Two Hams, One Funny Bone

Photo Credit: Laurel & Hardy: Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Comedy Duos For The Ages.
By David Cohea & Jeff Pfeiffer, ReMIND Magazine

Solo comics are a mainstay — clowns have been around forever — but there’s something unique about the comic duo. Back in the days of vaudeville, such pairings were necessary because the venue was so loud that a “straight man” was needed to repeat the comic’s lines. The straight man also helped the comic set up the punchline.

Comic duos were a hit on film – who can forget the eternally aggrieved Oliver Hardy while Stan Laurel fumbled all around, or Abbott and Costello pranking through Frankenstein’s castle? (Abbott and Costello performed the funniest bit ever heard on the radio, “Who’s on First?”) In the ’40s, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope buddied up for the Road to… films, with the comically flustered love interest/third wheel Dorothy Lamour between them. Television proved a great medium for duos, as we immediately saw on I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. Romantic comedy duos were all over the dial — from Ozzie and Harriet to Burns and Allen.

But in addition to the eternal love-spat between the sexes, television was enriched by a wide variety of comedy duos. There are pairings between generations (All in the Family, Sanford and Son), between races (Diff’rent Strokes), even solar systems (Mork & Mindy). There are brother acts (Smothers Brothers), soul-sister pairings (Laverne & Shirley, Kate & Allie), funnyman-straight man acts (Tim Conway and Harvey Korman) and lead man/sidekicks (Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon). There are partners in crime (Hawkeye and B.J. in M*A*S*H, Bert and Ernie in Sesame Street) and crime-fighting duos (The Andy Griffith Show, Moonlighting). There are odd couples (The Odd Couple) and even odder ones in drag (Bosom Buddies).

Off the TV dial, comic duos stayed busy, with everyone from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder on the big screen, and Nichols and May to Cheech and Chong on comedy albums and radio.

Like they say, it takes two to tango; but there are many ways to dance. Let’s have some fun finding out just how many.

Laurel and Hardy
Just seeing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together onscreen, without them saying or doing anything, was good for a laugh. But once they got into their “fine messes” of heaping slapstick — tit-for-tat brawls with wives and neighbors, cops and thugs, and most of all, each other — their films looked more like live-action cartoons. The comic mayhem would leave Laurel crying and pulling up his hair at the same time and Hardy twiddling his tie with embarrassment or looking at the audience to register his disgust. Comedy gold was routine for this duo in a career that spanned 107 films — 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films and 23 full-length feature films. — JP

Abbott and Costello
The most popular comedy team of the 1940s and ’50s, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello parlayed their hilarity into success onstage at first, and then in radio, film and television. Another comic pairing of people with different appearances and personalities, Abbott and Costello were known for physical comedy as well as their clever wordplay, as demonstrated in their classic “Who’s on First?” routine. Abbott generally portrayed a smoother, fast-talking leader of the pair, with Costello as an often bumbling, dimwitted and cowardly foil to Abbott. This dynamic is probably most familiar to people through the dozens of films they made for Universal during their heyday between 1940 and 1956. Among those films were popular entries that paired the duo with some of Universal’s famous stable of ogres, including Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man, and lots of classic humor was milked from Costello’s sputtering fear and cries of “Hey, Abbott!” as one of those creatures approached. — JP

Lucy and Ethel
(Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance) I Love Lucy • CBS • 1951-57
I Love Lucy was great from the start; in its second year the show commanded the highest Nielsen rating ever for a season. Starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as a married couple living in New York City, there was plenty of chemistry between the two, who were married in real life. But some of the funniest moments occurred between Ball and Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz, wife of Fred (William Frawley), the leading couple’s best friends.
The episode where this shines the greatest is “Job Switching.” To resolve a bet that working a job is much easier than doing housework, the two couples “switch” jobs, with Ricky and Fred handling chores at home and Lucy and Ethel getting jobs at a chocolate factory. Failing in other stations in the factory, they end up on a conveyor line tasked with wrapping chocolates as they roll out. It all seems pretty easy until the conveyor starts going faster. Lucy and Ethel resort to ever more desperate measures to keep up, stuffing candies in their mouths, hats and blouses. It remains a TV classic to this day.

After I Love Lucy came to an end, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz went their separate ways. But Ball and Vance would go on to costar in The Lucy Show, a CBS sitcom that aired between 1962 and 1968. Ball once said of their working relationship, “Viv and I were extraordinarily compatible. We both believe wholeheartedly in what we call ‘an enchanted sense of play,’ and use it liberally in our show.” Their enchantment became our treasure. — DC

Mork and Mindy
(Robin Williams and Pam Dawber) Mork & Mindy • ABC • 1978-82
The clown vs. straight man (or woman) trope was taken to its outer limits in this classic sitcom from the late ’70s. Couples don’t get more mismatched than Robin Williams’ out-of-this-world (both literally, in terms of his origins, and in his personality and behavior) alien Mork from the planet Ork and Pam Dawber’s far more sensible Earthwoman Mindy McConnell. Williams, in his first starring acting role, is at his classic, manic best as Mork, both in his physical humor and in his quick-witted improvisation. It must have been a challenge for Dawber to keep pace with that legendary comedic energy (and a struggle to restrain her laughter; the actress apparently had to bite her lip in many scenes). But she holds her own as the patient Mindy, who helps Mork learn about human behavior and emotion to the point where they fall in love and have a child — the couple said “Na-nu, na-nu” to son Mearth, played by Jonathan Winters, who arrived fully grown as an elderly man with the mind of a child in the show’s fourth and final season. The addition of another improvisational great in Winters to the established comedic couple brought another hilarious dynamic to the show even as it was on its way to winding up. — JP

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis
Something about these two in action could melt a city down.

