I’ve always had a perverse fascination with comedy teams. “Perverse” because, historically, more often than not they tend to be pretty weak; some of them outright ghastly in their inability to elicit even a giggle today. The handful of successful comedy teams are household names, as there was a time when they ruled the box office. But if comedy teams brought so much business to the theatres, why are they all but extinct today?
The idea of the comedy duo was born in the British music halls and American vaudeville stages at the turn of the 20th Century. Their style and material changed over the decades, but once introduced to the new technology of movies, maintained a firm hold on audiences from the silent period through talkies, and continued delivering strong box office returns all the way until the late 1970s, but their appeal soon waned when their “schtick” became virtually extinct. Within the last ten years, the idea of the comedy team has all but disappeared. What happened, and why does this art form, loved for so many years, now seem uncomfortably “corny?” Could it be that what was once considered the “traditional” comedy team still exists, but morphed into a new form that’s not so easily recognizable?
Solo comics doing impersonations and telling jokes go as far back as time, but the addition of a second man came from the need for the stage performers to be heard above rowdy audiences. The first “straight man’” can be traced back to the 1800’s minstrel shows, where the second man repeated the joke set-up and then the punchline exactly as the first man delivered it; serving as a sort of “loud speaker” to be heard over the “din.” Soon, the sophistication of this archetypal team expanded so the second could ask the question or the set-up, and the “funny” one could deliver the punch.
Two of the earliest and most successful comedy teams from this pre-film period were Gallagher & Shean, and Smith & Dale. The former, reaching great heights in the teens and twenties, have very little surviving material today, save for the novelty song “Mister Gallagher and Mr. Shean” they recorded on 78s, repeated and performed as a sort of homage by everyone from George Burns to Groucho Marx.
More successful still was the team of Smith & Dale (not their real names, but the names on the business cards they got for free from a printer), who interpolated the style and delivery they learned from the Yiddish Theatre circuit, and carried into mainstream vaudeville. This dialect was not only accepted, but became the roots of Jewish comedy, still thriving today. They were also the originators of the “doctor” sketch, with such age old lines as: “Doctor, it hurts when I smile.” “So don’t smile.”
Luckily, Smith & Dale have quite a filmic history, viewable today. Their much loved routines were recorded just at the onset of the talkie boom as early as 1928. Interestingly, Smith & Dale discovered the stigma of mass appeal early on, still a sore spot for most comedians. Their routines, seemingly fresh to every ‘burgh they traveled through, became internationally known in a short time due to the mass proliferation of movies. By the 1930s they were considered has-beens. If it hadn’t been for Jules White, the producer behind the success of the Three Stooges, they may have faded into obscurity. White produced and famed comic Charley Chase directed a pair of two-reelers for Columbia that showed the team quite adaptable to the manic style of sound and action, but due to White’s somewhat prejudicial discomfort over their Yiddish-speak, he canceled their contract. Undeterred, the duo performed several reels for a novel bit of technology known as “Soundies,” available for viewing (and listening ) in certain jukeboxes, where their routines were fresh to a whole new generation as late as 1941. Their work and success, in one form or another continued until Dale’s death in 1971. In fact, Smith & Dale routines, combined with Gallagher & Shean’s famous personal squabbles, became the inspiration for Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.
An example of a “Soundie,” (aka early music videos) available in specifically designed juke boxes:
If vaudeville was a ripe feeding ground for comedy teams in the early sound days, the silent film comedians also spawned generations of teams that were not reliant on dialogue. Laurel and Hardy, probably the most successful movie comedy team of all time, made the transition from silent to sound quite effortlessly, as their personas’; so recognizable as the bullying and boorish Oliver Hardy, and his sweet man-child partner, Stan Laurel, had voices and speech that mirrored their skills at mime perfectly.
Prior to Laurel and Hardy, though, Mack Sennett was attempting to team comedians together, more for the box office draw than for any organic chemistry. Fatty Arbuckle, one of the first internationally successful silent film stars, realized the potential for success when he met vaudevillian Buster Keaton, and hired him on the spot to be his second director, gag man and supporting player. The teaming that started in 1917’s The Butcher Boy went on for 3 years, helping to not only make Keaton a star, but propelling Arbuckle to immortality with stronger short subjects. Even before Keaton, Arbuckle was teamed several times with the first great film comedienne, Mabel Normand.
