With the release of Due Date in cinemas this Friday, the birth of a new comedy double act in Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianakis beckons. As we all eagerly await Friday, when would be a better time to check out the comedy double acts that have given us hours of side-aching laughter over the years?
Whether it’s a couple thrown together by fate in a screwball comedy or a couple of buddies who find themselves in an array of ridiculous situations, we all love a great comedy double act. Cinema has produced such a large array of fantastic duo’s that a top ten barely scrapes the surface…so this is by no means an exhaustive list…
10. Gene Wilder & Richard Pryor
Though both had extremely successful individual careers, the four films that pit Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor together are amongst their most memorable. Their onscreen chemistry was electric, however, interestingly they were not that close in real life. The duo found a standard plot that worked for their talents and offered variations of this.
The narrative usually involved the two being mistakenly implicated in a murder and having to clear their names. Their first pairing – in Silver Streak (1976) – was a slightly more serious attempt at an action comedy, but as the years passed it was realised that the duo’s real talent lay in the slapstick elements of the plot – the story was simply filler! As their work together progressed, this element of the narrative was enhanced and the back-story thinned out.
Towards the end of their pairing, the box office success of their films began to decline and their final collaboration – Another You (1990) – attracted little attention. However, in Stir Crazy (1980) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) the comic genius of both actors runs ripe throughout. Perhaps the long hiatus of the pairing caused audiences to lose interest, but for whatever reasons both actors returned to solo work in the 90s.
Pryor teaches Wilder to be black in Silver Streak (1976)…
09. Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi
Responsible for one of the craziest films ever produced – The Blues Brothers (1980) – Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi first met on the hit late night television show Saturday Night Live and became fast friends. Finding they had similar thoughts on certain things, their professional partnership flourished and The Blues Brothers became their greatest success – becoming more of a way of life rather than simply being a film and a band!
Whilst both certainly had equally great commercial successes on their own (or grouped with other comedic actors), neither could really recreate the onscreen magic that they could produce together. The teaming of two such likeminded people set the Aykroyd/Belushi collaboration apart from many other comedy duo acts, as the laughs they produced relied less on the sparring of two bickering, but ultimately best friends.
The duo’s personal relationship was extremely close and Aykroyd has often stated that he believes Belushi and him were kindred spirits. Devastated by his partner’s death, Aykroyd has continued touring with the Blues Brothers band and kept his and Belushi’s vision alive in honour of his dearest friend.
The most hilarious car chase in history, in The Blues Brothers (1980)…
08. Bob Hope & Bing Crosby
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby – whilst successful actors singularly – were at the height of their comedic genius during their series of seven Road to... films, from 1940-1962. The pair worked brilliantly together in the standard formula of playing cons out to make a quick buck: Crosby the ‘brains’ of the duo and Hope enacting the plan. The pair would generally swear off women for the duration of the plan, only to both fall for a girl during the process (cue Dorothy Lamour!). Crosby usually got his girl, leaving poor old Hope on the shelf!
The partnership between the two worked so well that they ad-libbed frequently, giving an extremely spontaneous mood to the series. The comedy was so successful due to their differences – Crosby was the effortlessly cool crooner and Hope the scatty foolish prankster. Hope also broke the fourth wall on a number of occasions and directly addressed the audience – a classic example being when Crosby was about to sing, Hope would inform the audience and suggest they use the time to go and get some popcorn!
The best elements of the series are that rather than being a simple, farcical comedy, each of the Road to… films spoofs a popular genre of the day. Some of these spoofed genres include themes surrounding Arabian, Alaskan, jungle and high seas adventures. The final film – Road to Hong Kong (1962) – brilliantly spoofs the popular spy mysteries of the decade. As well as spoofing the popular genres of the time, Crosby and Hope also joked about Hollywood and their contemporaries, as well as little digs at Paramount Pictures!
It has to be the infamous camel kissing scene from Road to Morocco (1942)…
07. Simon Pegg & Nick Frost
Real life best friends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost first collaborated professionally in their popular TV programme Spaced back in 1999. By 2004, the duo moved into features and Shaun of the Dead rose from the grave of previous zombie horror-comedies!
With a fantastic satirical streak running through the narrative and strong performances from the above, Shaun of the Dead was both a commercial and critical success. Following this, the comic pair took on spoofing police action romps in Hot Fuzz (2006). Again, the film appealed to audiences due to its excellent balance of satirical and farcical comedy. The straight-laced, serious Pegg character is in perfect opposition with Frost’s intellectually challenged prankster character – male audiences can relate because we all have a friendship like this…generally we like to think that we’re the intelligent half of the duo, but I’m certainly guilty of being the less intelligent joker!
Pegg has obviously found some success as a comedian on his own, but rarely do these films perform as well as his work with Frost (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People  anyone!?). The pair can be next seen together in Paul next February.