The team of Martin and Lewis first performed together at an Atlantic City nightclub and the owner thought they were terrible, telling them to improve or get lost. They ditched the scripted gags and began improvising, with Martin singing and Lewis posing as a bumbling busboy who keeps interrupting Martin’s performance. They were a hit, and the gigs kept improving, and soon they were headlining at the Copacabana club in New York City.

Next came a radio show on NBC, and in 1949 they premiered their act on TV in a show hosted by Bob Hope. Soon they signed a sweet deal with Paramount Pictures that would produce comedy classics like Sailor Beware (1952), Living It Up (1954) and You’re Never Too Young (1955). Martin and Lewis became a nationwide hit, and by getting complete control over all their appearances in clubs, movies, radio, records and TV, the two made millions.

Though they were close friends, the strain of so many appearances began to wear on Martin, who also resented the attention lavished on his partner. The two made a final appearance together at the Copacabana club on July 25, 1956, 10 years to the night of their first performance.

They stayed a long time apart – almost 20 years — but reconciled when Frank Sinatra had Martin make a surprise appearance on Lewis’ annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. They renewed their friendship though they never performed again as Martin and Lewis. — DC

Fred and Lamont Sanford
(Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson) Sanford and Son • NBC • 1972-77
The BBC intergenerational comedy Steptoe and Son — a smash hit in England — was imported by Norman Lear and presented to American audiences in 1972 as Sanford and Son.

Lear saw Sanford and Son as an answer to All in the Family, with Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford equals across the color divide. Irascible and streetwise, Fred is always looking to make a buck with get-rich-quick ideas that usually backfire. A single parent, Fred calls his son Lamont “dummy,” though it is Lamont who is usually doing the bailing out. Lamont would love to break out on his own, but he worries about the messes Fred will get into. The two spar over the junk business, Fred’s girlfriend Donna and Fred’s ever-wavering health issues.

Redd Foxx came to the show with a long career behind him as a raunchy nightclub comedian. Known as “King of the Party Records,” he appeared on some 50 comedy records. Demond Wilson was a Vietnam vet with some off-Broadway acting and a guest appearance on All in the Family to his credit before landing the role as Lamont.

Sanford and Son was immensely popular, placing in the Nielsen top 10 for five of its six seasons (two of those years it was No. 2 behind All in the Family), and was the precursor of many Black sitcoms to come. — DC

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder
Richard Pryor was already one of the funniest stand-up comedians in the business when the film projects started coming his way. But as good as he was, personal problems made him a risky bet. Pryor cowrote Blazing Saddles and would have starred opposite Gene Wilder, but the film’s production studio wouldn’t provide financing if he starred. Cleavon Little got the role instead.

But Pryor’s streaking success with his comedy albums must have convinced studio execs to give him a chance, because two years later he and Wilder finally teamed for Silver Streak (1976). For Wilder, who had already appeared in The Producers and Young Frankenstein, it was a chance to flex his Buster Keaton chops.

The chemistry between the two was immediate. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote of them, “Pryor and Wilder make a good team, Wilder with what he calls his ‘low-key high energy,’ Pryor with his apparent ability to con anybody out of anything.”

Silver Streak was a hit, and Pryor and Wilder would team up again for Stir Crazy (1980) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).

Unfortunately, years of substance abuse took its toll on Pryor. The two were supposed to get the lead roles in Trading Places (1983), but Pryor’s freebasing accident caused the roles to go to Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. The two would film a final movie, Another You (1991), but most of the magic between them was gone by then. — DC

Archie and Edith
(Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton) All in the Family; Archie Bunker’s Place
CBS • 1971-79; 1979-83
At the start of the 1970s, Queens, New York, couple Archie and Edith Bunker were facing a culture clash during a tumultuous time of change that was nothing like the younger days they fondly remembered. Carroll O’Connor’s blue-collar worker Archie was loudly outspoken against the change, yearning, in All in the Family‘s famous theme song, to go back to a time when “girls were girls and men were men.” His homemaker wife, Jean Stapleton’s Edith, in theory went along with that and generally acquiesced when Archie would tell her to “stifle it.” But Edith’s almost childlike innocence about the world often led her to honestly, and almost casually, say or point out things that made Archie’s brusque ridiculousness and bigotry stand out. When Archie belches loudly after she asks him a question, Edith asks, “Does that mean yes or no?” And there were times when Edith would even — perhaps influenced by the changing times, perhaps simply recognizing her own self-worth — argue back with Archie and on at least one occasion even tell him to “stifle it.” These eruptions from the normally quiet-natured Edith were surprisingly funny and effective thanks to Stapleton’s portrayal; she and O’Connor were brilliant at playing off each other humorously, and often touchingly. — JP

