A Funny Thing Happened to Comedy Teams – They Disappeared

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This week I have a show biz question for you to ponder: Where are the new comedy teams? Okay, I know with everything going on in the world this isn’t exactly the burning question in the minds of most people, but still I think it may be an interesting insight into our contemporary culture. Besides, it makes for a good column. So what happened to the comedy teams?

Throughout the last century comedy teams were always a part of show business, from vaudeville and burlesque through movies, radio, television and records. It seemed that each generation throughout the 20th century had at least one world famous team, today I can’t name even one. In vaudeville the comedy act was as important a component to the variety show as the singers, dancers, jugglers, tumblers and animal acts. Sometimes it was a solo comic, sometimes a double act, sometimes a larger team. The solo comics have lasted, but why have the comedy teams gone the way of the jugglers, tumblers and animal acts?

The top teams are legendary: Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, and Martin and Lewis. Almost everyone on earth above the age of thirty has at least heard of these teams, if not seen them perform. Laurel and Hardy are my personal all time favorite team. Their humor is as fresh now as it was 75 years ago.

The most famous comedy team in vaudeville and Broadway during the 1910s and 1920s was Gallagher and Shean. Al Shean, by the way, was the Marx Brothers’ uncle. Their theme song, “Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean,” became so popular that even Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer recorded a parody of it in the late ‘30s and Jackie Gleason did the same with Groucho on TV in 1967. Gallagher and Shean were the best known of heaven knows how many dozens of comedy teams there were performing on the theater circuits of that time. Other major ones included Webber and Fields (the inspiration for Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys), Williams and Walker, Burns and Allen, Ross and Fenton, and Hart and DeMar.

Of course the Marx Brothers would undoubtedly be considered the most famous “brother” comedy team of all, but we also had the brothers Moe, Shemp, and Curly Howard of The Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, the Wiere Brothers, and much later, the Smothers Brothers.

The biggest movie comedy team of the early ‘30s has been almost completely forgotten today, Wheeler and Woolsey. And you can’t talk about movie comedy teams and not include Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in all those wonderful “Road” pictures. The advent of radio begat even more teams such as Fibber McGee and Molly, Lum and Abner, Vic and Sade, and Amos ‘n’ Andy. And sure, you’d have to include Edger Bergen and Charlie McCarthy too. Later on Bob and Ray made it big on radio and then did TV, records and clubs.

In the ‘60s television and records helped make Elaine May and Mike Nichols a huge success, as was the case with Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Both of these teams appeared on a regular basis on The Ed Sullivan Show, who always showcased new comedy talent.

1950s television had Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in The Honeymooners doing an updated version of Laurel and Hardy characters, and in the 1960s Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hit it big with Laugh-In. Even the dope smoking hippies of the ‘60s and ‘70s had their own comedy team (sort of) in Cheech and Chong. But since then the comedy teams have pretty much disappeared off the radar screen.

I don’t count Monty Python or any of the TV sketch ensembles such as Saturday Night Live as “comedy teams.” Sketch comedy is another animal altogether, as are sitcoms. I guess maybe the closest thing we have to a real comedy team today, if we count clowns, would be the California State Legislature, although it would be a tough call between them and the L.A. County Supervisors. I know it’s a cheap shot, but can you name any groups more deserving of a cheap shot? I really can’t come up with anyone else. Still, Laurel and Hardy were funnier and they did no harm to anyone.

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