They’re not seen too much these days, but there was a time in this country when comedy duos haunted the pop culture landscape the same way in which pop-culture self-awareness does today. Like roving packs of boy bands, comedy duos would haunt movies, television shows and radio broadcasts with a stirring regularity, leaving their mark on pop consciousness forever. The dynamic was simple and easy to imitate: one fellow would be the buffoon who constantly mishears orders, bumbles plans and spews malapropisms with the best of them. His partner (and I say “his” as there were few mixed-gender comedy duos) was always the straight-laced thinker. He played the role of the clear-headed one, the stone-faced straight man charged with acting as the foil for the comedy stylings of his hyperactive partner.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the straight man. The other guy may have always gotten the laugh. They may seem like they’re the witty or clever or appealingly buffoonish one, but they would never be able to stand on their own. They need someone who understands them, who can play off of their personality, to be truly funny. The clown is the punchline-teller, but the straight-man has the indispensable job of setting up the joke. It may not seem like it from an immediate examination, but that is a vital skill. What’s more, they keep the wildness grounded a little bit. If there were two clowns… well, we’ve seen how bad that can get in certain sitcoms. For every Mork, we must have a Mindy. For every Balki, we must have Larry. For every Lynn Fontanne, we need an Alfred Lunt (to be obscure about it). For every Farley, a Spade.
In honor of the often uncelebrated straight man, here is a countdown list of ten of the best. Let’s put on our stone faces, our exasperated expressions, and dive in, shall we?
10) Kyle Gass (1960 – )
Of the comedy bands to have grown to prominence in the last decade, Tenacious D is probably the most notable, and is certainly one of the more popular. Tenacious D sport a pair of acoustic guitars and play Dio-inspired folk tunes, all while espousing the aesthetic and attitudes of the heavy metals bands that were popular in the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. The images from metals songs – mountains, fires, Satan, demons, magic, screaming – by bands with names like Montrose, Black Sabbath, Saxon, and Savatage, were all payed stringent homage.
And while they both played guitar, most of the musical heavy-lifting was given to Kyle Gass, while Jack Black, now considered an A-list movie star, shrieked vocals. Much of the band’s personality seemed to be coming from Black, as he would be the one to banter, to scream, to bellow their message directly to the crowd. Gass would be content to be the sneering bald guy in the back while Black stood at the mic.
This was an important dynamic for a comedy band, especially with one espousing a myth like heavy metal. One of them needed to be so wrapped up in the actual music, allowing the lead vocalist to go to town. Gass would play the music, and he would be on the same page as Black in their worship of Ronnie James Dio. As Hollywood proves, Jack Black would be funny alone. But with Gass, he’s hysterical.
9) Bing Crosby (1903 – 1977)
Having made seven films together, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are a comedy duo of the ages. Their “Road” films are an important staple in American comedy, and if you haven’t seen any of them, you’re behind on your education. They offered a particular brand of bawdy yuks rarely seen on this side of the infamous Hollywood Code, throwing out coded sex jokes with an alarming frequency. Bob Hope was often the schemer in Hope and Crosby films, and Crosby the poor sap who got dragged along.
While they were both funny, and often shared in the jokes, it was Bob Hope who came across as more buffoonish, while Crosby, with his soulful blue eyes, and crooner’s voice, felt more like the passive charmer. He serves as an important reminder that the straight man is often the lovable one who gets the girl in the end. Heck, look at Zeppo Marx. He always got the girl, and rarely got the gag. Bing Crosby, though, was genuinely charming, and would often make girls scream with his playful renditions of old standards. Put him next to a comedian like Bob Hope, and he becomes sparkling and charming and funny to boot.
The Hope and Crosby films have a big support in the queer community, as it doesn’t take too much sophistication to notice that neither of the boys ended up with Dorothy Lamour (who was the object of affection in most of the Road films). It’s been postulated that their frequent swearing-off of women was just a coded way of expressing their lustful desire for one another. I never got that from the films, but I did see a lot of sexual tension, and the inevitable threesome, in their future. I suppose, though, that this just adds an interesting layer to an otherwise innocuous and hilarious series of comedy films.