With these pairings, we find the first comic entries offering up two separate individuals, neither playing the straight man, both excelling at their own style of performance, yet finding a way to coexist in the same filmic universe. The idea of a straight man no longer seemed necessary, and became more a style choice.
But the comic gold that vaudeville offered presented a never-ending stream for successful teams; and with talkies demanding performers with the gift for gab, a slew of teams, mostly forgotten today, went through the Hollywood mill with varying degrees of success.
Wheeler & Woolsey, one of the last examples of Vaudeville’s straight and funny man formula; Bert Wheeler; the innocent rube and Robert Woolsey, the fast-talking salesman, offered an oft imitated and dated style that was still very popular in the early thirties. The team fronted several extremely successful musical-comedy reviews for RKO, from 1929’s Rio Rita to 1937’s High Flyers. The team were flying high themselves right up until 1938, and probably could have sustained indefinitely, except that Woolsey’s passing that year meant that Wheeler would continue on “solo” for almost fifteen years more.
Watch Wheeler & Woolsey in a very sexist, pre-code scene from 1934’s “Hips Hips Hooray”
Their style is extremely mannered and would only appeal today to those seeking “old timey” cliché ridden jokes (AKA: me). It is interesting, however, to watch Robert Woolsey, whose rapid fire delivery and use of his cigar as a prop was definitely an inspiration to George Burns and Groucho Marx.
Lesser known, and mildly successful were Clark & McCullogh, who made a handful of shorts in the late 20s and early 30s. The studios were mad to grab up any team that made use of the foundling sound technology, even if their skills were less than stellar. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Bobby Clark’s “painted on” glasses and cigar smoking were the 10th iteration of Groucho Marx and Bert Wheeler. Their style is pure “theft” of so many other teams, but their roots in vaudeville and ability at quickfire jokes kept them employed until the mid-30s, when lesser comedian Bobby McCullogh’s depression led him to suicide.
Speaking of Groucho, the 1930s were owned by the Marx Brothers. We’ve kept our conversation mainly to the comedy duos, but some mention should be made of the teams made up of more than two members. While the Brothers often paired off into duo routines in all of their films, (Groucho and Chico reading through contracts, and Chico and Harpo battling to understand each other) from 1929’s The Cocoanuts to 1949’s Love Happy, it was their specific, fleshed out characterizations; always the same, that are considered the greatest of all teams. Again, their roots were in vaudeville which is where their personas were first established and honed and “camera ready.”
And while the Marx brothers have been considered the most intellectually inspired of the teams, there’s always room for the most successful, The Three Stooges, who released more comedy shorts than any other comedian, as a group or individually. From 1934 to 1959, they starred in over 190 Columbia shorts, again produced mostly by Jules White. While the Marx Brothers excelled at wordplay and satire, the Stooges were pure slapstick and violence, described once as Laurel and Hardy in fast motion. The Stooges, interestingly, shined best in short subjects, while the brothers Marx exclusively made features. It wasn’t until the Stooges were introduced to a whole new audience through television that they successfully crossed-over and released 7 features, all geared towards children.
Comedy teams were not a “boys” club either.
George Burns and wife Gracie Allen were a successful radio comedy team that made the transition to film with a hit-and-miss track record. Luckily, they excelled and continued their dominance in radio, and later television.
Hal Roach, the producer behind Laurel and Hardy and the Our Gang comedies, wanted to create a female version of his popular duo, and matched beauty Thelma Todd with Zasu Pitts. Both were skilled comediennes, with Todd holding her own opposite the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Wheeler and Woolsey. While Todd is famous for great sex appeal and mysterious, untimely death, very few film fans have gotten to experience her shorts with Pitts and later with replacement Patsy Kelly. They are a must-see for several reasons, not the least of which is an early peek into feminist comedy, with even the very slightest of notions that “working girls” have to put up with a lot when it comes to men and careers. Todd’s pre-code shorts are the best of the lot, much of the sex appeal and innuendo had to be removed by the mid-30s.