The boys go all out in a battle with some seriously dangerous supermarket employees in Hot Fuzz (2007)…
06. Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis
The most successful comic duo of the 1950s had their fingers in many pies! As well as their making 17 films together, the pair also worked on radio, television and on stage at nightclubs. Originally hired by Hal Wallis as the comic relief in My Friend Irma (1949), the pair were signed to a lucrative contract with Paramount. Over the next 7 years, the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis churned out hit movie after hit movie.
Despite this commercial success, the duo’s partnership become increasingly sour, as Martin became disillusioned with playing the straight-laced character within their films. As the critics began to focus on Lewis as the real success within the act, arguments began to flare between the actors. Martin finally saw red in the late 50s and reportedly told Lewis that he meant little more than a dollar sign to him. With the release of Hollywood or Bust in 1956, the pair finally parted ways.
Both found individual success after the split and Martin finally achieved his time to shine, both as an actor and a singer, plus a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. Lewis continued to use his comedic talent in such films as The Bellboy (1960) and The Nutty Professor (1963), but his popularity began to wane by the early 1970s. Leaving the past behind them, the pair managed to put aside their differences and privately reconcile during this decade. The public got a chance to see this reconciliation for themselves in 1976, when Martin featured as a surprise special guest on Lewis’s Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Lewis’s boxing match in Sailor Beware (1951)…
05. Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz
TV’s funniest married couple not only produced hours of comedy to cherish, but also revolutionised the way television shows were produced. By pioneering the three camera set up (one each focused for a long shot, mid-shot and close up) and recording I Love Lucy (1951–1957) rather than broadcasting it live, programme syndication was born alongside their production company, Desilu.
As well as starring in this extremely successful television show that has endured for over half a century, the real life couple also ventured into feature films. The slapdash, farcical comedy of Lucille Ball’s performances works in brilliant harmony with the exasperated, straight-laced jesting of Desri Arnaz’s. Whilst Ball cannot help but find herself in ridiculous situations that promote an abundance of primarily physical comedy, Arnaz’s often cutting comments are equally comedic. For anybody who has a friend – or God forbid it, partner, who is as similarly insane as Ball – the comedy is simultaneously nonsensical and realistic: although she finds herself in these outrageous situations, the audience are not surprised to find her there! However, the predominant reason the two found so much success will always be because they appeared to simply be playing themselves! For audiences, they were Lucy and Ricky Ricardo…
However, The partnership behind the scenes was not as full of laughter as their onscreen work together would suggest. Having married in 1940, the couple divorced twenty years later, as the pressures of running a major corporation (they bought RKO in 1957) became too much for Arnaz to cope with. Turning to drink and becoming increasingly dependent on it, Ball bought Arnaz out of Desilu in 1962. Despite their turbulent private life – they openly argued on set frequently towards the end of their marriage – the magic that remains onscreen stands testament to the duo’s comedic talent.
In the feature films, Lucy’s attempts to prepare a four course meal in the back of a bumpy trailer in The Long, Long Trailer (1953)…
04. Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise
Arguably Britain’s greatest comedy double act, Morecambe and Wise found their great success on television. Like many other comedy double acts, the two began work in music hall sketches, turning to radio and later to television in 1954. Although their eponymous TV show proved enormously successful, their feature film work fared less well. The first three films were produced in the 1960s and were perhaps not successful due to cinemagoers’ obsessions with overblown, big budget epic productions. The duo’s final film – Night Train to Murder (1983) – was completed after a 16 year hiatus from feature film work, but failed to make waves on the comedy scene, not least because Morecambe appears to have little interest in his role (although, this is mostly likely because he was suffering from illness at the time of production).
However, despite the lack of contemporary success, these feature-length productions brilliantly showcase the duo’s talent. The brilliant combination of physical, slapstick comedy and humorous lines make the film work of Morecambe and Wise as enjoyable today as when they were at the height of fame. Although many argue that their feature length work does not compare to their television sketches, in my eyes Britain’s funniest double act never fail to make me laugh out loud!
In their feature films, it could only be Morecambe’s amazing self-defence lesson in The Intelligence Men (1965)…
03. Katharine Hepburn & Cary Grant
With only a series of four pairings under their belt, it’s easy to overlook the sheer comic perfection of the suave Cary Grant and the effervescent Katharine Hepburn, particularly in the wake of the on and off screen chemistry the later exuded with other Hollywood legend, Spencer Tracy. However, despite there only being these four films, each of them remain comedy classics: in fact. Bringing Up Baby (1938) – the pairing’s second opus – has subsequently become the principal example of 1930s screwball comedy.
Not only do the couple play off each other’s characters, they also continually push each other further within the genre. Although Grant starred with some of Hollywood’s most important leading ladies, the comedy he generated with Hepburn was never recreated in any of his future pairings. For example, despite being extremely enjoyable and funny in places, Irene Dunne is unfortunately not able to compare with Hepburn in her collaboration with Grant, The Awful Truth (1937).
