Friday, March 21, 2008

The Two and Only

Bob and Ray (or, in this case, Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott) in a promotional photo for Monitor, the NBC radio program that showcased their genius in the 1950s. The woman in the middle is Tedi Thurman, a.k.a. "Miss Monitor," the sultry-voiced model who read weather forecasts on the program (Wikipedia)

Scott Johnson of Powerline reminds us that Thursday marked the anniversary of the birth of Ray Goulding, who, in his words, was “responsible for one-half of the hilarity” of Bob and Ray, one of the greatest radio (and comedy) teams of all time.

Mr. Goulding passed away in 1990; his partner, Bob Elliot is now retired. But the merriment they created lives on, in recordings from their countless radio shows, TV appearances and even the occasional foray into theater.

Virtually anything was fodder for their gentle satire. They relentlessly lampooned the media through such memorable characters as inept reporter Wally Ballou, whose opening transmission was inevitably cut off (-ally Ballou here!); dim-witted sportscasters Biff Burns and Johnny Braddock; home economics expert Mary Margaret McGoon (who offered recipes for ginger ale salad and “mock turkey”), and Arthur Sturdley, a take-off on media titan Arthur Godfrey.

There were commercials for imaginary sponsors; Monongahela Metal Foundry (“Casting steel ingots with the housewife in mind”) and The Croftweiler Industrial Cartel, “makers of all sorts of stuff, made out of everything.” The imaginary spots typically aired during parodies of other radio shows; one of their soap opera take-offs (Mary Backstage, Noble Wife) was actually better known than the program it spoofed.

Bob and Ray got their start at Boston radio station WHDH in the late 1940s; they eventually relocated moved to New York City, working in both radio and TV. One of their longest-running (and best-known) gigs was on NBC’s Monitor, the brain-child of legendary programmer Pat Weaver, who was trying to save network radio against the tsunami called television. There was a touch of irony in Weaver's mission. As the creator of the Today and Tonight programs, Weaver helped create the template for network TV, which had siphoned off much of the radio audience by the mid-1950s.

Weaver envisioned Monitor as a "kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria,” encompassing everything from news, commentary and interviews, to popular music, cultural events, and yes, humor. Monitor became a staple of NBC radio’s weekend programming for 20 years, generating a huge audience and tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

But Weaver and his producers also understood the perils of live radio. On occasion, remote broadcasts suffered technical glitches; guests failed to show up, or the show simply needed a little shot in the arm. As a safety net, NBC hired Bob and Ray, who spent most of their weekends in Radio Central, the elaborate broadcast complex created for Monitor. With minimal notice, they would go on the air, performing one of their classic skits, or masterfully ad-libbing a bit until the next segment was ready to air.

Bob and Ray quickly became one of the show's most popular features. They received a Peabody Award for their work in 1956, one of only three won by Monitor during its long run. As their citation noted:

They deal primarily in satire, that rare and precious commodity. Their aim is deadly; their level is high; and their material is fresh, original, imaginative, and terribly funny. In any year, radio listeners would have reason to be grateful to this team, but especially so in the arid twelve months just past when, by reason of their unrelenting excellence, “Bob and Ray” have stood as the lone magnificent palm tree in a vast and dreary desert. In recognition of these facts, the George Foster Peabody Award for outstanding radio entertainment goes to “Bob and Ray.”

Fifty years later, the duo’s timeless comedy remains fresh and sharp. Communications professor Dennis Hart has one of their many Monitor appearances on his tribute site for the program. He also has an audio snippet from Hugh Downs, one of the many hosts who worked with Bob and Ray. Incidentally, Professor Hart has written a pair of terrific books on Monitor and its personalities; both are recommended reads for anyone interested in the last, great program of commercial network radio.

Happily, the work of Bob and Ray also lives on, through XM Satellite Radio and an exhaustive discography, available through their website. The site also offers a free listen to some of their classic routines, including the famous "Komodo Dragon" skit. In that bit, Bob plays an expert on the giant reptile, interviewed by an inept reporter (Ray), whose questions repeat what Elliott has already discussed.

They were--and are--American originals, The Two and Only.

ADDENDUM: Bob and Ray weren't the only comedic teams employed by Monitor. Mike Nichols and Elaine May provided routines for several years, but unlike Bob and Ray, they preferred to work on tape. At least one account suggests that recording sessions for Nichols and May were marathon affairs; it wasn't unusual for the duo to tape 13-14 bits, but only one or two ultimately proved airworthy. That was quite a contrast to Bob and Ray, who typically worked live, and often without a script, filling time and entertaining--brillantly--on Monitor.

Also, an early happy birthday to Mr. Elliott, who turns 85 next week.


herb said...

XM Radio link doesnt work

Unknown said...

B&R also did real commercials for Piels Beer. They took the rolls of Harry and Bert Piel in the commercials. If my memory is correct, Piels eventually had to take Harry and Bert off the air - they had too many complaints - from people who heard Harry and Bert as Aryan Bert. Urban legend? I don't know. But that's the recollection of this 71 y.o. ex-New Jersey resident.

DebbieKinIL said...

Thanks for the link. I listened to a few selections there and got a real history lesson. Pullman railroad cars, and transistor radios...