Twice as nice?

Chris Hallam on the double act

What is the secret of a great comedy double act? Should any comic starting out on their career feel obliged to emulate Mitchell and Webb, French and Saunders or even Ant and Dec by forming a duo?

Clearly not. Although common, comedy partnerships are hardly essential. Many, probably most successful comics have worked perfectly well without one.

And certainly it doesn’t always work anyway. Remember Jack Dee and Jeremy Hardy’s brief comedy partnership in the Nineties? No? Then consider yourself lucky.  Richard Herring and Stewart Lee enjoyed some success in the same decade but never quite broke through, something that has been described as one of  ‘the major lost opportunities in comedy of that time’ in Lucian Randall’s Chris Morris biography Disgusting Bliss. In fairness, their failure had little to do with their partnership. But for whatever reason, both men, particularly Lee, have done better since amicably going their separate ways at the start of the millennium.

Sometimes it’s less amicable. As a breakaway from the Mary Whitehouse Experience, Rob Newman and David Baddiel were huge filling Wembley Arena in 1993. But the duo had already fallen out and were barely speaking privately by that point. Newman soon retreated into obscurity while the Jewish, middle-class Baddiel latched himself onto the emerging lad culture by joining working class Brummie Frank Skinner on Fantasy Football League. An unlikely partnership perhaps but it worked.

What happens when one half of the partnership outperforms the other? Five years ago, Ben Miller was undeniably the more high profile of the Armstrong and Miller partnership with his own sitcom (The Worst Week of My Life) and roles in everything from the film Johnny English to short-lived satire of the TV world Moving Wallpaper. Alexander Armstrong, in contrast, was rarely to be seen.

Five years on, Miller certainly hasn’t vanished – as his recent starring role in BBC drama Death in Paradise shows. But Alexander Armstrong undeniably now has the higher profile of the two, appearing in multiple quiz shows, adverts, guest hosting Have I Got News For You more than any other person and even enjoying a recent appearance in the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Yet this need not be a problem, and indeed there are no obvious signs of strain in the Armstrong and Miller dynamic.

Why  do comics need partners at all? Clearly they offer a practical advantage to anyone planning a sketch show: significantly most successful comedy duos (Smith and Jones, Hale and Pace, Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller) have done at least one sketch show at one point. Having a partner can take a lot of the pressure off, too, as the brunt of any failure is at least shared.

The idea of one comic playing the straight man is outmoded as is the idea that a comedy partners necessarily appear to be opposites. Mitchell and Webb might seem like polar opposites on Peep Show but in reality it is difficult to pinpoint the differences between them – or, indeed, most comedy partners.

In an ideal world, choosing a comedy partner is like the creation of band. It should not be a cynical manufactured decision but should be the fusion of two great comedic forces. As Stephen Fry says of meeting Hugh Laurie in his book The Fry Chronicles:

‘You read about people falling suddenly in love…but it is less often that you hear about collaborative love at first sight, about people who instantly discover that they were born to work together or born to be natural and perfect friends.’

And bear in mind: even if your careers do ultimately diverge like French and Saunders, Fry and Laurie, Smith and Jones, your names will be always linked in the collective public mind.

Published: 18 Jan 2012

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