8) Dean Martin (1917 – 1995)
Much like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin was a charming crooner who actually had sold more records and had more hits than his more famous Rat Pack compatriot. His irascible drunkenness, it should be noted, was only a part of his act, and for many years, drunks were considered to be cosmopolitan and sophisticated adults, all thanks, in part, to Martin’s schtick. Martin was actually not an alcoholic (as far as anyone knows), and was just a funny and playful stage presence.
In 1945, Martin met an upcoming comedian named Jerry Lewis, and one of the most popular comic duos in history formed. According to history, their respective acts were flopping at the nightclub where they worked, so, in a panicked last-minute idea, they decided to awkwardly merge them, having Deano sing songs, and Jerry accidentally smash plates. The result brought the house down. The duo went on to TV and movie appearances for the next few decades.
Comedy duos are often about the pairing of opposites, and it’s hard to think of a duo that contained such opposites as Dean and Jerry. Jerry was a squealing maniac who could mug and whine with the best of them. Dean, of the other hand, was actually called “The King of Cool.” That’s just awesome.
7) Teller (1948 – )
Not so much a comedy team, per se, Penn & Teller have been a magician act for the past 30 years, whose act was, essentially, to gleefully eschew the pretentious trappings of magic, wherein thy would present their tricks to be less mystical secrets (a la David Copperfield), and more wicked pranks to play on saps. They are still performing to this day and have had several successful TV shows. One, romantically entitled “Bullshit!” featured the magicians gleefully debunking famous preconceptions, from small things like the health of “natural” foods, to big, controversial issues like Christian stories.
Penn Gillette was the noisy frontman of the duo, explaining all of the tricks, bellowing demands of the audience, and offering all of the complex setups for the tricks. The one-named Teller, who never spoke on stage, was often the victim of a “failed” trick. He was the one who would be locked into a cabinet that slowly filled with water, and would inevitably drown onstage. In their feature film, “Penn & Teller Get Killed,” we see Teller drilled to death, only to bounce back backstage. When he wasn’t the ersatz lovely assistant, he was the quiet schemer, doing the sneaky, slight-of-hand tricks while Penn ranted downstage about blood and whatnot. Penn would throw around fistfuls of fake stage blood. Teller would actually prick his finger and get a drop of the real thing.
The straight man is usually seen as the more intelligent one, and Teller often gave that quality. Not to say Penn was a mental midget; he was intelligent as well, but Teller gave the impression of being insidious with his mere silence. The Penn & Teller dynamic has yet to be recaptured, and likely never will be.
6) Dan Rowan (1922 – 1987)
For those of you who have not seen any of the seminal late-1960s sketch comedy Vaudeville-style TV show “Laugh-In,” you are sorely missing out. Imagine, if you will, “The Muppet Show,” wherein all of the Muppets are replaced by hugely charismatic, extroverted, talented comedians, and you might get an idea of what this hilarious, fast-paced twisted variety show was like. What’s more, it managed to really tap into the gestalt of the time, riffing on popular trends, and even landing – get this! – president Richard Nixon to say “Sock it to me?” If a MAD magazine ever came to life, it might look something like “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.”
The show was founded and hosted by a pair of old-guard comedians named Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, who would appear at the head of every show to give some sort of monologue that they had penned together, but would feel improvised. Dan Rowan, in a very old-fashioned sort of way, would set up the joke, and Dick Martin would knock it down. But more than relying on the old-timey conventions, the pair would seem mildly drunk or high (which they may have been), and would giggle throughout their presentation, bringing a double laugh; one from the joke, and a second from the reading.
Dan Rowan was clearly the central mastermind behind “Laugh-In” and often felt like the crazy uncle who let his nieces and nephews run amok at a sleepover. That he positioned himself in the straight man role only added to his drunken statesmanlike appeal. He barely kept it straight in a comedy world of chaos. And we loved him for it. What a class act. What a funny guy.