Ralph and Ed
(Jackie Gleason and Art Carney) The Honeymooners CBS • 1955-56
Sewer worker Ed Norton (Art Carney) and his downstairs neighbor, bus driver Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason), were a great comedic pairing, akin to Laurel and Hardy in not only their physical differences, but also in their temperaments. Norton is quieter, and more laid-back and unassuming, which often results in Ralph’s famously and hilariously short temper becoming even shorter when Norton takes his time in responding or getting something done when it comes to one of Ralph’s schemes. Though seemingly dimwitted on the outside, Norton is clearly better-read and more a man of the world than Ralph, so he is able to parry back with some insults of his own when Ralph lays into him verbally. Their interactions are sort of similar to Ralph’s interactions with his wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows), who gives it back to Ralph as well as he dishes it out before Ralph ultimately calms down and reminds her, “Baby, you’re the greatest.” While Ralph never opens up as emotionally (for him) with Norton, his anger with Norton always subsides, and it is clear that he has deep affection for his pal. — JP

Laverne and Shirley
(Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams) Laverne & Shirley • ABC • 1976-83
Starting life on Happy Days as acquaintances of the Fonz before moving to their own hit spinoff series Laverne & Shirley, Penny Marshall’s Laverne DeFazio and Cindy Williams’ Shirley Feeney became one of the most memorable and enduring female comedy duos in television history. As with any good comedy pairing, their success stemmed from the actors; in this case, brilliant, Golden Globe-nominated performances by Marshall and Williams that bring to life each character’s unique and hilarious differences. Laverne is more tomboyish, outspoken and unabashedly herself — both in her personality and in her attire, with a large “L” monogrammed onto her sweaters — while Shirley is meeker, perkier and more positive. As with any roommates, these differences in temperaments often lead to arguments between the women, but they always remain best of friends while they share the goal of getting through life and, as the famous theme song states, “Making Our Dreams Come True” — whether that was at the Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee for the show’s first five seasons, at Bardwell’s department store in Burbank, California, for the final three seasons, or even in the military in the animated spinoff series Laverne & Shirley in the Army that ran from 1981-82. — JP

Norm and Cliff
(George Wendt and John Ratzenberger) Cheers • NBC • 1982-93
At Cheers, that famous Boston bar where supposedly “everybody knows your name,” that claim may not actually have been true for everyone who came in. But it certainly was in the case of George Wendt’s Norm Peterson, a world-weary accountant with a quiet, dry wit and a longstanding, perpetual presence at his familiar barstool who was beloved by other bar patrons who heartily greeted him by name with enthusiastic welcome every time he entered the place. People at Cheers also knew John Ratzenberger’s Cliff Clavin, but for less congenial reasons — the loudmouthed, know-it-all mailman was the epitome of that guy nearly everyone has encountered at a bar, with a reputation for long-winded, unwelcome conversations usually centered around arcane trivia. Cliff usually wasn’t even drunk when he did this; it was his natural personality, and people knew enough to try to avoid him — if they weren’t outright verbally abusive of him as a loser, as was Cheers’ fiery waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman). But Norm quietly abided, and often even championed, Cliff (although he would still roll his eyes at Cliff’s tendency to run off at the mouth while Norm was simply trying to enjoy a beer or two, or three, or …). We like to think that Norm and Cliff are still showing up there, taking a load off and talking about life or complaining about the Red Sox, with Cliff bringing up some obscure stat while Norm, like a good friend, just quietly sighs, nods in agreement and tosses another one back. — JP

Harvey Korman and Tim Conway
The Carol Burnett Show • CBS • 1967-78
Some of the funniest moments on The Carol Burnett Show were in the tall and short of it — the duo of regular cast member Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, a frequent guest performer who became a regular in Season 9.

When the show was taped, Conway would play the first take straight; but on the second, he would often go on wild ad-libs the crew called “Conway’s Capers,” to see what would happen. Like when he played a Nazi interrogator using a puppet and a pencil as a “club” while singing verses of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

Conway reserved his knockout comedy punches for Korman, who tried nobly to keep character but would slowly crumble as Conway kept it up. Like the bit where Conway plays a bumbling dentist who keeps shooting himself with Novocain. Or in “The Oldest Man,” where Conway plays a shuffling old dotard who rolls down stairs sideways and gets confounded by mechanical devices. On The Carol Burnett Show, half the fun was seeing how long it would take for Korman’s character to fall to pieces.

“I don’t know whether either one of us was the straight man,” Conway once said of his working relationship with Korman. “The most important thing in comedy when you’re working together is for one guy to know when to shut up. And we both knew when to shut up.” — DC