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A double act, also known as a comedy duo, is a comic pairing in which humor is derived from the uneven relationship between two partners, usually of the same gender, age, ethnic origin and profession, but drastically different personalities or behavior. Often one of the duo members, the straight man, feed or stooge is portrayed as reasonable and serious, and the other one, the funny man or comic is portrayed as funny, unintelligent or unorthodox. When a woman is in the "straight man" role, she is more often referred to as a comic foil. The term feed comes from the way a straight man will set up jokes for—or "feed" them to—their partner.

Despite the names given to the roles, the "straight man" need not necessarily be humorless, and it is not always the comic who provides the act's humor. Sometimes, it is the straight man who gets the laughs through his or her sarcastic reactions to the comic's antics, as was often the case with Stewart Lee's deadpan, reasoned reactions to Richard Herring's more ridiculous antics in their pairing. Where the "straight man" serves no personal comic purpose but acts as a device to make the "comic" look good, they are known as a "Stooge". This is sometimes considered a derogatory term. Most often, however, the humor in a double act comes from the way the two personalities play off each other rather than the individuals themselves; in many successful acts the roles are interchangeable.

Contents

History

Early development

Gallagher and Shean, a popular vaudeville act of the 1920s

The template for the modern double act began in the British music halls and the American vaudeville scene of the late nineteenth century. Here, the "straight man" was a necessity as he would repeat the lines of the "comic". This was done simply because the audience would be noisy, and repeating the joke gave the audience a fighting chance of hearing the joke and the comedians a fighting chance of getting a good reaction. Soon the dynamic developed so that the "straight man" became a more integral part of the act, setting up jokes that the comic could then deliver the "punchline" to. At various stages, acts such as George Burns and Gracie Allen (who, unlike their more recognizable incarnation on television and in films, operated with Burns as the comic), Abbott and Costello, Flanagan and Allen, Gallagher and Shean and Smith and Dale were all popular draws. The dynamic continued to develop, with Abbott and Costello using a modern and recognizable formula in routines such as Who's On First? in the 1930s and Flanagan and Allen using "cross talking".

Though Vaudeville would last well into the 1930s, its popularity began to wane due to the gradual rise of motion pictures and some acts disappeared, having failed to survive the transition to movies. By the 1920s, double acts were beginning to attract worldwide fame more readily through the silent era. However, due to the obvious restrictions, the comedy was not derived from "cross talk" or clever verbal exchanges, but through slapstick routines and the actions of the characters. The first double act to gain worldwide fame through film was Laurel and Hardy. Before meeting the pair had never worked together on stage (they did as of 1940), though both had worked in vaudeville—Stan Laurel with Charlie Chaplin as part of Fred Karno's Army and Oliver Hardy as a singer. Laurel could loosely be described as the comic, though the pair were one of the first not to fit the mold in the way that many double acts do, with both taking a fairly equal share of the laughs. The pair first worked together as a double act in the 1927 film Duck Soup. Laurel and Hardy adapted well to silent films, both being skilled at slapstick, and their non-verbal interplay with each other and the audience became famous—Laurel's cry and Hardy's downtrodden glances to the camera whenever something went wrong—and were carried over to their later talkies. Indeed, they were one of the few silent acts who made a very successful transition to spoken word pictures in the 1930s, showing themselves to be equally adept at verbal wordplay.

1940s-1960s

1940 saw Laurel and Hardy released Saps at Sea, their final film for long term producer and collaborator Hal Roach. From here, their popularity began to decline. However, in 1940s America the double act remained a cinema draw, developing into the "buddy movie" genre with 1940 seeing Abbott and Costello making the transition from stage to screen and the first of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's Road to... series. Further acts would soon follow; for example, the first pairing of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis occurred in 1946. The genre has continued to exist in cinema, while also making a successful transition to radio and later television via the likes of The Smothers Brothers and Rowan and Martin's Laugh In.

