Double Acts have always been present in the tradition of British comedy and are now lauded as being as important to the genre as the stand-up or the sitcom. However, I’ve noticed a very interesting trend in Double acts that I want to discuss here today. Is there something that the truly great double acts have in common that others don’t? I think there is.
The basics of my theory are these, the best double acts comprise of two individuals whose careers never outshine one another, where the lesser comedy duos often have one member who goes onto have a greater career regardless of whether on not they leave the act. For example, lets look at two of the most famous and most highly regarded double acts in British comedy history; The Two Ronnie’s and Morecombe and Wise.
With both of these double acts, my theory holds strong. Morecombe and Wise rarely achieved any lasting success outside their partnership, although both did pursuit other work in theatre and film, and while the Two Ronnie’s both did work outside their double act, with Ronnie Barker in Porridge and Open All Hours and Ronnie Corbett in Sorry! and a multitude of panel shows, their successes never really outdid each other. So here we have two of the greatest double acts in British comedy history whose independent work never surpassed the other. We may as well add double acts such as Ant and Dec, French and Saunders, and Ade Edmundson and Rik Mayell, as the same can be said for them.
Now we get to the double acts who feature a more successful member. This include Mitchel and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, Skinner and Baddiel, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and David Walliams and Matt Lucas. Let’s take some time to talk about them individually.
Mitchel and Webb
Both individuals found fame with Peep Show but while Robert Webb has had roles in a few shows like Fresh Meat, he hasn’t had nearly as much mainstream success as David Mitchel who is a regular panellist on Would I Lie to You? as well as appearing on a slew of other panel shows such as QI, Mock the Week, Have I got News for You and Just a Minute.
Armstrong and Miller
Armstrong and Miller’s sketch show was very popular but since then, Ben Miller has featured in a few shows like The Worst Week of My Life and Primeval, while Alexander Armstrong has found new fame as the host of Pointless and has released his own albums.
Skinner and Baddiel
Skinner and Baddiel are perhaps best known for the football anthem released to coincide with the World Cup, but while Baddiel has sort of faded away, Frank Skinner is now a regular on panel shows and currently presents the rebooted series of Room 101
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
While the cornetto trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and World’s End are some of the best received comedy films of the last 20 years, Simon Pegg has gone on to far greater success than Nick Frost, starring in the Star Trek films as Scotty and the Mission Impossible franchise
David Walliams and Matt Lucas
Little Britain has not aged well but is certainly one of the most iconic and influential comedy shows of the early 2000s and resulted in the careers of David Walliams and Matt Lucas. While Walliams has gone on to raise millions for charity, write a series of bestselling children’s books, and feature on numerous panel shows as well as acting as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent, Matt Lucas has been seen far less often with a supporting role in Doctor Who amongst others.
Honestly, when I started writing this post I was skeptical, but having reached this point, I think that there is a fair deal of merit to my theory. Why then, do we find this pattern in double acts? Well, I think the answer is pretty simple. Duos work best together when they work together. I think a good way to explain this is with food.
Take a pizza for example, all the ingredient work together to create a complete pizza, while pepperoni and cheese may be good on its own its not as good as when it’s together. The opposite of this might be pineapple pizza, something apparently a lot of people don’t particularly like. In this case, you might have ambivalent feelings towards pineapple pizza but think pineapple as a fruit works a lot better on its own.
So you see, the best double acts work together so perfectly that on their own they don’t do nearly as well because their talents are best expressed when working in a pair and while you can certainly find a lot of merit in Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller and others, it’s a simple fact that they will never be as iconic as Morecombe and Wise, Ant and Dec, or the Two Ronnies.