expect way too much from government, Elliott complains.
So, there is still hope in his “non-expert” opinion. As for his beloved profession of comedy, he is less optimistic. He believes humor has become somewhat tasteless with radio shock jocks constantly making lewd remarks. He says Bob & Ray never made fun of anybody in particular, just types, and the show followed strict editorial guidelines not practiced on today’s radio.
“We couldn’t get a job today,” he says. “Stand up comedy has been overblown. Over the years, many people have become comedians and they’re not funny.”
Indeed, it’s hard to find a comedian who can make you laugh using family language or by ridiculously describing everyday situations or societal archetypes. But then again, not every comedian is as talented, thoughtful and intelligent as Bob Elliott. He is a definite original, who has lived by his own script, not anyone else’s. And that has been as memorable as the closing line to his old shows: “This is Bob Elliott reminding you to hang by your thumbs.”
Fred Minnick is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in Investor's Business Daily, msn.com, Louisville Courier Journal, The Oklahoma Gazette, and Kentucky Monthly, among other venues.