Top 10 American Comedy Duos

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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.

10.  Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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)

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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.

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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.   


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42 Comments

  1. “Barack Obama and Joe Biden”

    You forgot to include “Bush and Cheney” and the entire Fox News (News?) mafia–organization…

  2. Perhaps one of the poorest series of choices. Lets see, I don’t see how you can have Lavern and Shirley or Perfect Strangers? Would either of these get a chuckle now? Both are immensely stupid choices. I am not sure how you can put Prior and WIlder as #1 when they only made 3 decent film together… Overall, VERY VERY poor list. Constructed almost as if you wanted to start debates and comment wars.

    • I couldn’t agree more, daniel. The list started out decently, but then it began going downhill when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis ranked higher than Abbott and Costello. Numbers 1 and 3 shouldn’t even be on the list. Also, the author couldn’t even find a good Laverne & Shirley pic? Because that’s not Laverne. It looks like Katey Sagal. Worst list on Top Tenz EVER!

    • Daniel, We don’t post any list for shock value or to start debates. We, of course, hope for a good-natured debate we try to create a list that is well though out and supported by the author’s research and knowledge. I will admit that I personally didn’t agree with the choices here, but I can say that about many of the lists on Toptenz.net. Rarely do I ask for a change, but when I do I leave it up to the author to accept the change or I give them the option of pulling the list from publication. Such as the case with this list. I asked that Cheech and Chong be added, but the author decided to pull the list rather than change it. After some thought I decided to post it based on this author’s years of service to Toptenz.net. I realize every list is controversial to some degree, but I also realize that is half of what make this site so much fun to manage and, I hope, fun to read.

  3. Are you kidding? Laverne and Shirley?–HAHA–Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello would be tied for first place. After that,who cares?

  4. Can’t believe Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot are on the list and so many other classic comedy teams are not. Hope and Crosby not here? Matthau & Lemmon not here? And it should have been Lucy and Ricky on the list, not Lucy and Ethel.

  5. Tim Conway worked better with Don Knotts. Myrna Loy and William Powell should’ve been in there, as should Doris Day and Rock Hudson…

    Laverne and Shirley? Gimme a break!

  6. This is the dumbest thing I have ever seen on this site and makes me want to delete it from my favorites! Must have put as much time into this as I do taking a whiz! The moronic GOP agenda on the end explains your idiocy.

    • Ken, I have deleted the content you are referring to at the bottom of the article. It got by me and should not have been included. It had nothing to do with the article content.

  7. TopTenzMaster

    Thank you for deleting the political commentary in the previous ending of the list. While I may not agree with every list ranking, I do appreciate the effort involved. I can get political rhetoric anywhere on the web, but there are few “lists” sites to enjoy such as yours.

    Best wishes…

  8. I thought having Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello as 10 and 9 was odd enough, then I scroll down and see Perfect f’ing Strangers on the list at 3 and nearly vomited.

  9. I always enjoy reading the lists, even if I don’t agree. Just wanted to point out that the photo posted of “Laverne and Shirley” isn’t Penny Marshall with Cindy Williams… it’s Katey Sagal from “Married with Children”.

  10. Oh Please, you forgot Stiller and Meara! Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara are icons of comedy and one of the best husband and wife comedy duos America ever produced. They’ve been a feature act on TV too many times to count. They even had their own TV show. They are also the parents of Ben Stiller. (No, I’m not their publicist. I’m just a fan of great comedy.)

  11. Gotta include Hope and Crosby..even tho bob hope was born in england..they were definitely a hollywood team.

  12. Didn’t Bob Hope get American citizenship? I think he’d qualify.

    But I have to agree that some of the choices seem odd. I can’t really consider any of these as duos unless they had an act they performed together for live audiences. And that would cut a number of people from the list. sadly, that would include Lucy and Ethel, and that just doesn’t seem right. But I would have left off Matthau and Lemmon as well. They made maybe three movies together over about 15 years. And I would have left off Klugman and Randall. They were great in The Oded Couple, but that didn’t really include devoting their lives to promoting themselves as a duo. Few worked better together than Cleese and Booth in Fawlty Towers, but they were never a duo in the sense we’re using it here. (Although they were a duo in another sense, but that’s another story…)

    Now, Mike Nichols and Elaine May would have worked for this list. Anyone remember them before they became more famous for other work?

  13. I have to agree with the others here, in that this list isn’t truly supported by the selections provided. No other film/TV fan would compare a comedy team of the 30s or 40s with sitcom characters of the 70s and 80s – these are two different styles.

    A traditional “Comedy Team” was based on performers who perfected a particular style with years of practice – Abbott & Costello or Martin & Lewis could entertain audiences for hours without a script. On the other hand, the other examples on this list fell under a wide variety of types: The Smothers Brothers are nothing like Harvey Korman & Tim Conway, who were sketch comedians unlike “Laverne & Shirley” which was scripted.

    I suppose this is why the author chose “Comedy Duos” instead of “Comedy Teams” to try to broaden the field but it really doesn’t do either side justice, and unnecessarily leaves out many other performers who could be combined into new categories on their own. Might as well make a list called “Great Crime Stoppers” and include Columbo, Wonder Woman, and Dirty Harry – they each do it in their own way, but they each could head a list on their own.

    I think this would have worked better – and nobody would have had an objection – if it was called “Comedy Duos” and focused on fictional characters (as opposed to actors who performed in a team). This would have opened to door to Herman and Grandpa from “The Munsters,” Gilligan and the Skipper from “Gilligan’s Island,” Martin Mull & Fred Willard from “Fernwood Tonight,” Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker from “F-Troop,” or any of the successful duos from “Saturday Night Live.”

  14. David Crowe on

    You could have made this a Top 20. How about Hope and Crosby, Matthau and Lemmon, Penn and Teller, Cheech and Chong, Amos and Andy, Rowen and Martin. Lenny and Squiggy, and Fry and Laurie.

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