This piece is written from the perspective of Britain – however, from what the author has observed, the Stateside situation appears to be similar.
In Britain, the history of Variety (U.S. – Burlesque) is littered with comedy double-acts, going right back to Victorian Music Hall. And when TV took over in the late Fifties, many successful acts made the transition.
However when, in the early Eighties, New Wave (“Alternative”) comedy moved the Old Guard over, whilst there were a number of double-acts among their number – few of them would survive.
Back in the Sixties and Seventies, there had been Morecombe And Wise, Hope And Keen, Mike And Bernie Winters, Little And Large, Cannon And Ball and latterly, Hale And Pace.
But while the New Wave brought French And Saunders, Fry And Laurie, Lee And Herring, plus Ric Mayall And Ade Edmondson – none of these couplings have lasted to date.
(I have deliberately left out couplings like The Two Ronnies and Smith And Jones, since they were CREATED by TV series).
So why WAS this?
Certainly, all of the above-named New Wave performers went on to carve out successful solo careers – and most of the duos parted amicably.
And it is not about the money. Most solo standups these days take a second performer on tour with them – usually musicians. Professionally, these guys’ rôles are to accompany the main performer on their closing song – but one suspects their real purpose is to keep them SANE by acting as a COMPANION, during those long, gruelling spells On The Road.
No, this writer suspects it is more about the whole BUSINESS of double-acts. They started as a way of SURVIVING Victorian Music Hall. But then, “cross-talk patter” routines developed – and these eventually evolved into the complex comic stylings of the masters of the genre – like the afore-mentioned Morecombe And Wise.
And even M&W acknowledged their debt to the American masters, Abbott And Costello. Try doing “Who’s On First” as a solo piece!
But in the end, while the basic format of the “straight man” feeding the comic his set-up lines was improved and developed well beyond its humble beginnings, I think the limitations of the format were ultimately responsible for its demise.
What I mean is; the BEST duos simply broke up once they had developed as comics – realising that going solo meant their possibilities would be unlimited. They would no longer be held back by a FORMULA.
And thus today, comedy has never been healthier. Today’s comics have gone way beyond mere observational comedy into the realms of the abstract (Steven Wright) call-back (from Stewart Lee to Harry Hill) puns (Tim Vine) props (Carrot Top) characters (Al Murray, Emo Philips) plus sketch, manic, insult, improv, low, high…
It is a fact that many performers who started in double-acts have today extended themselves WELL beyond any level that would have been possible within the confines of the double-act.
So for once, I will NOT bemoan the death of something good – rather, celebrate the birth of something much better. Indeed, solo standup comedy IS the New Rock ‘N’ Roll.