Bob Elliott, half of legendary comedy duo Bob & Ray and father of comedian and actor Chris Elliott, has passed away.
I have my father to thank for introducing me to Bob & Ray. We both thought of each other today when we heard the news. He used to drive a truck for a living, and sometimes I'd go out on the road with him. We listened to a lot of things to pass the time, but Bob & Ray were a favorite. He bought me a set of their "Lost Episodes," sketches that to my young ears seemed both inevitable and impossible, classic and revolutionary. Their deadpan delivery of absurd characters in cockamamie situations appealed directly to my sense of humor. They had a profound influence on that sense of humor as I matured, and influenced me in ways innumerable.
As much as I consumed movies, television, and radio shows from the early to mid twentieth century, Bob & Ray were the first inkling I had that humor like that existed so long ago. It's every generation's belief that they invented everything they like, but Bob & Ray really were revolutionary. You can see the ripples from their decades of work in everything from David Letterman's Late Show era to the fluid absurdism of 30 Rock and Comedy Bang! Bang! You could list a thousand other things; it would be difficult to overstate their influence on comedic entertainment.
With so many years of work under their belts, it's hard to pick a place to start, but the Lost Episodes are as good a bet as any. Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife is a perfect example of a parody that outlived and transcended its source material, telling the simultaneously outlandish and mundane story of a troupe of Broadway stars, one of whom can only speak the gibberish words, "Dippa-dippa-dippa-dah, dippa-dippa-dippa-do." Wally Ballou, Bob Elliott's reporter character, attempts to interview the owner of the world's longest, narrowest house, but his microphone cord won't reach past the kitchen. And Mr. Science manages to (nearly?) kill Jimmy in every episode.
There's not much available in digital formats, unless you want to wade through a bunch of cryptically named files on archive.org. There's a fair amount on CD, though, and it's all worth seeking out. I'm going to pull out my old cassette player tonight. "Write if you get work, and hang by your thumbs."