In Britain, double acts would remain confined to theatres and radio until the late 1950s when double acts such as Morecambe and Wise and Mike and Bernie Winters slowly began the transition to television on variety programmes such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium. It was not until the mid-to-late 60s that these acts truly came into their own. When Morecambe and Wise teamed up with writer Eddie Braben they began to re-define what was meant by a double act, with Wise, the straight man, being developed into a comic character in his own right. They provided the link between music hall and modern comedy for double acts.[1] As the two leading double acts of the day, Morecambe and Wise and the Winters brothers enjoyed a playful rivalry – the Winters themselves mocked the slight edge Morecambe and Wise had over them in popularity, while Morecambe, when asked what he and Wise would have been if not comedians, replied "Mike and Bernie Winters".

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the traditional formula was shunned by the likes of The Two Ronnies, who completely dispensed with the need for a "straight man", and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, two Oxbridge-educated comedians who used the double act to deliver satire and edgy comedy.

1970s

Light entertainment in the 1970s was dominated by Morecambe and Wise, who enjoyed very impressive ratings, especially on their Christmas Specials. Although the Winters' popularity declined and the two fell out, The Two Ronnies' success grew greatly, while Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sporadically produced acclaimed work, in particular their recordings as Derek and Clive from 1976-1978.

The mid to late 1970s saw a resurgence in American double acts. Blazing Saddles (1974), featured a memorable performance between Mel Brooks and Harvey Korman (who would team up again in Brooks' 1981 follow-on History of the World, Part I). Saturday Night Live, first broadcast in 1975, provided a group of comedians who were prepared to appear with each other in sketches as double acts, and has continued to do so. In particular, it was here that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi honed their characters The Blues Brothers, who would soon be propelled to fame in the 1980 buddy movie of the same name. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor also embarked on a string of successful buddy films in the 1970s. Cheech & Chong also gained massive popularity during this time.

Occasionally the straight-man/funny-man dynamic would appear in contexts unexpected and between characters not normally thought of as comics. This often appeared in the William ShatnerJames T. Kirk / Leonard NimoyMr. Spock relationship in several episodes of the original Star Trek series. In several episodes—The Trouble with Tribbles, A Piece of the Action, and City on the Edge of Forever, inter alia—Spock's logical/humorless persona ironically made him the funny man as his hyper-literalness would make him (a far 'straighter' straight man than Shatner/Kirk) the actual comic between the pair. ("We appear to be what was once referred to as pursuing a wild goose."—"I am endeavoring, Madam, to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bear skins."—"Right?" "Check." "Check?" "Right." "Sir there is a multi-legged creature on your shoulder", etc.) A similar dynamic would occasionally appear between Spock and DeForest Kelly/Dr. McCoy. A later version of the "Star Trek" Straight man would be Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data and Captain Picard.

1980s

Eric Morecambe died in 1984 moments after walking off stage at Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, his final words being "I'm glad that's over". (He had not performed with Wise on that day.) Morecambe and Wise had dominated British light entertainment throughout the 1970s, but when their output began to wane in the 1980s, and especially after Morecambe's death, several new double acts emerged. However, the two distinct groups could not have been more different. With alternative comedy came the likes of French and Saunders; Fry and Laurie; Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson; Hale and Pace; and Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith. These edgier comics were more brash and crude—comedy's answer to punk rock.[1] They developed the satire and vulgarity of Cook and Moore rather than the more gentle humour of Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies. In fact, Smith and Jones showed blatant disregard for their predecessors, openly mocking the Two Ronnies (this may have been a factor in Ronnie Barker's decision to retire from comedy in the late 1980s.[1])

However, in stark contrast to this came the likes of Little and Large and Cannon and Ball, acts who returned to the pre-Morecambe and Wise "straight man/comic" dynamic and used less controversial comedy born out of Northern workingmen's clubs.

