- Laurel and Hardy
When I was younger, I had a friend who was obsessed with Laurel and Hardy. He forced me to watch a videotape of some of their short films, which I was at first reluctant to do because I could see that it was in black and white. How can something from 80 years ago still be funny? But five minutes into a routine about trying to get a piano down a flight of stairs, I was rolling on the floor in hysterics. It’s not just that the jokes were great, but the very idea of Laurel and Hardy was funny; their contrasting looks, their facial expressions, the growing frustrating of Ollie at Stan’s antics. And Oliver Hardy was the ultimate straight man, because he of course was every bit as funny as Stan Laurel was.
- The Two Ronnies
The Two Ronnies have always appealed to the linguist in me. Their sketches frequently featured clever one-liners and wordplay so complex that it’s hard to believe that they were written by humans and not a joke supercomputer. Apart from the legendary Four Candles sketch, there’s the Mastermind sketch, in which Ronnie Corbett always answers the question before last, and You Can Say That Again, featuring one character who hesitates when speaking and another character who finishes his sentences for him. Parts of their act seems a little dated now, such as their musical numbers, but their comedy has aged better than a lot of the alternative humour that tried to push it away.
- Fry and Laurie
Not enough people are aware that House and Melchett made four seasons of a sketch show together. From being friends since meeting at Cambridge, Fry and Laurie have appeared together in multiple television shows, including most notably playing Jeeves and Wooster. But by far their best work together was their sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which was at once fiercely erudite and incredibly silly. It was a kind of sketch show about sketch shows; Fry and Laurie never played characters, always playing themselves playing characters, and would frequently break the fourth wall, acknowledge the studio audience and talk to each other out of character. It had the wordplay and bawdy humour of the Two Ronnies and the mixture of high-brow and low-brow of Monty Python, but with a genuine satirical bite. The show would frequently make fun of the Conservative government of the time, as well as other television shows and musicians, amongst other things. A Bit of Fry and Laurie is an underrated gem of the alternative comedy scene, without which we would not have other double acts such as Armstrong and Miller or Mitchell and Webb.
- Penn and Teller
Penn Jillette and Teller (seriously, his name is just ‘Teller’) are the iconic faces of Las Vegas magic circuit. Their personas could not be further apart from each other; whilst Penn is the loud-mouthed, ascerbically witty member of the duo, Teller does not speak at all, communicating solely through mime and body language. Their shows are frequently violent, bizarre and funny. But like many illusionists such as Harry houdini and James Randi, their best and arguably most important work is in the promotion of skepticism and the debunking of pseudoscience and the paranormal. Their show Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! is an angry and profane attempt to take down as many false or misleading claims as possible. I frequently use show a clip of them to anti-vaccine nuts to explain why even if vaccination caused autism (which it doesn’t), all children should still be vaccinated.
- The Mighty Boosh
Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt prove that the traditional ‘funny man and straight man’ double act can still work today, even in a world as surreal as The Mighty Boosh. Vince (Fielding) is the comic foil, a laid back childlike dandy, whilst Howard (Barratt) is the straight man, a pretentious, serious musician and writer. It’s interesting to watch both of their stand-up acts before the Boosh because though they are funny apart, their comedy styles work together brilliantly, and their double act ends up as greater than the sum of its parts; Noel Fielding’s whimsical, Lewis Carroll-esque stories and songs and Julian Barratt’s surrealist, free-form quasi-performance art both fuse perfectly into what would become the likeable yet genuinely experimental and subversive Mighty Boosh TV and stage shows.