What makes a good professional partnership? Stan and Ollie, the Laurel and Hardy biopic directed by Jon S Baird and starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, is a pertinent reminder of the joys and miseries of being joined at the hip to a work colleague.
It’s a pairing where each of you thinks you are the main attraction — it’s the other one who is the sidekick. As long as that delusion is never exposed to the light and each half can preserve their own imagined status, it works perfectly. Until it doesn’t. Some duos last a few years, some decades. But when they break up, it’s always the same: mutual respect and shared goals turn to bitter recrimination.
Comedy double acts are a fascinating psychological study in the art of human relationships. As viewers, we love them. Perhaps they represent a subconscious fantasy: that there’s a perfect other half out there for all of us, a ready-made life-long friend who understands us and is always there for us; a partner in crime.
Wouldn’t we love to have a twin who laughs at our jokes while making us look funnier than we already are? And we all enjoy scrutinising someone else’s relationship to spot the cracks. If a comedy duo can persuade us that there are none and that we can relax and trust in their coupledom, we love them all the more.
There was a period of about 20 years in British television when you could be forgiven for thinking that comedy as a genre consisted of double acts. Then, pairs of clowns were as ubiquitous as lone stand-ups are now. As a child of the 1970s, I loved Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, The Chuckle Brothers, Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, Hale and Pace, French and Saunders, Fry and Laurie and Alas Smith and Jones.
Double acts can often be sillier than a single comedian can be on their own. They can do sketch comedy and slapstick. It’s not easy to cover that range if you’re up there alone. It can feel easier to get laughs when someone else is beside you to deliver the set-up that launches the punchline.
Laurel and Hardy are the Laurence Oliviers of the comedy double act world, believed by some to have been the inspiration for Waiting for Godot. (Not a claim The Chuckle Brothers can stake. Though their catchphrase: “To me. To you,” could easily slot into Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece.)
Stan and Ollie explores their partnership sensitively without whitewashing the tensions. But mostly it celebrates the extraordinary fact that they were able to work alongside each other for almost 30 years in more than 100 films.
Their longevity is unusual because the history of comedy double acts is littered with break-ups. In 1978, when Peter Cook and Dudley Moore appeared on Michael Parkinson’s chat show (the BBC’s equivalent of The Tonight Show), the host asked of their partnership, “So it’s like a marriage?” Cook countered: “Yes, we’re getting divorced.”
It was a joke — a comfortable one, with seemingly no edge or rancour at that moment — and the audience laughed. As did Moore. But, behind the scenes, their partnership was crumbling. It dissolved into acrimonious conflict by the early 1980s.
In many ways, the stories of double act feuds read like the sort of inexplicable and petty rows that break out between siblings or warring spouses. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello fell out when Abbott hired a maid who had worked for Costello. Dean Martin felt overshadowed by Jerry Lewis when they worked together, telling him: “You’re nothing to me but a f***ing dollar sign.”
British comedian David Baddiel, who had a double act with Rob Newman in the 1990s, has said that “fame proved toxic” for their relationship. There were moments during the bad times when the only conversation they exchanged was on stage in front of an audience.
In recent years, the appetite for double acts has waned, perhaps a sign of our age of individualism. Or maybe we have become wary now that we know there’s often so much going on behind the scenes that is not very funny at all.
I was gutted to discover that my childhood heroes Cannon and Ball didn’t speak to each other for three years. These days when we see unlikely political pairings — France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel perhaps, or, worse, the UK’s David Cameron and Nick Clegg (who redefined the meaning of “comedy partnership”) — we are suspicious and cynical.
We know from the world of entertainment that the smiles are often fake and the camaraderie is for show. Why should it be any different in real life? Showbiz duos may hate each other behind the scenes but at least they benefit professionally from the pretence. Imagine being half of “Macron and Merkel” or “Cameron and Clegg” when you can’t even make much of a living out of your double act.
The writer is a comedian and author of How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking
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