1990s-present day

While the spirit of alternative comedy carried on into the 1990s, the likes of Cannon and Ball and Little and Large disappeared from television screens. The early 1990s saw comedy become "the new rock and roll"[1] in Britain and this was inherent in the work of Newman and Baddiel and Punt and Dennis on The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Newman and Baddiel in particular symbolised this rock and roll attitude by playing the biggest ever British comedy gig at Wembley Stadium. However, with this came tension. Newman and Baddiel fell out with Punt and Dennis not wishing to share screen time with them, and then with each other. David Baddiel went on to form another successful double act with Frank Skinner.

The 1990s also saw the introduction of one of comedy's strangest yet most successful double acts in Reeves and Mortimer. They at the same time deconstructed light entertainment[1] and paid homage to many of the classic double acts (Vic Reeves would even do an Eric Morecambe impression on Vic Reeves Big Night Out). They simultaneously used very bizarre, idiosyncratic humour and traditional double act staples (in later years they became increasingly reliant on violent slapstick).

Appearing in 1992, the pairing of sports duo Frank Burns, presenter of BBC's Sportsnight, and former Great Britain Olympic athete John Mayock combined incisive analysis of sporting action with dry, witty humour. The pair presented "Burns and Mayock" in 1992 and went on to make "What do you do?" for British Satellite Broadcasting's The Sports Channel. The latter was axed when Sky and BSB merged.

Another double act who emerged in the mid to late '90s were Lee & Herring, who combined a classic clash of personalities (downbeat and rational Lee contrasting with energetic, childish Herring) with very ironic, often satirical humour.

Also appearing in the latter half of the decade were Adam and Joe, whose low budget, self-produced Channel 4 series The Adam and Joe Show was a very sharp combination of TV and movie parodies and satirical looks at various elements of youth culture.

Indian cinema, also had its share of the double act, with Tamil cinema comedians Goundamani and Senthil, teaming up for several films throughout the decade.

However, most of the 2000s' most successful double acts take their inspiration from the odder strain of double-act comedy spearheaded by Reeves and Mortimer. Matt Lucas and David Walliams, who had previously worked with Reeves and Mortimer, also took inspiration from the Two Ronnies. The Mighty Boosh also played with the formula but essentially remained traditional at their roots. Another popular current light entertainment/presenting act is Ant and Dec, who are a very basic yet effective example of a double act.

United Kingdom

In its British form, the two actors would usually be composed of a "straight man" or "feed" and a "comic", the purpose of the feed being to set up jokes for the comic. This would rely heavily on comic timing.

Morecambe and Wise are widely regarded as the greatest British double act[citation needed]. They followed the traditional formula with Eric Morecambe as the comic and Ernie Wise as the feed. However, other British acts such as The Two Ronnies, Hale and Pace, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, Reeves and Mortimer, French and Saunders, Mitchell and Webb, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, Fry and Laurie, Lee and Herring, Armstrong and Miller and The Mighty Boosh the role of "comic" and "straight man" are less obvious, largely interchangeable or dispensed with altogether. More obvious British examples of the comic-feed dynamic are Cannon and Ball, Little and Large or the children's entertainers The Chuckle Brothers, where the straight man acted largely as a humourless set up for the comic.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore perhaps also deserve a mention as being the first double act to go against the grain, and turn their double act into a complex analysis of the two's relationship. In many of the sketches (especially the Pete and Dud exchanges) Cook played the domineering know-it-all (who knows nothing) and Moore the put-upon dimwit (who also knows nothing).

This dominance was accentuated by the difference in height between the two, and the speed of Cook's mind, which meant that he could ad-lib, and force Moore to corpse in a Pete and Dud dialogue, leaving him helpless to respond. As the partnership progressed into the often improvised Derek and Clive dialogues, these light-hearted attempts to make Moore laugh became, as a result of Cook's growing insecurity and alcoholism, aggressive attacks on the defenseless Moore. However, carrying on the tradition of going against the grain of traditional double acts, when the partnership dissolved in the late '70s, it was Cook whose career stalled due to boredom, alcoholism and lack of ambition, whilst Moore went on to become one of Hollywood's most unlikely leading men.

