The other day, I finished a book I'd wanted to read for a while, Bob and Ray: Keener Than Most Persons by David Pollock (It's not that I'd put it off, it's just hard to find.) It's a biography of the two guys who are perhaps my favorite comedy team, who began in radio, did a lot of television and some movies, and even had a successful Broadway show, Bob and Ray: The Two and Only.
The book is well-done and very enjoyable. But then, you almost wonder how it couldn't be fun, Bob and Ray are such pleasures to be around. The only real quibble is that the book gets a little repetitious at times, regularly telling us about their improvising process when doing one of their many soap opera parodies, like their ongoing Mary Backstage, Noble Wife (a parody of the old radio drama, Mary Noble, Backstage Wife). To a certain degree, I think, that may be because Bob and Ray got along so well, and their lives so lacking in controversy that some material is needed to fill-in. Mind you, I don't think one wants there to be controversy with Bob and Ray. You sense they they always did get along. And that's fine for the book, it's just a joy reading about their shows and characters and how things developed over time. It's remarkable, too, that they got along so well and without controversy, since their partnership lasted 43 years. That's longer than Laurel & Hardy. And far longer than most every other comedy team, a great many of whom split up in acrimony far earlier.
The most "controversial" the book gets is that apparently Ray Goulding had a bit of a temper -- though it was never directed at Bob Elliott. Rather, it was generally at executives when they'd want "the boys" to do stupid things. Or at his kids when they came in late or did something wrong. And it would be quick, and then over and forgotten. Both seemingly had wonderful family lives. Bob got divorced fairly early on after a young marriage, but that's it. They had long marriages, their kids all turned out well, and their families doted on them.
(And for those keeping score, Bob Elliott is the father of Chris Elliott, who did so much on various David Letterman shows, and a lot of other TV work, most recently as Lily's father on How I Met Your Mother. And Chris is the father -- and therefore Bob the grandfather -- of Abby Elliott, from Saturday Night Live.)
I wish the book had more examples of their humor, rather than just an occasional line or a description of their voluminous sketches, though those descriptions are often enough to evoke laughs. And as for lines, there are a couple of books with scripts for that, and countless recordings.
The title of the book, by the way, is a twist on another long-running Bob and Ray sketch, which was a parody of the old radio drama, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. Their version was called, Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons. It's worth noting, too, that the author David Pollock is himself a very successful comedy writer. With his partner Elias Davis, the two have written for such shows as M*A*S*H (for which they did 17 episodes), Frasier (for which they won an Emmy Award), Cheers, The Carol Burnett Show and more.
I had the chance to see Bob Elliott at a Museum of Broadcasting tribute at the L.A. Country Art Museum. (The book even references the appearance -- though not that I asked a question...) He was alone, Ray being ill at that point, soon after passing away from kidney problems. It was a wonderful evening, and though I rarely ever even have the desire to ask a question at such things, I did raise my hand and got called on. I wanted to know why they went by "Bob and Ray," and not "Ray and Bob." He laughed, and said, "Y'know, nobody's ever asked us that before." He couldn't exactly remember, he said, but thought it was probably because the first show they did together was a morning radio show called, Start Your Day with Bob and Ray, because it rhymed.
Here are a couple of sketches they did on The David Letterman Show. I like both, though they're not among their "best." But I like this because you get to see them, not just hear, and there are two sketches included, and also it's a pleasure to see how much David Letterman adored them. (It's also worth noting that this is Part 2 of their appearance which was split into separate videos. Letterman had them on for 12 minutes.) You'll note from the cover art above that Letterman wrote the introduction to the book.
Enough writing, here's Bob and Ray, already.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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