I grew up as a kid watching Abbott and Costello movies which, though terribly corny by modern standards, were hilarious to me at the time. I especially enjoyed the interplay between straight man and comic, and marveled at how they could keep up such an amusing banter so effortlessly.
Of course, I later learned it took a lot of work to be consistently funny, with years and even decades of collaboration and trial-and-error being necessary before an act was ready to “go on the road”. It also gave me an appreciation for how comedic timing works-something that is less evident with solo funny men-and something that few people “get” nowadays. That’s why so few people tell jokes well; they lack timing.
In any case, I thought a tribute to the great comedy duos of the past-and they appear to be a remnant of the past with few contemporary examples-was in order. While many people are worthy of inclusion in my list of the top ten, I’m confining it to American comedy troupes only, simply because more readers will be familiar with these names than they would be with foreign comedians who, while well known in their own countries, remain practically unknown elsewhere. Additionally, some of these duos were Hollywood creations rather than original acts; in other words, they were fortuitous pairings of actors or actresses rather than original comedy teams before appearing on screen. And so, without further ado, here is my list of the top ten American comedy duos of all time.
Easily the best known comic duo of all time, Laurel and Hardy are probably best known for being one of the few successful silent film acts to make a successful transition into talkies. The English-born Laurel and Georgia-born Hardy teamed up for the first time in 1926 while working for the legendary Hal Roach Studios in Hollywood, and eventually went on to make no fewer than 107 feature length films, shorts and guest appearances over a span of 24 years.
Afterwards they continued to perform on stage and television until health issues forced Hardy to quit in 1957, bringing an end to the classic duo. Besides their longevity, they also hold the record for being the most imitated comedy team in history (Dick Van Dyke does the best Stan Laurel on the planet, just soze ya knowz).
9. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
These two former burlesque comics played nightclubs solo for years before finally teaming up in 1935 but, once they got together, there were fewer duos in the 40’s and 50s more popular or as successful. How successful were they? Consider that they made no fewer than 36 films between 1940 and 1956 and were the highest-paid entertainers in the world during World War II; not bad for two guys from New Jersey who started out dirt poor.
They are probably best remembered for their “Who’s On First?” routine that became legendary (and something they repeated literally thousands of times over the course of their career) and still can get laughs today. It was only Costello’s death in 1959 that ended the duo’s run, or they might have continued to make a splash even into the sixties and beyond.
8. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin
Despite being among the most popular comedy duos of the fifties, their partnership was remarkably short: just a mere ten years between their first appearance together in 1946 and their final breakup exactly ten years later to the day. But while they were together, they performed magic that few acts have been able to achieve since.
Unfortunately, their relationship ended badly, with both men striking out on solo careers-Martin as the handsome crooner and Lewis as the bumbling comic. Both achieved a degree of success on their own at the box office, though Martin probably became the more accomplished as an actor and singer than did Lewis, who made a string of forgettable comedies before largely fading from the scene. Fortunately the two men reconciled shortly before Martin’s death in 1995.
7. George Burns and Gracie Allen
The first of the successful male/female comedy duos, the real-life husband and wife team of Burns and Allen delighted audiences for nearly thirty years with their clever repertoire and Gracie’s good-hearted but dim-witted persona. Big in both radio and television, their Burns and Allen Show, which ran on both mediums with great success, was one of the top rated radio and television shows right up until 1957, when Gracie decided to retire from show business for health reasons.
After her death in 1964, Burn’s career went into the doldrums, but was eventually revived on the big screen when he got the chance to play the Almighty Himself in Oh God (1977) and two successful sequels. He died in 1996 at the ripe old age of 100. Say goodnight, Gracie.
6. Lucy and Ethel (Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance)
Though sidekicks moreso than a true comedy team, the exploits of Lucy and Ethel have become the stuff of legend since I Love Lucy first premiered in October of 1951. Their comedy was more physical and situational than verbal and usually involved them getting into various jams commonly resulting from Lucy’s deviousness. Though they only worked together for nine years, they have become well-known through reruns and have served as the basis of a number of other successful all-girl comedy duos such as Laverne and Shirley (Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams-see below) and Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence.
5. Shirley Feeney and Laverne De Fazio (Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall)
Basically updated versions of Lucy and Ethyl, Laverne and Shirley replicate many of their predicaments, except they approach things from the perspective of tough, working-class single women rather than married housewives. Being single also added an element of intrigue as the duo were constantly on the lookout for male companionship, but with only mixed results-something Lucy and Ethyl never had to deal with. The duo first appeared in an episode of Happy Days as somewhat slutty friends of Ritchie Cunningham, and made such a splash with audiences they eventually got their own show, which ran for a respectable seven seasons before running out of steam in 1983.
4. Tim Conway and Harvey Korman
Though not a comedy team per se, their appearances on The Carol Burnett Show in seasons eight through ten are still the stuff of legends. They seemed to have a remarkable chemistry that worked so well together that it made their humor infectious, especially when they began adlibbing their lines in an attempt to get the other to “lose it.” This made their comedy not only spontaneous but great fun, which the audience was able to pick up on and feel as if they were in on the joke. Their “shtick” also helped revive Conway’s career (you might remember him as Ensign Parker on McHale’s Navy) in the seventies, providing him a number of movie roles for which he would probably never have been considered without the jumpstart his appearances on The Carol Burnett Show provided.
3. Larry Appleton and Balki Bartokomous (Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot)
Maybe I’m dating myself here but I thought this pairing of the straight-laced Larry with his cousin Balki made for great comedy. Apparently, a lot of people agreed, as Perfect Strangers remained on the air for a respectable eight seasons, finally coming to an end in 1993. Pinchot’s heavy Eastern European accent (it was never determined precisely where Mypos-his country of birth-actually was, leaving it up to the audience to decide for themselves) and his “outsiders” perspective on American culture was a perfect foil for the Oliver Hardy-esque Linn-Baker’s naive and mildly neurotic Larry Appleton.
The duo also had heart as well, which is what made them such a lovable pair together. Both largely dropped out of sight after the show’s cancellation, with Pinchot-who turns out to be far less lovable when he’s not Balki-making a few appearances in some forgettable films and short-lived TV series while Linn-Baker got into directing.
2. The Smothers Brothers
Though their popular and highly controversial variety show only aired for a couple of seasons before it was unceremoniously cancelled by timid TV execs, it was enough time to make the comedy routines between Tom and Dick the highlight of an otherwise unspectacular program. With Dick playing the folk-singing straight man and Tom the interrupting and annoying comic relief, the real-life brothers proved to possess chemistry between them that left audiences howling.
Had the show aired a few years later rather than during the height of the anti-war sixties, it might have had greater longevity, but the brothers proved to be as rebellious as the era, leading to their quick demise. Not that they didn’t try and revive the format later on with mixed results, it’s just that in going up against the status quo of the time they forever tainted themselves. They were funny while they lasted though.
1. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor
Though attempts at interracial match-ups had been attempted before and since, Wilder and Pryor are the only two who seemed to be able to make it work. Wilder’s slightly eccentric persona combined with Pryor’s street-wise one-liners had audiences rolling in Stir Crazy-one of the big hits of 1980. Though they only made four movies together (with one of them being a bomb) when they were on, there were few comedy teams funnier. Too bad Pryor’s volatility and drug abuse couldn’t have been kept in check, as they could have gone on to become extremely successful had they been able to overcome Pryor’s personal demons.
Other duos worthy of note: Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Dan Akroyd and John Belushi (the Blues Brothers), Cheech and Chong.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.