The couple formed an extremely close friendship during their work together and Grant often exclaimed that Hepburn exuded magnetism that meant men couldn’t escape her charms. The romantic pairing of these two may not seem as glamorous as some of Hollywood’s other pairings, but it works tremendously well in a variety of different narratives. Whether Grant plays the straight-laced, nerdy scientist and Hepburn the zany, hilarious kook (Bringing Up Baby) or Grant the sophisticated charmer and Hepburn the capricious socialite (The Philadelphia Story ), the comedic brilliance of these two performers never fails to shine through!
The scene where Katharine Hepburn confuses her and Cary Grant’s car in Bringing Up Baby (1938)…
02. William “Bud” Abbott & Lou Costello
Originally teamed on stage, Abbott and Costello became the most successful double act team in the 1940s and remained in the top ten of highest box office performers for a full decade (1942-1952). After being signed to Universal on a long-term contract, the duo became household names after their second film – Buck Privates (1941) – found popular acclaim. The pair made 36 films together, some of the most popular being early spoof versions of Universal’s famous canon of monster horror movies.
The duo suffered a slight blip in their comedic genius when in 1945 Abbott hired help that Costello had previously fired. Costello would only speak to his partner when performing and this rift is certainly visible in their work between 1945 and 1947 (when it was healed). Both played individual character roles in these productions, who were seen on screen together much less than in the pair’s previous output. Their films often introduced to audiences, similar plot lines and comedy routines that had proved popular in their stage work.
By the early 1950s the duo’s popularity began to waver and in 1952 they turned to the increasingly popular medium of television. Their own show was entitled The Abbott and Costello Show and was an opportunity for the act to adapt and re-perform their classic comedy moments from their earlier film and stage work. The pair officially dissolved their partnership in 1957 after being dropped from their Universal contracts in 1955 and being landed with a massive bill for back-taxes from the Internal Revenue Service in 1956. In 1955, Abbott retired from performing, while Costello continued to perform solo.
In 1959, just before the release of his first solo-starring vehicle, Costello died from a heart attack. Abbott attempted a comeback in 1960, but shortly terminated the venture (despite positive reviews) as his new comedy partner, Candy Candido, could not live up to the legend of Costello in his eyes.
Costello drills a typically inept Abbott in Buck Privates (1941)…
01. Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy
The names Laurel & Hardy have become synonymous with film comedy double acts and for well-deserved reasons. Arguably the most iconic duo in film history, the pair featured in a total of 106 productions together! Originating in short silent features for Hal Roach during the 1920s, the comedy stylings of skinny Laurel and stocky Hardy progressed into feature films in 1931 with Pardon Us.
The duo’s influential comedy devices revolved around a number of established tropes, which predominantly leant towards the physical and slapstick variety. The predominant device the pair used was the ‘tit-for-tat’ joke, whereby Hardy often accidentally damaged the property of an additional character, who then retaliated by ruining something of the duo’s. This would escalate until both parties were openly destroying each other’s possessions in sight of each other!
Laurel and Hardy were also one of the original acts that championed cartoon violence in comedy, which has become a staple of the genre over proceeding years. This visual comedy was also enhanced by the extremely different sizes of the double act – which was also exaggerated in the different sound effects used in association with each character. Hardy would be associated booming banging and crashing sounds, whilst Laurel’s scenes would be accompanied by high pitched and whiny sound effects. Essentially, both Laurel and Hardy played to their strengths and generated moments of intense comedy through visual gags.
Laurel and Hardy’s personal relationship never turned sour and the duo enjoyed each other’s company throughout their careers. Their popularity began to wane in the mid 1940s, despite a series of successful films. Disillusioned by the lack of creative control they had over these films that were made under a new contract with movie powerhouses 20th Century Fox and MGM, they decided to take their act on a music hall tour of England, Ireland and Scotland.
They returned to the big screen for one final time in Atoll K (1950). The production, which was of Franco-Italian origin, was ill received by audiences and critics alike. Whilst the production had been plagued with shooting problems predominantly caused by the language barrier, for audiences the main issue revolved around the stars’ health. Hardy had rapidly lost weight and was suffering from an irregular heartbeat at the time, whilst Laurel was afflicted by a painful prostate condition. The ill health of the duo was visible on screen and teamed with the disappointing narrative and English dubbing, Atoll K proved an unfortunate end to both Laurel and Hardy’s film careers.
The pair remained firm fixtures on stage and appeared on television only twice. By the mid 1950s, both were suffering from serious health conditions and Hardy died from a severe stroke 1957. After his close friend and partner’s death, Laurel refused to work on screen or stage again, only offering gags to other comedy writers via letters. The remaining years of his life were generally spent responding to fan mail, which he insisted on replying to personally right up until his death in 1965. The incredible output that Laurel and Hardy produced during their time in Hollywood has allowed them to remain one of the most loved comedy acts of all time and they’re certainly the greatest double act to have ever graced the big screen!
The classic drinking scene from The Devil’s Brother (1933, aka Fra Diavolo)…
I currently feel like this list is endless and given the time I’d have liked to have included a lot more – Curtis & Lemmon, Martin & Candy, Crawford & Gable, Marx & Dumont… If you’ve got more to add or can suggest some other greatest scenes, leave a comment below!
This article was first posted on November 3, 2010