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An Inimitable Team

WALLY BALLOU, ace interviewer; Mary McGoon, cooking expert; Mary Backstage, noble wife. Once you encounter such gently caricatured figures, it's hard to view the world the same way. They were all written, produced, and portrayed by Bob and Ray, the comedy team that spoofed American life for over 40 years and in the process carved a special niche for themselves in popular culture. In 15- and 30-minute formats, their voices captured a tone and rhythm of speech instantly enjoyed by listeners who had no use for harsh nightclub comedy or slickly produced TV sitcoms.

Though they were hits on TV, records, and the stage, Bob and Ray were a true radio phenomenon whose inimitable routines began at a Boston station in 1946. Ray Goulding, who died last Saturday, was the larger of the two, whose exasperated voice reacted testily to the ridiculous but recognizable types portrayed by his partner, Bob Elliott.

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Remember the s-lo-w t-a-l-k-e-r-s of A-m-e-r-i-c-a? Like the best and most enduring satirists, Bob and Ray could skewer a target without losing affection for it. Beneath the sometimes uproarious humor lay a basically benign view of the world often missing from the comedy fashions that came and went during the 46 years they worked together.

The late Mr. Goulding once told an interviewer what most fans sensed: Bob and Ray never had a message to sell or an ax to grind. In fact, Goulding said their original characters were based on people they actually knew when they began. They never took their work terribly seriously and were always slightly bemused at the folk-legend status their work acquired over the decades.

The absence of vitriol was one reason their humor lasted so long, and why it lay so close to the heart of fans who will carry Bob and Ray routines in their heads the rest of their lives.

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