5) Stephen Fry (1957 – )
I’m not just saying this because he once played Oscar Wilde, but British actor/comedian Stephen Fry is probably the reincarnation of the man. Like an enormous cherub, Stephen Fry has a permanent twinkle in his eye that brings a strange playfulness to most of his roles, and certainly colors – with a naughty brush – each one of his comedic line readings. He could deadpan with the best of them and could quietly smirk his way through the ranting of his co-stars. In “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”, Fry would often play the straight man to Hugh Laurie’s frequent insecure outbursts.
To really see Fry shine, though, one should track down the BBC’s mid-1980s version of P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves & Wooster”, wherein he played the erudite and impeccable butler Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s befuddled and blueblooded Bertie. In Wodehouse’s books, Jeeves is implacable and unflappable and Fry brings not only the endless sense of class back into the character but an ever-so-slight self-awareness to the situations that make some of the outrageous positions Bertie finds himself in seem almost plausible. Or at least he makes us wish they were. I cannot think of any other actor or comedian who could ever play Jeeves. Fry nailed it. He is Jeeves forever. An enormous feat.
Now that we’ve had a Jeeves and Wooster TV series, I think it’s high time for a Wodehouse feature film, either with Jeeves or with the Castle Blandings. I like Roger Ebert’s idea of hiring Aardman’s animation studios to do it. Who should play the voice of Jeeves? Oh course he should.
4) Bud Abbott (1895 – 1974)
I mildly slammed some of the old fashioned comedy duo conceits when I was talking about Dan Rowan, but it is, of course, important to acknowledge the man who codified those conceits, and gave what can amount to the Platonic ideal of comedy duo dynamics. That man would be Bud Abbott from the famed Abbott & Costello, star of radio, feature films, and shorts. And while Lou Costello, the funny, fat, nervous street guy, was always the recipient of the laughs, and would get just about every single punchline, Bud Abbott was the quietly suffering straight man who would toss out the setups with the best of them.
If comedy is about timing, nobody had better timing than Bud Abbott. He was able to, uncannily, get into a rapid-fire argument with Lou Costello, say goofy things, keep the energy high, and still seem grounded, in control and sane. He was the rock. The comedy of Lou Costello may have been funny on its own, but Bud Abbott was an all-important anchor. He was the example all straight men should look to.
If you haven’t seen or heard the famous “Who’s on First?” routine, stop reading right now, and listen. Yes, the mistaken identity conceit of the sketch is as old as Vaudeville, but I’m having trouble picturing anyone who could do it better, more naturally, and funnier than Abbott and Costello. If you’re an aspiring standup comedian, start here. Pay attention to the old masters. They will teach you lessons that are perhaps just as valuable as your contemporaries.
3) Desi Arnaz (1917 – 1986)
A Cuban musician-cum-TV producer is a strange candidate as one of the world’s most famous comedic actors, but we now have to contend with the great glittering monolith of Desi Arnaz, the long-suffering husband of Lucy Ricardo on “I Love Lucy” (1959 -1960), quite possibly the single most important comedy TV show in the medium’s history, and the long-loving husband of Lucille Ball, one of the sassiest broads in the biz. As a businessman, he was first-rate. As a musician, it’s often forgotten how talented he was. But it’s his work as a comedic straight man that I focus on here.
Ricky Ricardo was essentially a TV version of Desi, complete with the dashing hairdos, sexy Latin band, and wacky wife. Ricky was the breadwinner of the house, making his money on TV gigs, and would come home to a wife who would, through some elaborate scheme, find herself trapped in a freezer, dressed as a space alien or even in prison. Lucy’s antics were hilarious, but might have an undercurrent of unbearable sadness, had she been living with an angrier husband, or with a pushover husband or even living alone. Desi tempered her, gave her someone to love her. The show was, after all, called “I Love Lucy” as if to say “…And that’s my burden.”
