In the traditional sense of the phrase the comedy double act is dead, replaced by solo comedians who are too insecure to share the limelight, or the financial rewards, with anyone other than themselves. You still get partnerships nowadays – witness Reeves And Mortimer, Armstrong And Miller, or the appalling Lucas And Walliams (even Smith And Jones still come together once every couple of years to fulfil a contractual obligation, alas) – but the modern comedy double act drips with post-modern irony, and is more a writing partnership than a comedic pairing in the classic “you start and I’ll finish” joke-telling tradition.

Morecambe And Wise, The Two Ronnies, Cannon And Ball, Little And Large, Les Dennis And Dustin Gee – these were true comedy double acts. And mostly, they were appalling. Typically they’d adhere to the convention that each member was the physical polar opposite of the other (in the case of Dennis and Gee, one was a short, whining, irritating bastard, and the other some dead guy). One member of the act would inevitably be the straight man – usually the taller, thinner partner - tediously attempting to “Sing a song for the ladies and gentleman”, while his shorter, fatter comrade would arse around in the background, playing trumpets out of tune, putting on women’s clothing, and falling over (“You’re ruining it for the ladies and gentlemen… they came here expecting a song and you’re just ruining it for them… Now go and stand over there while I finish, and don’t say a word”).

It was very much the rise of alternative comedy in the early 1980s that killed the comedy double act (or, at least, relegated most of them to playing seasons at the Blackpool Playhouse, barring the occasional appearance on The Generation Game or Blankety Blank). For all its flaws, alternative comedy proved to people that jokes didn’t have to be about mother-in-laws, or Harold Wilson (instead, hilariously, they could be about periods, or Mrs Thatch’, or Mrs Thatch’ having a period).

Little And Large were rarely off our screens until 1985, Syd and Eddie running through the same tired format week in week out, Syd trying to play his guitar through his metre-thick glasses, while Eddie came up behind him pulling faces, doing impressions of Deputy Dawg and Cliff Richard… The same for Cannon And Ball, who’d run through the same tired format week in week out, only on the other channel, with Tommy trying to sing a song while Bobby hung around in the background pulling on his braces, grinning gormlessly at the audiences and occasionally yelling “Rock on, Tommy” to huge comedic effect. Of course, these pairings were effectively talent-free, and only granted series because TV bosses were left floundering in the wake of the great Eric Morecambe’s death, desperately trying to fill a two-man gap with whatever shite they could scrape out of Butlins’ rubbish skips.

The Two Ronnies did things a little differently, coming from performing backgrounds rather than traditional stand-up. And besides, they were always too posh to make a living on the cabaret circuit. The minute their patronising Mockney accents slipped the crowds would have descended on them with broken bottles and snooker cues. And just observe Ronnie Barker’s dignified retirement to run a  - oh-hoo-lovely-do-you-hev-ennything-smaller-
then-a-pind-neyote? – antique shop (subsequently “exposed” by The Sun newspaper for ripping off customers, or something).

The fact remains that the comedy double act struggles today. The faux buddy-buddy innocence of it all doesn’t wash with today’s audiences. Witness the embarrassing flop that was Reeves And Mortimer’s stab at primetime, Families At War. We don’t know why this should be. We don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Cannon And Ball no longer have their own regular Saturday night light entertainment spectacular. Like so many other things, it’s just a thing. That said, if there was any justice in the world, it wouldn’t have been Dustin Gee who bit the bullet… Les Dennis, you are a travesty.  

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1.   What did Eric Morcambe repeatedly refer to Ernie Wise as?

2.  What was the name of Cannon And Ball’s mid-eighties police sit-com?

3.  How would The Two Ronnies end each episode?

4. Ronnie Corbett would deliver his traditional monologue sitting in a what?

5. Which characteristic did The Two Ronnies share?


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