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Sitcoms

The double act has also become a popular theme in British sitcoms. One of the earliest examples of this was the relationship between Tony Hancock and Sid James in the Galton and Simpson series Hancock's Half Hour. James played a down-to-earth character while Hancock was pompous and had delusions of grandeur, and the comedy was derived from the two playing off of each other's characteristics.

A common trend in sitcoms is to place the double act in a situation where they are forced together through uncontrollable circumstance. In another Galton and Simpson production, Steptoe and Son, a son, with great ambition, was forced to live with his elderly, manipulative father as a rag and bone man. The comedy derives from the way the characters interact in their tempestuous relationship. The series also has more heart-rending moments as the son despairs at his inability to escape his needy, selfish, grasping father.

Porridge, saw "an habitual criminal", Fletcher (played by Ronnie Barker, already famous for his comedy partnership with Ronnie Corbett) and a young, naive first-time prisoner, Lennie Godber. The two would bicker but endured a relationship of mutual respect. Also, he formed a partnership with David Jason in Open All Hours (who was the straight man of the pair) who played Granville, while Barker played Arthur Arkwright. Many don't see this as a comedy duo but the straight man element coupled with Barker funny man antics on the show are still compressed into the script.

Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson combined their success in sitcoms (The Young Ones) and as a double act (The Dangerous Brothers) in 1991 when they created Bottom. Their characters are a pair of sad, pathetic losers forced together by their mutual hopelessness. However, unlike earlier examples of such, the characters in Bottom absolutely hate each other, exacerbating their despair. This often leads to slapstick violence. Mayall and Edmonson have said Bottom aimed to be more than just a series of toilet gags – it was meant to be a cruder cousin to plays like Waiting for Godot about the pointlessness of life.

Other popular double acts in British sitcoms include complex relationships involving status and superiority themes: in Dad's Army, the social climbing envy of Captain George Mainwaring, to his right hand man (Sergeant Arthur Wilson) who is of higher status than him; and in Red Dwarf, the working class everyman Dave Lister to the middle class but socially-awkward Arnold Rimmer. However, the most prominent double act is that of an intelligent person and his inferior sidekick, such as Basil and Manuel of Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Baldrick of Blackadder, or Ted and Father Dougal of the Irish-British sitcom Father Ted.

In recent years, double acts as sitcoms appear to have gone full circle, as illustrated by the cult success of The Mighty Boosh. For the relationship between the two main characters this series uses a formula very similar to that between Sid and Tony in Hancock's Half Hour – that of a pompous character whose best friend can see right through him and brings him back down to earth. A similar dynamic is used in Peep Show in which the characters of Mitchell and Webb were adapted for the sitcom formula. However, in this case both characters suffer from pomposity.

US and Canada

In the United States and Canada, the tradition was more popular in the earlier part of the 20th century with vaudeville-derived acts such as Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, and Wheeler & Woolsey, and continuing into the television age with Martin and Lewis, Bob and Ray, the Smothers Brothers, Wayne and Shuster, Allen and Rossi, Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber, Rowan and Martin, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the Wayans Brothers, and "stoner" duos like Cheech and Chong, Jay & Silent Bob, and Harold and Kumar.

More recently, the idea has been largely supplanted by that of the "buddy movie" genre, which has introduced several notable comedy partnerships not formally billed as a single "act" in the traditional manner. The earliest example of such a team may have been Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; later examples include Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, David Spade and Chris Farley and child stars Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell.

The double act is also successfully used in presenting unrelated information in an entertaining manner, such as the Savage / Hyneman pair of the Discovery Channel's MythBusters. Recently, Apple has used the double act formula successfully in their series of I'm a Mac / And I'm a PC ads with John Hodgman and Justin Long.

Japan

In Japan the manzai tradition parallels that of the double although it is more formulaic. Here there is a distinguished straight man (tsukkomi) and funny man (boke) and the humor consists of quick jokes full of slapstick humor and social misunderstandings.

