Pop-culture satirist Bob Elliott dies at 92

He portrayed the vapid man-on-the-street reporter Wally Ballou, “winner of over seven international diction awards.” He played Arthur Sturdley, curmudgeonly host of a “no-talent” show. He was the pitchman for Einbinder Flypaper, “the brand you’ve gradually grown to trust over the course of three generations.”

And he was Harlow . . . P. . . . Whitcomb, who spoke with exasperatingly long pauses as “president . . . and . . . recording . . . secretary . . . of the . . . Slow . . . Talkers . . . of . . . America.”

In a career that was as ridiculous as it was sublime, Bob Elliott, who died Feb. 2 at 92 in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, was half of the comedy team Bob and Ray. He and the late Ray Goulding were among the drollest and most inventive pop-culture satirists of their generation as writers, producers and actors.

Elliott also was the patriarch of a comedy family that included his actor-writer son, Chris Elliott, and a granddaughter, actress-comedian Abby Elliott, both former cast members of “Saturday Night Live.” Brackett Funeral Home in Brunswick, Maine, confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.

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Bob Elliott’s show-business legacy firmly rested on his partnership with Goulding, who died in 1990. They appeared on Broadway, film and TV – notably as the voices of Bert and Harry Piel, the fictional sibling proprietors of Piels beer in a series of popular animated television commercials in the 1950s and 1960s.

On the radio, the duo’s primary medium, they broadcast “from approximately coast to coast,” as they liked to say, on outlets including NBC, CBS and National Public Radio. They were a seminal influence on comic entertainers including Woody Allen, David Letterman, Jonathan Winters, Al Franken and “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels.

A hallmark of Bob and Ray comedy was bone-dry delivery of the absurd.

With masterly comic timing – Elliott with a nasal deadpan, Goulding with booming authority – Bob and Ray mocked the cliches and banalities of newscasts, politics, sports and advertising. The characters they played were inept, pompous or shady – logic-free “experts,” sore political losers, dense reporters and dimwitted everymen.

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One of their favorite skits involved Wally Ballou interviewing a paperclip company tycoon who tackles “waste and inefficiency” by running a sweatshop of indentured servants. Employees, who earn 14 cents a week, are bound by a “99-year sweetheart contract” and imprisoned if they try to quit.

“How can anybody possibly live on 14 cents a week?” Ballou asks.

Goulding, as the industrialist, replies defensively, “We don’t pry into the personal lives of our employees, Wally.”

Their playfully warped sensibilities often involved sly commentaries of the conventions of radio and TV, and the people who take those mediums seriously.

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New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes once wrote: “They work masterfully close to the very things they are gently mocking, and this gives their sensible nonsense its special flavor. For one thing it shows just how much arrant nonsense we actually accept in television.”

Recurring characters included sports reporter Biff Burns, who once interviewed the world-champion “low jumper,” and the women’s show host Mary McGoon, who meandered from everyday recipes (frozen ginger ale salad, pabulum popsicles) to homespun medical advice (her cold remedy: goose fat in an Argyle sock, hung around the neck).

Bob and Ray voiced a panoply of overwrought characters from faux soap operas such as “General Pharmacy,” “Garish Summit” and “Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife” (the last a parody of a long-running radio saga, “Backstage Wife,” about a woman named Mary Noble).

Daring for the time, they used sequences in “Mary Backstayge” to satirize Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade; the demagogic Wisconsin Republican was reimagined as Zoning Commissioner Carstairs, a ruthless opponent to building permits that would undermine the way of life in bucolic Skunk Haven, Long Island.

Decades later, Elliott told The New York Times that he and Goulding often went to a bar near the radio studio to watch the televised McCarthy hearings. “Then we’d use the material in the next day’s show,” he said. “I consider that, from a creative point of view, one of the top things we did.”

The venture into political lampooning was rare. More typical of their output were fake commercials hawking membership in Heightwatchers International (sold with “six ample servings of low vitamins and nutrients in artificial colorings”) and series such as “Down the Byways,” which spoofed broadcaster Charles Kuralt’s TV essays on vanishing Americana by visiting with “one of the last of the small-town grouches.”

They always closed their show with the same signoff: “This is Ray Goulding, reminding you to write if you get work.” “And Bob Elliott, reminding you to hang by your thumbs.”

Bob and Ray’s admirers extended far beyond show business figures such as Allen and Letterman. One of their most devoted fans was novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who once wrote in a foreword to the 1975 collection “Write If You Get Work: The Best of Bob & Ray”: “They feature Americans who are almost always fourth-rate or below, engaged in enterprises which, if not contemptible, are at least insane.

“And while other comedians show us persons tormented by bad luck and enemies and so on, Bob and Ray’s characters threaten to wreck themselves and their surroundings with their own stupidity. . . . Man is not evil, they seem to say. He is simply too hilariously stupid to survive.”

Robert Brackett Elliott was born in Boston on March 26, 1923, and he grew up in nearby Winchester. His father, who sold insurance, introduced him to the wry humor of author Robert Benchley.

Bob, an only child, also gravitated to the radio, listening to vaudeville stars such as Ed Wynn. In the early 1940s, he attended the Feagin dramatic school in New York, where classmates included future movie stars Angela Lansbury, Jeff Chandler and Gordon MacRae.

After Elliott’s Army service in World War II – he was in the supply corps in Europe – the Bob and Ray partnership coalesced on a failing, up-for-anything Boston radio station, WHDH.

At the time, Elliott was a disc jockey and Goulding was a news announcer, and they began improvising during the dead air between segments. Management, Elliott later said, “was very free in letting us play.”

Elliott once interviewed a man named Al Moffley (Goulding) who often went to extreme lengths to disprove adages. He burned candles at both ends (“They get more life that way”) and proved it was possible to live in a glass house and still throw stones – just not inside the home.

They developed a large fan base in Boston, and in 1951 they were hired by NBC in New York for both radio and TV. “The Bob and Ray Show” often featured ad-libbed moments but also relied on professional writers, such as Tom Koch, to contribute sketches. The TV cast included Cloris Leachman and a pre-“Honeymooners” Audrey Meadows.

“The Bob and Ray Show” was heard on CBS, the Mutual Broadcasting System, and New York stations WINS, WOR and WHN. The show’s last incarnation aired on National Public Radio from 1982 to 1987.

In a sprawling career, they drew enthusiastic reviews in the early 1970s for their Broadway show “Bob and Ray: The Two and Only,” had movie cameos and became favorite late-night guests of Johnny Carson and Letterman.

They introduced themselves to a younger audience with their 1979 appearance on a “Saturday Night Live” special. To Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” featuring Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner as disco backup singers, Bob and Ray are seated in business attire and declaim the chorus, “If you want my body, and you think I’m sexy, come on, sugar, let me know.”

The team received Peabody Awards and was inducted into the National Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the National Radio Hall of Fame. After Goulding’s death, Elliott played the father – he called it “typecasting” – to Chris Elliott on the early 1990s Fox TV sitcom “Get a Life.”

His first marriage, to Jane Underwood, ended in divorce. His second wife, Lee Knight, whom he married in 1954, died in 2012. Survivors include three children from his second marriage, Amy Andersen, Bob Elliott Jr. and Chris Elliott, and two stepdaughters he adopted, Colony Elliott Santangelo and Shannon Elliott; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren, The New York Times reported.

Bob and Ray often were asked why they were billed in that order. Elliott once explained that their first show, in Boston, was called “Matinee with Bob and Ray,” because of the preference in those days for catchy rhyming titles.

He added, “It would have sounded kind of dumb to say ‘Matinob with Ray and Bob.’ “