Watch part of 1933’s “Asleep in the Feet” a Zasu Pitts-Thelma Todd comedy
By the 1940s, comedy teams were a “must” for every studio. Again reaching from Vaudeville’s rich history and personnel, straight man/funny man Abbott & Costello started out in smaller featured roles in Universal’s One Night in the Tropics. They used several of their routines to such great effect (including the greatest of them all, Who’s On first?) that they overshadowed the film’s leads. Universal knew they had struck gold, and followed that duo with the first of many starring roles with 1940’s Buck Privates.
Their strong personas; the fast talking Huxter Abbott and the gullible man-child, Costello matched the “hep” attitude of the WW2 jitterbuggers as well as the vaudeville tastes of the older crowd. Much has been made of Lou Costello’s incredible physical comedy and his persona (lifted liberally from Curly Howard), so perfectly suited for film that they dominated the box office for 10 years, spawning several series and sequels, as well as radio and a hit TV show in the 1950s.
One comedy duo that were the true ancestors of Zucker, Abrams & Zucker’s Airplane style of humor was Olson & Johnson. Born and bred in vaudeville, their talents were not so much in their routines and performance style, but the complete anarchy they raised throughout their shows. They purposely performed the worst material they could find, in a sort of meta-performance art. Their live performances of the play Hellzapoppin’ were so ridiculous and satirical that no two performances were the same. One night Hitler would start the show speaking Yiddish. Another night the actors would come out wearing dresses, or the orchestra would stand up and walk out. After a huge Broadway success, Hollywood came calling and the film was made with the same irreverence, except one key element had changed. Now instead of stage antics, the duo actually turned movie conventions and traditions upside down, to deliver one of the only dadaist performance art pieces to ever be released as a mainstream movie. Scenes played backwards, clothes would fly off, the characters would talk to the projectionist — nothing was out of bounds.
Watch the beginning of the strangest, screwiest film from the 1940s, Hellzapoppin’
As successful as these teams were, mention should be made of the teams that were less than successful. For instance, The Ritz Brothers appeared in 18 films, 13 of which they starred in for 20th Century Fox. They lasted as a poorman’s Stooges or Marxes from 1934 to 1943, and are only remembered for a handful of films that survive. Their routines today are extremely dated, especially because they had no identifiable personas. They were three versions of the same thing, they’d hit each other, or make “google eyes,” tell jokes or do prat falls together, so ultimately, there was nothing discernible about any of them. Watching them, you do get a sense that some of their style inspired (to greater effect by) Danny Kaye, but wouldn’t you rather watch that comic master as opposed to three guys doing the same thing?
If Universal had Abbott & Costello, Columbia had the Stooges, Paramount and then MGM had the Marxes and Fox had the Ritzes, RKO needed their own team, and threw together two character actors; Wally Brown and Alan Carney, to make the completely forgotten team; Brown & Carney. They lasted for 12 films, as studios really knew how to exploit and pump out a concept long after it’s dried up, and the two (a sad retread of Abbott & Costello) went their separate ways and proved to be more successful as solo performers.
The team that broke the formula for good, however, was Hope & Crosby. Each were successful performers in their own right; Bob Hope was a masterful stand-up comic and MC with a successful radio show, and Bing Crosby, a million selling recording artist and breezy musical comedy performer for Paramount. The two agreed to fulfill their Paramount contract in a low budget comedy-musical; The Road to Singapore, (the roles were originally meant for George Burns and Jack Benny, then Jackie Coogan and Fred MacMurray (!))Hope and Crosby had that indefinable “something” that worked just as well when they were together. Their loose personas; the suave Crosby who could always get the girl, and Hope, the coward and second stringer who was easily led astray by Crosby’s huxterism, resulted in comic gold. But beyond their personas; it was their ability to ad-lib, and to break the fourth wall by continually commenting on their public life (Hope would always make fun of Crosby’s unsuccessful ownership of losing race horses, while Crosby would take potshots at Hope’s radio sponsors and famous ski-nosed profile) that insured their longevity.
Hope & Crosby broke the mold because they were able to stay successful separately and apart. They didn’t have to resort to corny gags, or contrived personas of straight man/funny man to insure laughs. And if they inspired their contemporaries, their impact can still be felt today. In fact, it was after Hope & Crosby that comedy teams fell into two distinct categories; the vaudeville set-up and punch of the past, and the more ephemeral, two performers; both doing their own thing on one canvas.
