One day in 1946, the morning jock at Boston's WHDH radio, Bob Elliott, was introduced to the newly hired newsguy, Ray Goulding. Vocally, they were a mismatch: Ray had the sonorous voice of authority, Bob the nasality of a fellow fighting a head cold. But—as records spun and commercials blared—the pair traded quips and found that they were on the same wavelength in more ways than one. They loved the excesses of radio, especially the fatally flawed premises at the heart of popular dramas. Eventually a perceptive station manager recognized that the duo's off-air banter and ad-libbed parodies were more entertaining than the programs they lampooned. He moved their dialog on-air and subsequently gave Bob & Ray an afternoon show. As Bob later said to fan Kurt Vonnegut, "By the time we discovered we were introverts, it was too late."

Bob & Ray's stylistic tic was a reaction to the prevailing tone of radio, which was fraught with over-dramatization. News was shouted; organ music stabbed and stung; sound effects evoked calamitous action and propelled adrenaline-charged dialogue. Bob & Ray cherished this hokum, but couldn't help thinking that most radio was much ado about nothing. What would be left if you took away all that crap? Suppose you drained the drama, excised the excitement, nullified the novelty, and presented, with a poker face, the dry, unadorned, residual emptiness? The result was sublimely understated humor. Bob & Ray rarely said funny things; they simply said things funny. There were no punchlines, and quotes from Bob & Ray sketches invariably fall flat in print. It's all about context—hearing banalities uttered with deadpan earnestness.

Their recurring bits included the cops of Squad Car 119, so engrossed in donut dialogue they forgot to respond to emergency calls. In the suspense-tinged Anxiety, heroic characters facing imminent death were ... not, as it turned out. Hard Luck Stories spotlighted victims of catastrophic tragedy comforted by a chipper host who awarded them pop-up toasters and area rugs. Elmer W. Litzinger, Spy used elaborate subterfuge to ... inadvertently disclose state secrets. Episodes of Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife ended with cliff-hangers instantly spoiled by the "tune in tomorrow" teasers. Bob & Ray reunited the Whirleys, a brother and sister who hadn't seen each other for 70 years; the siblings—who had little in common except reciprocal disinterest—exchanged muted greetings and squirmed through uncomfortable small talk ("You've changed") before brother Frank impatiently muttered, "I have an appointment. I have to have my teeth fixed. Mind if I run along?"

In 1951, when Elliott and Goulding left Boston for New York, a national audience awaited on the NBC Radio Network. They had refined their formula as comedians who didn't tell jokes, elevating dullness to a potent comic force (much as Andy Kaufman would do years later). In their first year on NBC, the team snared a coveted Peabody award.

The predictability of Bob and Ray's comedy is part of what made it funny. They performed routines—in at least two senses of the word. The laughs derived not from the intrusion of the unexpected, but from an unvarying formula in which the prosaic—delivered with idiosyncratic timing—never grew tiresome.

Bob & Ray continued to satirize radio shows of the 1930's, 40's, and 50's long after those programs had vanished from the airwaves—and, in some cases, from living memory. They relied on the same basic recipes, using the same ingredients, for five decades, cooking up the radio equivalent of "comfort food." It didn't matter that new listeners had no clue which pointless relic was the basis for Aunt Penny's Sunlit Kitchen, or Mr. Treat, Chaser of Lost People. Familiarity with the original was unnecessary because, with the sustained appearance of their characters, Bob and Ray came to own the franchises.

     — Don Brockway