Influences, Part 2: Bob Elliott, Magical Realism & Hiding Your Hand

Following up on my post about David Bowie

*ally Ballou

Bob Elliott

In 1946 radio broadcaster Bob Elliott teamed up with Ray Goulding, and for the next five decades the duo crafted exceptionally wonderful and silly radio comedy. Bob & Ray were heard on national programs across a variety of formats. They portrayed inept reporters, dunderheaded pitchmen, play-by-play sportscasters, soap opera heroins, an entire world of radio broadcasting archetypes. In my opinion Bob Elliot & Ray are as important to American humor as The Goon Show was the British comedy, or Winsor McCay was to comics. They exploited the potential of their medium by leaning into the format conventions and subverting them.

Elliott created characters full of funny ticks, but the humor was driven more by ironically critiquing the commonplace situations they inhabited. Because Bob & Ray always played deadpan and straight, an unsuspecting listener could easily be fooled into thinking they were hearing a sincere program instead of a parody. Here’s an example from a 1970’s tv special produced by Lorne Michaels, featuring Elliott as his most enduring character, the hapless reporter Wally Ballou:

Their ongoing soap opera parodies trapped the cast in an ouroboros constantly on the verge of unravelling, where nothing was simple or ever worked out in their favor. One serial, Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife took a family of actors, mixed in buried treasure, ghosts, amnesia, shipwrecks, alongside more typical soap opera dramatics, and then disregarded any affects of such incidents, in the tradition of Jeeves & Wooster stories or Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips. It was an ongoing narrative, driven only by the need to reach the next joke, that skipped logic and storytelling conventions whenever convenient.

Looked at today the shortcuts Bob & Ray took feel like they’re invoking dream logic or Magical Realism in a way that predates popular examples such as The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, or the works of Henry Jacobs and Kurt Vonnegut. In 1972 the duo were featured in a small budget TV version of Vonnegut’s story “Between Time and Timbuktu: A Space Fantasy”. You can see them at the end of this segment of the special:

Their work influenced a small but very important set of comedians including David Letterman, Robin Williams, and Judd Apatow. Their subversive tone can still be found in the faux news shows that dominate so much of television comedy now.

Daddy's Boy, by Elliott & his son Chris Elliott.

Daddy’s Boy, by Elliott & his son Chris (Get A Life, Cabin Boy)

Bob Elliott & Ray Goulding are notable because their metafictional elements aren’t deployed in a formal, attention drawing manner, but matter-of-factly, scenario to scenario and joke to joke, as quickly as possible to get the job done. There’s a workmanlike brilliance to their comedy that is simple and solid, it holds up no matter how hard you kick it.

From Elliot I learned to downplay my need to be clever and show off, to not harm my art by drawing too much attention to my own hand. Bob Elliot’s snappy ribbing couldn’t be farther away from the headiness of David Bowie, but both artists are legends in their field. They focused on the fundamentals of their craft, skills that make their work inspiring and worthy of ongoing study. 

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This entry was posted in comedy, Criticism, influences, old time radio, pop culture, references, Storytelling, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Influences, Part 2: Bob Elliott, Magical Realism & Hiding Your Hand

  1. Jack Shalom says:

    “…an entire world of radio broadcasting archetypes. In my opinion Bob Elliot & Ray are as important to American humor as The Goon Show was the British comedy, or Winsor McCay was to comics. They exploited the potential of their medium by leaning into the format conventions and subverting them.”

    Yes, exactly. There is no SNL or satiric American sketch comedy without Bob and Ray.

    Like

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