Desi would come in, as if from another universe, and react in a completely baffled way. That he was from Cuba, and had a charming accent, added to his comic alienation from this crazy American woman. And yet he was able to temper his confusion, anger, and outright outrage with a sweetness, sexiness and charm that one rarely sees in sitcoms from the 1950s. The conceit of the “bickering couple” has always been tiresome to me and it rarely works even in recent sitcoms. What Desi brought to the screen was a real-life couples’ dynamic that never felt too square or dumbed-down.
2) Graham Chapman (1941 – 1989) and Terry Jones (1942 – )
A staple in all our lives, and one of the most beloved cult comedy shows of all time, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (1969 -1974) hardly needs my glowing endorsement or paltry descriptions to make you excited about it. What can one really say about this glorious exemplar of absurdism? That it serves as, at the very least indirectly, the inspiration for every living comedian? That its weird, quotable dialogue is repeated, ad infinitum, at every geek gathering, from two-man movie nights, to something as big as San Diego’s annual Comic-Con? That the subversive and surreal comedy show has not been matched? No, just go back and watch it again. Appreciate it. Study it. See it as a simultaneous microcosm of British subversion, and a universal plea for the unhinged nature of reality.
Of the Pythons, two played the straight man most frequently. If they needed a button-down type, a serious-faced army general, or a kind of wimpy beanpole, the group went to Graham Chapman, who, despite his ability to play weird with the best of them, was a stone-face on par with Buster Keaton. When one of the other boys was squawking madly in front of him, he had the singularly hilarious ability to look at it and say “that’s very silly.” Chapman was notoriously forgetful of his lines, but it rarely showed on camera. And even when it did, it seemed just as cheery and natural as everything else. Watch the segment again where he talks about being sexually attracted to mice. Wow.
But more often the straightman, and no less impressive, was Terry Jones, the short Welshman of the group and funniest woman. Often seen as a ratbag mum, or a tight-lipped stockbroker, Jones had a perplexed expression that was simultaneously overwhelmed, and yet perfectly accepting of the weirdness. It was Jones who stripped and played the organ. In what is probably his virtuoso performance, he has a legitimate silent film reel, in which he tried to strip in public, and was dandyish and serious the whole time. Top hole to Jones. He was the wackiest weirdo, but also the best balance.
1) Margaret Dumont (1882 – 1965)
When you think of the Marx Bros., the words “restraint” and “balance” rarely come up. What we think of is the chaotic, jazz-like riffing on reality done by out-of-control, child-like hellions. We think how much glee they took in tearing down even the simplest of conversational niceties. We think of their wry slapstick skewering of the upper class. We think of the jokes of Groucho, the mime of Harpo, the conniving of Chico, and, if we prefer, the charm of Zeppo.
But where would all those conventions and upper-class snootiness come from? Why from the hilarious and talented comedienne Margaret Dumont, who played the stiff society dame in seven of the Marx’s feature films. Like the Bros., her name and station would change from film to film, but she was always essentially playing the same role: In her case, a rich blueblood, obsessed with class, manners and status, and yet irresistibly romantically attracted to Groucho. She was the soundboard for the brothers, and offered all the perfectest of setups. “You can’t marry both of us! That’s bigamy!” “No, that big o’ ME!”
What Dumont offered was not a rich character (she rarely stretched beyond the fur-wearing rich lady, and rarely gave her characters any sort of depth or backstory), but a playful playmate. Someone who was willing, time and again, to riff with these guys. She never got in on the comedic action, but the occasional wink to the audience let us know that she knew what was going on, and was probably having just as much fun as the boys were. In terms of staying straight in the fact of comedic chaos, the substantial Margaret Dumont was an anchor better than the rest. She is my number one.
Witney Seibold is a writer. Read his ‘blog, Three Cheers for Darkened Years! Listen to his podcast, The B-Movies Podcast. Read his lectures at Crave Online’s Free Film School. Then weep. Weep for your soul.