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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 in terms of personality or behavior. Often one of the members of the duo—the straight man, feed, dead wood, or stooge—is portrayed as reasonable and serious, while the other one—the funny man, banana man or comic—is portrayed as funny, less educated or less intelligent, silly, or unorthodox. If the audience identifies primarily with one character, the other will often be referred to as a comic foil. The term "feed" comes from the way a straight man is wont to set up jokes and "feed" them to his partner.
Despite the names often given to the roles, the "straight man" need not 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, he is 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 from the individuals themselves. In many successful acts the roles are interchangeable.
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 a joke gave the audience a better chance of hearing it. Soon the dynamic developed so that the "straight man" became a more integral part of the act, setting up jokes to which the comic could then deliver the "punchline." At various stages, acts such as George Burns and Gracie Allen (who initially operated with Burns as the comic, but quickly switched roles upon recognizing Gracie's greater appeal), 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 owing 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, because of 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. The first Laurel and Hardy film was called Putting Pants on Philip though their familiar characters had not yet been established. The first film they both appeared in was Lucky Dog in 1917. Laurel and Hardy adapted well to silent films, both being skilled at slapstick, and their nonverbal 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.
The year 1940 saw the release of Laurel and Hardy's 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. About the same time The Bickersons became popular on radio. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner started their 2000 Year Old Man recordings and subsequent television appearances in 1961. The genre has continued to exist in cinema while also making a successful transition to radio and later television via 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 1960s that these acts truly came into their own. When Morecambe and Wise teamed up with writer Eddie Braben, they began to redefine 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. 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 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.
Light entertainment in Britain in the 1970s was dominated by Morecambe and Wise, who enjoyed very impressive ratings, especially on their Christmas specials. Although Mike and Bernie Winters's popularity declined, The Two Ronnies' success grew greatly while Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sporadically produced acclaimed work, in particular their controversial recordings as Derek and Clive from 1976 to 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's 1981 follow-up 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 James T. Kirk (William Shatner)/Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) relationship in several episodes of the original Star Trek series.
Morecambe and Wise had dominated British light entertainment throughout the 1970s, but their presence had begun to wane in the early 1980s. When Morecambe died moments after finishing a solo show in 1984 (his last words were 'I'm glad that's over'), the best-loved double act in British comedy came to an end, and several new acts emerged. However, the two distinct groups could not have been more different.
In the wake of Not the Nine O'Clock News, The Young Ones and the breakthrough onto television of 'alternative comedy' came French and Saunders; Fry and Laurie; Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson; Hale and Pace; and Smith and Jones. These edgier comics were more brash and crude—comedy's answer to punk rock. They developed the satire and vulgarity of Peter Cook and Dudley 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.)
The early 1990s saw comedy become "the new rock and roll" 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 Arena. 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 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).
Another double act who emerged in the mid to late 1990s 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, similarly Kota Srinivasa Rao and Babu Mohan in Telugu Cinema.
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 comedy act is Ant & Dec, who are a very basic yet effective example of a double act.
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 arguably the quintessential British double act. 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, Peacock and Gamble, 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 defenceless Moore. However, carrying on the tradition of going against the grain of traditional double acts, when the partnership dissolved in the late 1970s, it was Cook whose career stalled due to boredom, alcoholism and lack of ambition, while Moore went on to become one of Hollywood's most unlikely leading men.
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 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. Barker also formed a partnership with David Jason in Open All Hours, with Jason playing Granville while Barker played Albert Arkwright. Many don't see this as a comedy duo, but the straight-man element coupled with Barker's 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, such as hitting each other with frying pans. 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 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; the difference between the pair is the laidback, cool arrogance (yet stupidity) of Jeremy and the intellectual arrogance (yet social-awkwardness) of Mark.
U.S. 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 Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, and Wheeler & Woolsey, and continuing into the television age with Martin and Lewis, Kenan & Kel, 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, Troy and Abed from Community, Shawn and Gus in Psych and Dwight Schrute and Jim Halpert in The Office. The series I Love Lucy was known for its double acts, and Lucille Ball served as foil to both her husband Desi Arnaz and to Vivian Vance; Vance could also serve as foil to William Frawley when the situation required it.
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. Based on the gag-man/straight-man concept, "Stoner" duos like Cheech and Chong, Jay & Silent Bob, and Harold and Kumar have also proven quite popular with audiences.
The double act format can also be used in presenting noncomedic information in an entertaining manner, such as Savage/Hyneman pair of the Discovery Channel's MythBusters. From 2006 to 2010, Apple used the double-act formula successfully in its popular series of I'm a Mac/And I'm a PC ads with John Hodgman and Justin Long.
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.
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.
Double acts who do not use the "Straight Man/Funny Man" dynamic or whose roles are interchangeable:
- Adrian Edmondson & Rik Mayall
- Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller
- Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn
- Anthony McPartlin & Declan Donnelly
- Atlas & P-Body (Portal 2)
- Barry and Stuart
- Beavis & Butt-head in Beavis and Butt-head
- Bob Odenkirk & David Cross
- Cheech and Chong
- Colin Mochrie & Ryan Stiles
- Conan O'Brien & Andy Richter
- Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi
- Dan Howell & Phil Lester
- Sam Winchester & Dean Winchester
- Baddiel and Skinner
- Flight of the Conchords
- Fred Armisen & Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia (TV series)
- French and Saunders
- Fry and Laurie
- Gallagher and Shean
- Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat in Muppet Christmas Carol
- Gumball Watterson & Darwin Watterson
- Hale and Pace
- James Franco and Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express (film)
- Joey Tribbiani and Chandler Bing
- CJ & Mahalik (in Scary Movie 3 & 4)
- Key & Peele
- Lloyd Christmas & Harry Dunne
- Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim
- Mel Smith & Griff Rhys Jones
- Mitchell and Webb
- Jake and Amir
- Newman and Baddiel
- Pinky and the Brain
- Raymond Barone and Debra Barone
- Ray Peacock and Ed Gamble
- Randy and Jason Sklar
- Rod Brasfield & Minnie Pearl
- Rose Marie & Morey Amsterdam
- Roy and HG
- Roy & Moss from The IT Crowd
- Simon Pegg & Nick Frost
- Smith and Dale
- Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
- Stan Marsh and Kyle Broflovski
- Willy Clark and Al Lewis
- The Pin
- Terrance and Phillip
- Vic and Bob
- Zachary Levi and Joshua Gomez
- Old Master Q, Big Potato and Mr. Chin from Old Master Q
- Finn and Jake
- Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla
- The Story Of Light Entertainment: Double Acts, BBC 2, 9pm, 22 July 2006