Robert B. Elliott H’91

Robert B. Elliott H’91 died on February 2, 2016, in Harpswell, Maine.

(The following was published in The New York Times on February 3, 2016):

Bob Elliott, who as half of the comedy team Bob and Ray purveyed a distinctively low-key brand of humor on radio and television for more than 40 years, died on Tuesday at his home in Cundy’s Harbor, Me. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his son Chris Elliott, the actor and comedian, who said his father had had throat cancer.

Mr. Elliott and his partner, Ray Goulding — Bob was the more soft-spoken one, Ray the deep-voiced and more often blustery one — were unusual among two-person comedy teams. Rather than one of them always playing it straight and the other handling the jokes, they took turns being the straight man.

As Mr. Elliott told Mike Sacks, the author of “Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers” (2014), “We were both sort of straight men reacting against the other.”

Together they specialized in debunking gasbags, political airheads, no-talent entrepreneurs and Madison Avenue hypemasters. Their weapon was not caustic satire but wry understatement.

A typical bit of theirs was called “The Bob and Ray Overstocked Warehouse,” in which Mr. Elliott announced, deadpan: “We have 124 full cases of canned corned beef, which are clearly stamped ‘San Juan Hill, 1898.’ If you do not find this corned beef all you had hoped it would be, just leave word with the executor of your estate to return the remaining unopened cans to us.”

Perhaps the most enduring, and endearing, character they created was Mr. Elliott’s mild-mannered but indefatigable radio reporter, Wally Ballou.

Wally, whose reports always began a split-second late (“…ly Ballou here”), was a self-promoter, but a modest one — he was known to introduce himself as “radio’s highly regarded Wally Ballou, winner of over seven international diction awards.” His interview subjects (all played by Mr. Goulding, of course) had even more to be modest about than he did. They included a farmer who was plagued with bad luck, even though his crop consisted of four-leaf clovers, and the owner of a paper-clip factory whose idea of efficiency was paying his workers 14 cents a week.

After Mr. Goulding died in 1990, many feared they would never see or hear Mr. Elliott again, so inseparable was he from his partner. But he continued to work.

He became a cast member of Garrison Keillor’s “American Radio Company of the Air,” which briefly replaced “A Prairie Home Companion” on public radio. He appeared in the Bill Murray movie “Quick Change.” He played the father of his son Chris in the 1990-92 television series “Get a Life” and the 1994 movie “Cabin Boy.”

Comedy was an Elliott family affair. Chris Elliott — who in 1989 wrote a parody of celebrity tell-all books, “Daddy’s Boy,” with “rebuttals” by his father — has two daughters, Abby and Bridey, who also went into the business. Abby Elliott is a movie and TV actress who spent four seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” where Chris had earlier been a cast member. Bridey Elliott co-starred in the 2015 movie “Fort Tilden.”

 

Mr. Elliott also made commercials — real ones, as he had with Mr. Goulding years earlier when they provided the voices for Bert and Harry Piel, the animated spokesmen for a New York brewing company. But any fan who heard Mr. Elliott’s mellow voice in a legitimate commercial could not help recalling the spoofs of Madison Avenue spots that he did over the years with Mr. Goulding.

The team’s ersatz advertisements included exhortations on behalf of the Monongahela Metal Foundry (“Steel ingots cast with the housewife in mind”), Einbinder Flypaper (“The flypaper you’ve gradually grown to trust over the course of three generations”) and Height Watchers International.

Though Bob and Ray were seen on television, on Broadway and in the movies “Cold Turkey” (1971) and “Author! Author!” (1982), radio was their natural habitat. “Ray and I both grew up with radio,” Mr. Elliott once said. “Our whole hopes for the future were that we’d get into radio.” They won three Peabody Awards for their radio work and were inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1984 and the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.

Robert Brackett Elliott was born on March 26, 1923, in Boston. His father was an insurance salesman; his mother refinished antiques. An only child, he grew up in Winchester, Mass., and while attending Winchester High School developed his radio skills over the school’s public address system.

After high school, Mr. Elliott ventured to New York to enroll in the Feagin School of Drama and Radio. Back in Boston, he briefly worked as an announcer at WHDH before serving in Northern Europe with the Army during World War II.

After his discharge in 1946, he returned to WHDH, where he met Mr. Goulding, who had been hired as a D.J. and had a morning show. Mr. Elliott told Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker in 1982 that the two hit it off and began to ad-lib between records to amuse themselves.

“It wasn’t always funny,” he recalled, “but it was something.”

Bob and Ray’s style quickly took shape. As the cultural historian Gerald Nachman wrote, they “never felt a need to destroy their targets, preferring to tickle them to death with a well-aimed feather.”

Within a few months, WHDH gave them their own show, “Matinee With Bob and Ray.” New Englanders liked their patter so much that the station soon gave them another, “Breakfast With Bob and Ray.”

After five years in Boston, they went to New York, auditioned for NBC and were given a 13-week contract. They quit their jobs in Boston and started doing a one-hour Saturday night show on NBC radio in 1951.

They soon made the transition to television. Not all the critics loved them: Jack Gould of The New York Times dismissed them as “an incredibly inept ‘comedy’ team” that delivered “pedestrian theatrics.” But most of their reviews were good, and they began to acquire a loyal following.

Their career quietly picked up steam throughout the 1950s. They were prominently featured on the NBC weekend radio show “Monitor.” They recorded comedy albums. They began appearing on television variety shows; over the years, they were the guests of Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, David Letterman and others. Along the way, they acquired a silent partner, Tom Koch, the uncredited writer or co-writer of many of their routines.

 

They brought their act to Broadway in 1970 with “The Two and Only,” in which Mr. Elliott appeared as Wally Ballou and as, among other characters, the president of the Slow Talkers of America, who talked so slowly that he drove his interviewer, Mr. Goulding, into a rage. (He was still talking as the curtain fell for intermission — and still in midsentence when it rose again for the second act.) It ran for five months.

By the early 1980s, Bob and Ray’s gentle approach had largely been supplanted by a louder and angrier brand of comedy. But they were not forgotten — perhaps, Mr. Elliott theorized, because the “hilarity of pomposity” had not gone out of style — and in 1982, they returned to the airwaves with “The Bob and Ray Public Radio Show” on NPR. They remained on the air for as long as Mr. Goulding’s failing health allowed.

When not performing, Mr. Elliott liked to paint, and he kept a studio in Manhattan for that purpose. He also liked carpentry and prided himself on personally having built at least half his house in Maine.

Mr. Elliott’s marriage to Jane Underwood ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Lee Pepper, died in 2012.

Besides his son Chris, he is survived by another son, Robert Jr.; three daughters, Colony Elliott Santangelo, Amy Elliott Andersen and Shannon Elliott; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

The reasons for Bob and Ray’s lasting appeal were hard to pin down. “Maybe the secret of our success,” Mr. Elliott himself once suggested, “is that we emerge only every few years. We don’t saturate the public, and new generations seem to keep discovering us.”

They were still being discovered two decades after Mr. Goulding’s death, and Mr. Elliott remained proud of their accomplishments — although he tended to express that pride, as he expressed almost everything, very quietly.

One expected no less from a man who once said of his partner and himself, “By the time we discovered we were introverts, it was too late to do anything about it.”

Correction: February 3, 2016
An earlier version of this obituary misquoted Mr. Elliott at one point. He said “Ray and I both grew up with radio,” not “Bob and I both grew up with radio.” The earlier version also misquoted a line from a Bob and Ray parody commercial. It was “The flypaper you’ve gradually grown to trust over the course of three generations” — not “The flypaper you’ve gradually learned to trust over the course of three decades.”