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. But they’ve become virtually extinct. It could be argued that the style of comedy that teams once offered has become outdated, but what’s to keep a new team today from collaborating and performing with a fresh approach?
Vaudeville and burlesque provided the training ground for most comedy teams in the early decades of the century, even those we associate more closely with films or radio. Many teams from that time would not likely ring a bell: Weber & Fields (phenomenally popular at the turn of the century) or Smith & Dale, and their brilliant “Dr. Kronkite” sketch, for instance.
And teams came in a variety of guises. Some consisted of two partners (such as 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 & Gracie Allen). One team, created to star in their own series of comedy shorts, consisted to two women (Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts, discussed in an earlier blog of mine). Most teams also clearly identified the straight man and 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 time (not opinion, just simple fact), there were no set straight man/comic roles, because each made their audiences laugh, if for different reasons. Stan might accidently demolish a piece of Ollie’s furniture, which would be good for a big laugh, but then we’d see Ollie’s exasperated look to the camera, which would provide another laugh. Or, he might retaliate by throwing an object at Stan in anger, only to have said object bounce off the wall and hit Ollie in the head. No straight man per se, but twice the laughs.
Other teams were popular on stage and in films in the 1930s, but are scarcely remembered today, which is a shame. But on YouTube and elsewhere, you can still discover the likes of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey (Wheeler as a somewhat naïve but good-natured lad, Woolsey as the fast-talking schemer), and Bobby Clark & Paul
McCullough (Clark as the chatty, boisterous instigator, McCullough as his amused follower). Both teams flourished into the mid-’30s, until McCullough took his own life in 1935, and Robert Woolsey died in 1938.
The post-World War II years brought us Martin & Lewis–and a few poor imitations–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 might soon 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.
Speaking of Abbott & Costello, 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 lived. By the time he and Lou first teamed up in 1936, Bud already had an encyclopedic knowledge of vaudeville and burlesque comedy routines, many of which he taught Lou in their early days. And, to show how skilled a
straight man he was, consider the immortal “Who’s On First?” routine. It’s still up to debate as to whether the team wrote it themselves (with their longtime writer, John Grant), or more likely developed it as an amalgam of other routines that indulged in varying versions of “who” and “what” wordplay. But the next time you watch or listen to Bud & Lou perform the routine (again, easily seen on YouTube), consider this: For years, audiences enjoying the two banter back & forth at breakneck speed about the players’ names on a baseball team, were laughing mostly at Bud without even realizing it. Notice that it is Lou who is asking the questions, while Bud, explaining the players’ names, provides the answers/punch lines. Of course, Lou’s growing confusion and exasperation throughout is wonderful, but don’t underestimate Bud Abbott’s talents as a straightman. There was none better. Lou got the laughs, but Bud served them up on a silver platter.
The later decades of the century produced more comedy teams, most often seen on television. The Smothers Brothers’ unique blend of folk singing and onstage arguments–with child-like Tommy deliberately causing a song to veer off-course, causing an interruption during which Dick would brilliantly 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, became a hurricane of controversy on more than one occasion, 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 Laugh-In, after having struggled for years in small-time clubs before eventually breaking into the big time. 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 severely underrated).
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” routine, with Schreiber as a weary cab driver who always seems to get irksome chatterbox Burns as a passenger. The team did well as guests on programs like The Flip Wilson Show, as well as on their own summer replacement variety show in 1973. They also recorded “The Watergate Comedy Hour” album that year.
The era of the comedy team pretty much ended when the Smothers Brothers retired from show business in 2010. Again, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why comedy teams have died out. But it’s also satisfying to acknowledge, and still enjoy, those teams who contributed so much to the history of great comedy in the past century.
Until next week(?)….