Wally Ballou, signing off

There aren’t a lot of comedians who end up being important teachers in the radio news business, but Bob Elliot, one half of the genius of Bob and Ray is certainly one.

His character, Wally Ballou, winner of over seven international diction awards, was as instructive to young reporters on how not to do live reports as any journalism professor.

Elliot died yesterday, his son, Chris, an actor and comedian himself, announced today.

In one paragraph in today’s obit, the New York Times perfectly captured the genius of Elliot and his partner, Ray Goulding, who died in 1990.

Wally, whose reports always began a split-second late (“…ly Ballou here”), was a self-promoter, but a modest one — he was known to introduce himself as “radio’s highly regarded Wally Ballou, winner of over seven international diction awards.” His interview subjects (all played by Mr. Goulding, of course) had even more to be modest about than he did. They included a farmer who was plagued with bad luck, even though his crop consisted of four-leaf clovers, and the owner of a paper-clip factory whose idea of efficiency was paying his workers 14 cents a week.

Bob and Ray helped pioneer the lampooning of the powerful politicians of the day, the Washington Post notes.

Daring for the time, they used sequences in “Mary Backstayge” to satirize Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade; the demagogic Wisconsin Republican was reimagined as Zoning Commissioner Carstairs, a ruthless opponent to building permits that would undermine the way of life in bucolic Skunk Haven, Long Island.

Decades later, Mr. Elliott told the New York Times that he and Goulding often went to a bar near the radio studio to watch the televised McCarthy hearings. “Then we’d use the material in the next day’s show,” he said. “I consider that, from a creative point of view, one of the top things we did.”

For a time, he was a cast member of “American Radio Company of the Air,” Garrison Keillor’s onetime replacement for “A Prairie Home Companion.”

  1. Listen Bob Elliott in opening of American Radio Company of the Air

    December 2, 1989

Related: Looking back at Bob and Ray (The New Yorker)