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Bob And Son

September 23, 1990|DANIEL CERONE

"Dad, why don't you sit down for a minute. Is there anything you need? You thirsty?" Chris Elliott turned to a stage hand on the set. "We don't need my dad for this next scene do we?" Then back to his dad, "Why don't you take a break upstairs?"

Elliott spoke gently with his arm on the shoulder of his father, Bob, who was dressed in a plaid robe-regular garb for his paternal role on his son's new Fox sitcom "Get a Life!" The elder Elliott had a slightly bemused expression on his face.

"When I go upstairs and sit on that couch in these pajamas I just fall asleep," he said matter-of-factly.

Later, in the privacy of a dressing room, Bob Elliott, 67, smiled slightly when asked about his son's overactive concern for his well being. "Chris looks out for me on the set," Elliott said, shaking his head. "He does. He does. More than he needs to." He laughed. "You know, I've been around for a long time. I fend for myself pretty well."

How long has Elliott been around?

"Well, I've done 'The Tonight Show' with every host that 'The Tonight Show' has ever had."

That Elliott wants to bring his warmhearted comedy to yet another generation of TV audiences with "Get a Life!" is a tribute to his courage. On March 23, Ray Goulding, Elliott's partner and friend for four decades, died of kidney failure at his home in Long Island.

The death permanently split up Bob and Ray, the gentle giants of radio comedy. They were a national, always natural, broadcasting sensation who poked fun at themselves and America, reaching their peak during the golden days of radio and the birth of television.

"God, the stories that came out (after Goulding's death)," Elliott said in his unwavering trademark delivery. His deep, soulful eyes were unblinking.

"It was like a second coming. I didn't know so much was thought of us. I don't think we ever thought people put that much importance in what we did. It was a bittersweet acceptance. I'm sorry Ray didn't live to see it. He had to go to have that come out."

Elliott and Goulding first met in 1946 as returning World War II veterans at a Boston radio station, where Elliott was a deejay and Goulding a newscaster. After his newscasts, Goulding would stick around in the booth and "just kibitz back and forth on the air," Elliott said.

Over the next five years they created a wacky cast of on-air characters, did rope tricks, spoke lyrics to songs while accompanied only by drums and hawked items such as "The Bob and Ray Home Surgery Kit"--asking viewers, "How many times have you said to yourself, 'Golly, I wish I could take out my tonsils'?"

They played target practice on air, flinging their humor like well-placed darts. "The Gathering Dusk," a Bob and Ray takeoff on an early radio serial, was a "heartwarming story of a girl who found unhappiness by leaving no stone unturned in her efforts to locate it," and was sponsored by "the Whippet Motor Car Co., observing the 45th anniversary of its disappearance."

In 1952 the New York Herald Tribune wrote of their act: "It is a mixture of satire, nonsense and whimsy. It sometimes has a waspish sting, raising uncomfortable welts on various cows sacred to the broadcasting and advertising industries."

Their good humor eventually brought Bob and Ray to a national audience. They played in nearly every time slot on the NBC, ABC and Mutual Broadcasting System radio and television networks.

Recalling their time on television, Elliott said, "TV in the '50s was so much more fun than this." He gestured to the "Get a Life!" set outside. "Because the pressure wasn't there. You can't believe how loose it was. When we did a live, 15-minute TV show, that was literally done from a blackboard. We'd write down four topics, talk them out and then ad lib those.

"The sound-effects men were free enough so they would toss in a sound that might throw us on air, and very often did. But it made it fun. Now you don't dare cough on a show because it's not written into the script."

In 1970, Bob and Ray appeared on Broadway-and a later tour-in their own show, "The Two and Only." During the '70s they broadcast their radio show from WWOR in New York, and reunited their wacky cast of characters in 1984 for National Public Radio.

Three years ago Goulding grew ill and the two stopped working together. Elliott said he missed his partner at his side. "I did terribly, for I'd say, almost two years.

"I really was kind of grasping. I didn't know what I wanted to do." He paused. "I really didn't want to stop working. But I didn't see where I was going to work. And it's, uh"--Elliott took a slow, deep breath-"well, providence has been kind to me."

Indeed, because offers kept rolling in for Elliott as a solo act. He played Bob Newhart's dad in an episode of "Newhart." Bill Murray offered Elliott a role as an agreeable bank security guard in the summer film "Quick Change." And Garrison Keillor recruited him into his American Radio Company on NPR.

"I'd be ready to retire and go to Maine, and then something would come along like manna from heaven. So I'd say, well, we'll stay a little longer."

And now, Bob Elliott has found a new comedy partner-his son Chris.

"I take pride in the fact that he has a show," Elliott said. Like his son, Elliott began his career as a page at NBC, which he used to get into broadcasting and build a cult following. "I mean, I should be the best prepared to do a team operation of anybody around, especially with my son."

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