Book Review: David Pollock's 'Bob and Ray, Keener than Most Persons'

Andersen's

The comedy duo Bob & Ray developed Andersen's famous duo, Hap Pea and Pea Wee, still going strong 50 years later.

Southbound past Santa Maria, the sights are many and the signs are few. Jungle-green vineyards hug the bare hills and rolling, lion-colored pastures are grazed by black, sturdy cattle. Oak-capped mountains extend to the horizon. And then there is this billboard of two cartoon guys chopping up peas with a sledgehammer and chisel: Hap Pea and Pea Wee. It advertises Andersen's, the a famous soup café in Buellton. But it’s also the Westernmost remaining manifestation of America’s most discreetly famous comic duo—Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, aka Bob and Ray, who thought up this durable ad campaign over 50 years ago.

There’ve been three book collections of Bob and Ray scripts, but the men behind them have largely remained a mystery. Now David Pollock’s Bob and Ray, Keener than Most Persons offers the story behind the duo. Of how they moved up from their 1945 gig doing the fishing reports on a small Boston radio station to early TV in New York, to their mighty success in the ad game and a Broadway hit, to a favorite act on Saturday Night Live and the Tonight show. And of their sometimes turbulent family lives, all for an unequaled 43 years together.

During which time hundreds tried, but no one ever seemed to quite be able to figure out exactly why they were so funny.

Pollock says this is because they only tried to please one another, and calls their partnership a “fortuitous intersection of serendipity and happenstance.” This unique joining resulted in their perfect deadpan delivery of material that included wildhair impersonations, loopy parodies of soap opera formats now extinct for decades, fake interviews with crusty sports has-beens and of course, that doughty newsman stereotype Wally  Ballou, who could still be doing his hilariously bollixed remotes for a lot of NPR stations today.

Pollock, a broadcast writing veteran himself, has accomplished something of a labor of love here and accordingly has chosen to jam in just about every fact he’s accrued over his apparent decades of researches. Does one really have to know the serial numbers of Bob and Ray’s first studio tape recorders? Or the details of Bob Elliott’s family Thanksgiving dinners in Somerville, Mass.? It’s as though the author, not really knowing the difference between a significant and insignificant detail, was afraid to leave anything out.

The general reader may not much appreciate this sprawl of information, but the broadcast history buff -- and you know who you are (Yes, Marc, we do. -- Editor) -- will probably be delighted at the wealth of sometimes random but frequently fascinating information on early radio and TV personalities, off-air family life, evolving technology and network office politics that Pollock crams into his 300 pages.  There are a few garish fluffs (bass Bill Brown, not tenor Clyde McPhatter, sang “60 Minute Man”).   But this is, on the whole, as heartfelt, engrossing, and passionate a rendering of the greatest and most influential broadcast duo of all time as we are ever likely to see.

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