Watch the trailer from one of Bob & Bing’s best; “The Road to Zanzibar”
This is not to say that the old vaudeville model was dead. Following the success of Hope & Crosby and Abbott & Costello was one team that were arguably the most successful of them all; Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.
Martin & Lewis were originally two separate entertainers; the crooner and the comic, booked into the same nightclub. One night, Lewis thought it would be funny to ambush Martin’s straight musical set by pretending to conduct the band, then attempt to get off the stage and pratfall into cocktail tables. Martin, as easy going in real life as his on stage persona, went with it, and an instant hit was born, (In fact, in several Martin & Lewis films, they recreate this routine).
Again, as successful teams in the past, the two fell into very well defined personas; the manic man-child, and the mature and suave ladies man. As new as their material seemed, its success was steeped in its deep vaudeville roots. They dominated the box office from 1949 until their dissolution in 1956. Both went onto successful solo careers, but it was their clearly defined (and separate) skill set that insured that success.
Watch Martin & Lewis completely ad-lib a routine when they sabotage a Bob Hope radio show:
For the very masochistic and curious, do a “deeper dive” into the successful impact felt by Martin & Lewis, check out the comedy “team” of Mitchell & Petrillo in their horrendous ripoff Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, available on youtube. Their lift of personas and material was so flagrant, Jerry Lewis threatened to sue, forever dissolving any future for these hacks.
By the 1960s, comedy was entering a major seismic shift thanks to counter-culturalists Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and the original Second City improvisation troupe; which begat three generations of modern comedians, including Alan Arkin, John Belushi and Tina Fey. As far as British comedy groups, the landscape was forever changed by Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, and Monty Python.
The comedy teams, no longer a draw in movies, branched out to television, most notably throwbacks Jackie Gleason and Art Carney’s The Honeymooners, cutting edgers Nichols & May, and borscht-belt revivalists Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.
The final full-fledged successful comedy team was Cheech & Chong, who started out doing improvised sketches in front of live audiences, and succeeded in topping the record charts with their classic, Grammy winning albums. Again, following the archtype of two specific personas; both stoners, one a Latino “vato,” the other a typical “burnout,” they made several hit films, starting with 1978’s Up In Smoke and culminating in the bomb The Corsican Brothers (1984).
So are comedy teams dead? Not necessarily, and in fact, thanks to the Hope and Crosby archetypes, several informal pairings of comedians and actors may not reflect high-concept “teams,” but definitely a contemporary “mutation” of the age-old traditions that are successful in their own right. Most notably:
John Belushi & Dan Aykroyd: best friends from Saturday Night Live, the two appeared together (and separately) in 1941(1979), The Blues Brothers (1980) and Neighbors (1981). Their personas always remained integral to the film performances, but their pairing as Jake and Elwood Blues for their musical revue the Blues Brothers had deep ties with historical comedy teaming.
Dan Aykroyd & Chevy Chase made the film Spies Like Us as an homage to the golden age of comedy teams, and even included a cameo walk-on by Bob Hope.
Chris Farley & David Spade, teamed in several SNL sketches, and made the successful transition to film together with the movies Coneheads (1993), Tommy Boy (1995) and Black Sheep (1996).
Mike Myers and Dana Carvey as their characters Wayne and Garth from SNL, and the successful films Wayne’s World (1992) and Wayne’s World 2 (1993), establishing the use of clearly defined roles, playing parts, rather than attempting to hide in their fictional “personas,” unlike, say, Martin & Lewis.
Seth Rogan and James Franco as co-dependent stoner and drug dealer in Pineapple Express, and the meta-comedy This is The End, which plays up their real-life “bromance.”
Tina Fey & Amy Poehler, referred to by CNN as the “First Ladies of Comedy,” established incredible timing together as the first female duo to anchor SNL’s Weekend Update, appeared together in the film Baby Mama, and a myriad award and talk shows, not just limited to the Golden Globes. These two have come to set the new standard for comic actors who thrive separately and together.
So, what happened to the comedy team? They may be still around, from the very bad (see: Tim & Eric) to the very good (see: Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s dominance in animation, musical comedy and theatre); they’re just harder to pick out of a line-up. So for every duo of traditionalists: (Keye & Poole), there are trend-setters (Fey & Poehler) who have expanded their reach beyond film and have embraced modern media in a way that can only suggest what future of comedy holds.