Comedy suits company. For all that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were solo geniuses at their craft when nobody could hear them talk, it was the magical relationship between Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy which superseded them once the talkies arrived. And it’s easy to see why.
In a double act you can shoot the breeze, you can verbally set things up and knock them down, you can set your sights on the stars and keep your feet on the ground. One of you can have your cake, and the other can eat it. You can be mutually supportive, mutually antagonistic, mutually creative or mutually destructive, and you don’t need anyone else to do it with.
Here are five of the best British doubles, to illustrate what we mean.
Morecambe and Wise
Having worked together ever since they were boys, there’s a cosy intimacy in the relationship between Eric and Ernie that rivals that of their near-namesakes from Sesame Street. And it allows for them to take outrageous risks with their public image without anyone batting an eyelid. That they share a bed – as Bert and Ernie do too – is just accepted because they’re effectively a married couple.
Look at this clip: Eric and Ernie getting ready for bed, sharing a few gags here and there. It’s just about the most relaxed performance you could imagine. And yet, this skit contains some of the pair’s best-loved gags – two clues: sciatica and ice-cream – just casually thrown out there, as careless as you please. Rarely has entertainment felt so effortless and comforting.
The Two Ronnies
Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker were thrown together as a comic duo, when their three-headed appearances alongside John Cleese on The David Frost Show were curtailed when the former wandered off to start Monty Python. So they settled down to make some of the most beloved sketch comedy of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Here’s a perfect example, the classic Four Candles.
Half the glory in this sketch is the amount of time it takes for Ronnie Corbett (the little one) to come back with the thing that Ronnie Barker (the big one) has asked for. We all know there’s a frustrating misunderstanding on the way, we all know the shopkeeper is getting cross, and we all know that his customer will not be offering him any clarity until he comes back with the wrong thing. The other half is simply that no-one can quite guess what the misunderstanding will be until it happens. And also serves as proof that Britain is a nation divided by a common language, all on its own.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
Meanwhile, from a slightly less comfortable place, comes a pair whose relationship was forged less in mutual support, and more in bickering, sniping, and general antagonism. Having made a name for themselves as part of the international hit review Beyond The Fringe, the pair had decided to go their separate ways, until Dudley, with the offer of a TV series, brings Peter in to help him write some skits. Before you can say “unidexter,” the two men accidentally invent Monty Python five years early. Not that it stopped the one-upmanship coming out in their work. Peter Cook spent his time mercilessly hijacking the script, improvising here and there, in an attempt to make Dudley Moore laugh, thereby ruining the sketch they are supposed to be performing as a team.
Luckily, a giggling Dudley Moore is among the funniest things known to British TV audiences, so everyone’s a winner.
French and Saunders
Meeting midway between the likemindedness of Eric and Ernie, the inspired oddness of the Two Ronnies and the bickering of Pete ‘n’ Dud, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders added an incredibly skill for parody and a love of wittering. They came out of the alternative comedy scene in the late ‘70s, and used that freedom to create sharp parodies of modern life – whether it was TV shows, pop stars, movies or just fat blokes shouting at the TV. That they each went on to massive solo success – Jennifer in AbFab and Dawn in, ah, VicDib – is a mark of their talents as individuals, but it’s their duelling personalities, as seen in this gossip-mag-baiting Amy vs Britney sketch, which create the real sparks.
Fry and Laurie
And again, we’re back to the bonds of friendship. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie met at Cambridge, joined Footlights, wrote sketches, took them to the Edinburgh Festival (alongside Emma Thompson), appeared in sketch shows, then made astonishing contributions to BlackAdder, and then wrote and performed four series of their own sketch show, from which came such delights as this:
And then Stephen took over the world with QI and Hugh took over the world with 101 Dalmati…sorry, House.
Hmm. Maybe they’ve done better having gone solo after all.
PS: Had this been a Top 6, we’d have put in the Mighty Boosh. Maybe next time.
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