Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?
April Fool’s Day is here, which is a fine time to celebrate some of our favorite fools — specifically those who comprised the funniest comedy teams of the past hundred years or so.
Comedy teams don’t really exist anymore, and that’s a mystery of sorts. They were quite plentiful throughout most of the 20th century — on the stage, in films, on radio, and TV. Yet they’ve since become virtually extinct. One explanation is simple economics; it’s cheaper for a TV producer or club owner to pay one comedian at a time than to pay a duo. But perhaps it could also be that the style of comedy those teams once offered just doesnt’t fit as well into today’s comedy world. Of course, a truly funny comedy team should enjoy success regardless of changing times and tastes, but such simple logic doesn’t always seem to prevail.
But rather than indulge in pointless speculation, we can instead celebrate April Fool’s Day by remembering and appreciating the funniest comedy teams ever.
Vaudeville and burlesque provided the training ground for most teams in the early decades of the 20th century, even those we’ve come to associate more with films or radio. Many teams from that time would not likely ring a bell, such as Weber & Fields (phenomenally popular at the turn of the century), or Smith & Dale, seen here in their famous, rapid-fire “Dr. Kronkite” sketch.
Teams came in a variety of guises. Some specialized in visual, slapstick comedy on stage and in films, others relied more heavily on verbal give & take. The best did both. Some teams consisted of two partners (Abbott & Costello), some had three (The Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, the Marx Brothers — not counting Zeppo). Some were married to each other (George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara). One film team consisted of two women (Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts), who were brought together by Hal Roach to star in their own series of comedy shorts in the ‘30s. Most teams clearly distinguised the straight man and the comic, but with others, that distinction wasn’t so clear — or didn’t exist at all.
With Laurel & Hardy, the greatest comedy team of all (not opinion, just simple fact — and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), there was no real straight man or comic role per se, as each made their audiences laugh for different reasons, and by using different techniques. In any number of their scenes, for example, Stan might accidently demolish a piece of Ollie’s furniture, which would be good for it’s own laugh, but then we’d see a shot of Ollie’s exasperated look to the camera, providing another laugh. Or, Ollie might retaliate in anger by throwing something at Stan, only to have the object bounce off a wall and hit Ollie in the head. So, in reality, there was no straight man with Stan and Ollie, but twice the laughs.
Other teams were popular on stage and in films during comedy’s Golden Decade of the 1930s, but are scarcely remembered today, which is a shame. On YouTube and elsewhere, you can still discover the likes of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey (Wheeler as a somewhat naive but good-natured lad, Woolsey as the fast-talking schemer), who incorporated a fair number of songs and dances in their comedy features. Their success remained strong until Woolsey’s death in 1938.
The team of Bobby Clark & Paul McCullough (Clark as the chatty, boisterous instigator, McCullough as his amused follower) also flourished into the mid- ’30s, making only shorts as opposed to features — with Clark usually dominating the proceedings. McCullough took his own life in 1935. Many of their shorts (averaging about 20 mins. each) are available to see on YouTube (special recommendations: Odor in the Court and Alibi Bye Bye).
As for Abbott & Costello — who first teamed in 1936, gained national fame on Kate Smith’s radio show, and made their first film appearance in 1940 — it behooves us (and I don’t use the word “behooves” lightly) to not only praise their chemistry as a team, but to appreciate Bud Abbott in particular as the greatest straightman who ever graced a stage. When you watch or listen to Bud and Lou perform “Who’s on First?” you’re often laughing at Bud without even realizing it. Notice that it is Lou who is asking the questions, while Bud, explaining the baseball players’ names, provides the answers/punchlines. Of course, Lou’s growing confusion and exasperation throughout is wonderful, but don’t underestimate Bud Abbott’s talents as a straightman, nor his impeccable timing. There was none better. Lou got the laughs, but Bud served them up on a silver platter.
The post-World War II years brought us Martin & Lewis, whose energetic nightclub shows often bordered on delirium. Dean crooned as good as he played straight for Jerry, who could be relied upon to interrupt Dean’s songs in the most outrageous ways, such as bounding onto the stage mid-tune, dressed as a waiter carrying a tray full of dishes — which could, at any point, be reduced to rubble. They first teamed in 1946, made a number of films that sent them to the top of the box office mountain, and hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC in the early ’50s, before parting in 1956, exactly ten years after forming the team — and the same year Abbott & Costello also called it quits.
The second half of the century produced more comedy teams, most often seen on television, but the legendary Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding (known simply as Bob & Ray), with their droll sketches, parodies, and eccentric characters, first excelled on radio, before getting into TV with their own show in the early ’50s, and as guests on many variety/talk shows. They starred in their own show on Broadway in 1970, a Public Radio series in the early ’80s, and another show at Carnegie Hall in 1984. They continued as a team until Ray Goulding’s death in 1990.
The Smothers Brothers’ unique blend of folk singing and faux onstage arguments — with child-like Tommy deliberately causing a song to veer off-course until Dick would stop to berate his brother’s behavior — earned them not only an avid following in clubs, but also a short-lived sitcom in 1965. Their variety show, beginning in 1967, eventually became a hurricane of controversy on several occasions, as the brothers themselves, plus an assortment of their musical and comedy guests, dared to include political commentary in their performances (mostly in protest against the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration), which eventually led to the team’s dismissal from CBS.
In the same era, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hit it big as the hosts of the smash hit Laugh-In, premiering in 1968, after having struggled for years in small-time clubs. Dick’s imbecilic, girl-chasing persona was swiftly challenged by Dan’s calm, knowledgeable demeanor (talk about a great straight man — Dan, like Dick Smothers, was brilliant).
Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber also made a number of memorable appearances on TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s, mostly with variations of their “Taxi Driver and Passenger” sketch, with Schreiber as a weary cab driver who always seems to get irksome chatterbox Burns as a passenger. They also had a number of other clever sketches in their repertoire, as well as variations of the Taxi sketch (e.g. Julius Caesar hailing a chariot in ancient Rome). The team did well as guests on programs like The Flip Wilson Show, and hosted their own summer replacement variety show in 1973. They also recorded The Watergate Comedy Hour album that year.
The era of the comedy teams pretty much ended with the Smothers Brothers’ retirement as a team in 2010. Again, we may lament the disappearance of comedy teams as a sub-genre of the art, but it’s also satisfying to acknowledge, and still enjoy, those teams who contriubted so much to the history of great comedy in the past century. And who knows, maybe a team will emerge at some point in the future, and beat the odds of reviving the tradition.
Until next time…
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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:
“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“Buck Privates: An Appreciation”
“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73
“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including The Funniest Decade: A Celebration of American Comedy in the 1930s) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.