China

In China, Xiangsheng is a pair of performers rapidly bantering with many puns and allusions.

Germany

In Germany Tünnes and Schäl (since 1803/1850s), two Cologne puppet theater characters, fit to the concept of fool and straight man.

During the Second World War Tran and Helle appeared in a number of short films to deter Germans from actions detrimental to Germany's war effort or security.

Between 1950 and 1980, the most popular comedy duo of East Germany, Herricht & Preil, ran a very successful double act, with Hans-Joachim Preil as the straight man and Rolf Herricht as the comic.

Comic pairs compared

Straight foil Comic Movie/Series
Alan Harper Charlie Harper Two and a Half Men
Leonard Hofstadter Sheldon Cooper The Big Bang Theory
Bud Abbott Lou Costello Abbott and Costello
Edmund Blackadder Baldrick Blackadder
Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle Buster Keaton
Desi Arnaz (as Ricky Ricardo) Lucille Ball (as Lucy Ricardo) I Love Lucy
Julian Barratt (as Howard Moon) Noel Fielding (as Vince Noir) The Mighty Boosh
Sonny Bono Cher Sonny and Cher
George Burns Gracie Allen
Farkas "Bulk" Bulkmeier Eugene "Skull" Skullovitch
Tommy Cannon Bobby Ball Cannon and Ball
Harold Lee Kumar Patel Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Adam Baldwin Zachary Levi Chuck
Paul Chuckle Barry Chuckle ChuckleVision
Bing Crosby Bob Hope Road to...
Frank Gallop Milton Berle
Kyle Gass Jack Black Tenacious D
Andy Griffith (as Sheriff Andy Taylor) Don Knotts (as Barney Fife) The Andy Griffith Show
Brian O'Halloran (as Dante Hicks) Jeff Anderson (as Randal Graves) Clerks.
Cheryl Hines Larry David Curb Your Enthusiasm
Richard Karn (as Al Borland) Tim Allen (as Tim Taylor) Home Improvement
Alice Kramden Ralph Kramden The Honeymooners
Colin Lane Frank Woodley Lano and Woodley
Stewart Lee Richard Herring
Syd Little Eddie Large Little and Large
Dean Martin Jerry Lewis Martin and Lewis
Chico Marx Groucho Marx Marx Brothers
Matt Millward Dean Brogan Puds
Jerry Seinfeld Michael Richards Seinfeld
Dudley Moore Peter Cook
Bob Newhart Suzanne Pleshette The Bob Newhart Show
Spencer Rice Kenny Hotz
Dan Rowan Dick Martin Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
David Shatraw (as Tommy Shafter) Christopher Titus, Zack Ward (as Dave Scouvel) Titus
Kevin Smith (as Silent Bob) Jason Mewes (as Jay) View Askewniverse
Dick Smothers Tom Smothers
Teller Penn Jillette
John Mayock Frank W. Burns
Jon Stewart Stephen Colbert The Daily Show
Ronnie Williams Ryan Davies
Kenan Thompson Kel Mitchell
Mike Winters Bernie Winters
Ernie Wise Eric Morecambe
Tammany Young W.C. Fields
Senthil Goundamani
Burton Guster Shawn Spencer Psych
Kyle Broflovski Eric Cartman South Park
Matthew Broderick Nathan Lane The Producers
Bud Spencer Terence Hill
Jim Halpert Michael Scott The Office
Puppets
Bert Ernie Sesame Street (interchangeable in rare cases)
Rod Nicky Avenue Q (interchangeable in rare cases)
Zag Zig Zig and Zag
Sooty Sweep Sooty and Sweep

Double acts who do not use the "Funny Man/Straight Man" dynamic or whose roles are interchangeable

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Notes

  1. ^ a b c d e The Story Of Light Entertainment: Double Acts, BBC 2, 9pm, 22 July 2006

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