Monday, July 20, 2015

"Wendy's Inquiry About Comedy Teams"

I used to enjoy comedy teams.  As I have mentioned in the past, Abbott and Costello’s "Who’s on First” is the funniest hunk of comedy I have ever experienced.  And the comedy team dynamic is fundamental to its success.

There are comedy teamings today – like-minded comedic pairings, like Key and Peele and that couple on Portlandia – but that is hardly the classic comedy team arrangement. 

Also, logically, if there are virtually no comedy teams in the stand-up comedy arena, there can be no comedy teams to bring into the situation comedy arena.  Stand-up comedians still get their own sitcoms – the most recent example being Jim Gaffigan in his eponymous – I just like using the word – The Jim Gaffigan Show, currently running on TV Land.  But Burns and Allen became TV’s Burns and Allen because they had originally been Burns and Allen in vaudeville.  That comedic category is no longer in existence.

Why not?  Which was not actually Wendy’s question – hers related more to comedy teams being recruited into sitcoms, which I believe I have addressed – you cannot recruit what is no longer there.   It might parenthetically however be of interest to examine why the comedy team is no longer there to recruit into sitcoms, which you cannot do anymore because they are no longer there. 

There, ladies and gentlemen, is a man writing himself into a pretzel.


Why is there a dearth – or a notch or two lower than dearth – of comedy teams working today?

Let us begin the conversation with “Fashion.”

The traditional “comedy team relationship” is demonstrably out of fashion.

(Now do I have to remind you that I am congenital pessimist, or should I just say it?  I think I’ll just say it.)

And it is not coming back.

Of course, I could always be wrong.  As the optimists will inevitably remind us, one successful new comedy team, you get imitators jumping on the bandwagon, you get momentum, and you get a renewed audience appetite for comedy teams. 

Fine.  If you believe optimists.

The odds, however, are overwhelmingly against it.  I am aware that fashion is cyclical.  But not always.  I do not see a resurgence in bellbottoms in the foreseeable future.  And you can comfortably throw away your spats.  (If I am mistaken, let me know and I shall happily reimburse you with “new spats” money.)

Why have comedy duos fallen into such disfavor?  Three observations come to mind for you to pick over: 

One:  We live in the “Age of the Individual.”  (It’s the “Me Decade”, only they forgot it was only supposed to last a decade.)  What is popular today is the “Selfie.”  Considerably less popular: The “Us-ie.”

Two:   The meat and potatoes content of the comedy teams was what I like to call “pure comedy.”  (Which I hope to write about in the future.  If I remember.) 

“Pure comedy” is comedy for the pure and exclusive sake of comedy.  No ax to grind.  No cultural point of view.  “Pure comedy” is constructed strictly for laughs.  The bigger, the better.
As comedy evolved away from “pure laughs” to being “comedy about something”, the popularity of the comedy duo – devised as a delivery system for “pure comedy” – inevitably receded.  Yes, there was Nichols and May, but they were hardly a classic comedy team.  Nichols and May played characters, rather than themselves.  And they performed hilarious (and highly insightful) psychodramas rather than going directly for big laughs.

It’s simple logic.  “Opinion comedy” is most successfully delivered by an individual.  “Opinion comedy” is currently more popular than “pure comedy.”  The individual comedian is currently more popular than the comedy team.

Third:  The classic comedy teams’ acts were premised on the “unequal relationship”:

The (comparatively) capable “Straight Man” – Oliver Hardy – versus the hopelessly incompetent “Funny Man” – Stan Laurel.  The nefarious “Trickster” versus the innocent “Stooge.”  (Abbott and Costello, quintessentially on display in “Who’s on First?”)  The responsible “Adult” – Dean Martin – versus the uncontrollable “Meshugenah” – Jerry Lewis. 

Even The Smothers Brothers, before they got bit by the “political relevance bug” promulgated in the sixties, grounded their presentation in “The Sensible Older Brother” – Dick – versus the sputtering, “Mom loved you best!” younger sibling.

In every comedy team pairing, there was the “Dominant” and there was the “Dominated.”

This relationship is no longer suitable for times.  Why?  Because nobody wants to be second one.

Today’s “Funny Men” are unwilling to appear incapable.  (Stan Laurel)  Or puerile.  (No more comedians in short pants.)  Or physically exploited.  (In the “Flugel Street” routine, when the “Stooge” innocently asks, “How do I get to Flugel Street?” he is immediately beaten to a pulp.)  Or amiably inebriated.  (Dick Martin, in the Rowan and Martin coupling.)  Even for big laughs.  Why?

Because in the “Empowerment Community” we insist on being…


(Did you know that in the Old Days, the “Straight Man” was traditionally paid more money than the “Funny Guy”?  I have no idea why that was.  Or why any “Funny Guy” ever put up with it – unless they were also stooges in actual life.  What I do know is if that happened today, the shorted “Funny Guy” would be filing a legal complaint for anti-“Funny Guy” discrimination.)

Yes, there are “opposites” on sitcoms, but that’s just sitcom writers perpetuating a strategy guaranteed to get laughs.  And of course the roles are cast with actors who never worked together before because there is no longer a comedy team pool to draw from.  Also if you notice, the sitcom relationships, although oppositional, are not hierarchically unequal.  The “Odd Couple” may well have been odd.  But there was nobody in command.

Anyway, Wendy, those are my spewings in reaction to your question.

I hope they are, at least partially, acceptable.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Yes, indeed, and thank you for taking the trouble. You actually answered what I meant rather than what I said.

I should have also named among the great comedy duos Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I understand the loss of vaudeville. But it is interesting that we don't seem to currently see comic minds finding each other in college/university: that's how the Pythons met, and the group that included Cook, Moore, Jonathan Miller, and I think Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Fry and Laurie: another British team, somewhat younger than the American teams we've named. Oh, and also (Dawn) French and (Jennifer) Saunders. Hm, now there's an interesting thing: comedy duos lasted far longer in Britain than in the US.

I have a theory that there is a big generational aspect to these things. Probably our first mistake is looking for comedy duos on TV and in clubs. I bet they're out there, but they're making apps.


Canda said...

Excellent summary, Earl. I agree. Do you have any idea why the comedy groups like Ace Trucking Company, the Committee, and
anyone like that has fallen out of favor with the public?

Culture Clash is still out there performing, but they are not popular with a large, TV audience.

Wendy may be right, as far as what's happening on the internet. There may be comedy duos who have found a niche.

Nico said...

I enjoyed the column a lot
Side note: You mentioned that straight men were paid more (and in some cases twice as much) but you didn't know why. This is because the straight man (or "feeder") was seen as more important to the act and a harder role to play.
Jeff Ross, the roast comic, told me once that he thought that punchlines are fine, but premises are "gold." I think the straight man is so important because he's got control of the premise.

JED said...

When I was half way through today's post, I was ready to say, "Aha! You forgot the Smothers Brothers." Then, one second after that, you mentioned them.

Craig Gustafson said...

In newspaper interviews, Bud Abbott used to stress the importance of the straight man by telling the reporter, "Whatever I say to you, you answer 'Who,' 'What' or 'I Don't Know.'" He would then proceed to spit out rapid-fire lines and make the reporter funny.

Listen to "Who's on First" again and see who's setting the pace. Costello was the tour guide, but Abbott was driving the bus.