I neglected to mention in yesterday’s piece on Bob & Ray their contribution to advertising and marketing. Beginning in the late 1950s with their Piels Beer ads, where they played the voices to animated characters Bert and Harry Piel, the two became involved in radio and television commercials for a wide range of products and services.
The Bert & Harry Piel ads (only seen in the Northeast) were created by Young and Rubicam and were animated by the very creative studio UPA (famous for the Gerald McBoingBoing cartoons and others.) Here is what I believe was the first one:
Bert and Harry were so popular that they’d be included in the TV listings, so people could tune in just to see them. The ad campaign was changed though, when Piels realized that, although people loved the commercials, beer sales showed that they weren’t attracting any new customers.
This led, however, to the formation of their marketing company, Goulding Elliot Greybar (so named because their offices were in the Greybar Building in NYC). Among the projects they were known for was a series of testimonial ads for the radio industry, encouraging people to keep a transistor radio handy for emergencies. They also did ads for Underwood Deviled Ham, Interwoven Socks, Alcoa Aluminum, Glidden Paints and Cumuloft Carpets. These were added to by the parodies they did of radio ads which were sometimes hard to distinguish from the real things.
Bob and Ray were to radio what Ernie Kovacs was to television (although the famous radio team, who met as announcers at Boston’s WHDH in 1946, also did television, film and live performances on Broadway in their 43-year career), and were as influential on generations of comedians as Kovacs was, if not more so.
Performing right up to the late 80s when Ray was too ill to work (he died in 1990), Bob Elliot & Ray Goulding developed many characters who became treasured and respected names among listeners: Wally Ballou, Mary McGoon, Webley Webster, the McBeebe brothers, Biff Burns and so many others.
I often think that the reason their characters seemed so real over time was that Bob & Ray believed they WERE real… that there really was a radio soap opera producer named O. Leo Leahy (who they often put in their credit list after a show) or that Wally Ballou really was out on the street interviewing ordinary people and always being upcut by the broadcast engineer. I suppose when you perform the same characters for decades in so many different situations they DO become real.
Their comedy was performed without a single bad word or objectionable situation. They were rarely political (although the one exception may be the poke they gave to Senator Joe McCarthy on their soap opera parody “Mary Backstayge Noble Wife” in the late 50s) and never offensive, but remained much funnier than most of their competition.
Here’s a Wally Ballou interview sample (this is from “Bob and Ray, The Two and Only”, their Carnegie Hall performance in the 1980s):
I played that last piece because it is one of my favorites and so typical of their work… which they talked about in this interview with a very young David Letterman, who was very much influenced by them:
Letterman, of course, gave a major career start to Bob’s son Chris Elliot… and Chris’ daughter, Abby Elliot is now on Saturday Night Live, making Bob Elliot, 88 years old this year, the head of three generations of funny people.
Fortunately there is a large quantity of recordings of Bob & Ray’s work going back to the late 40s available on CDs, cassette tapes and DVDs. YouTube has a nice collection as well. These are certainly worth your time whenever you are feeling down… they never cease to provide a laugh.
- From Susan Schecter (hopeworkscommunity.wordpress.com)
- More from Sydney! – Sydney, Australia (travelpod.com)