Not all that long ago, way back in the 1990s, when every other stand-up comedian was getting a sitcom deal and every funny group of friends was aiming to be the next Kids in the Hall, the comedy duo looked to be nearly extinct. At the very least, the duo, or double act — that foundational comedic configuration, the straight man and the quipster, the stooge and the bananaman, the fat one and the skinny one — seemed quaint, archaic, and prepped for retirement. Sure, it had given us Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Nichols and May, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and the Smothers Brothers, but that was precisely the point: By the end of the 20th century in American comedy, the duo hadn’t felt really relevant since the 1960s, possibly since the 1930s. They had the whiff of vaudeville about them. The “Who’s on First” banter seemed stale. There was, of course, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, the two stars of Mr. Show With Bob and David on HBO, but they seemed like the exception that proved the rule. They came across, in form if not in sensibility, as comedy nostalgists. Instead, in both form and sensibility, they’ve proved remarkably prescient.
The comedy duo is now resurgent. Within the overall Second Comedy Boom, we’re witnessing a double-act renaissance. Key & Peele. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Broad City. Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman of Gabe and Jenny. The Lucas Brothers. Garfunkel and Oates. Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair of Playing House. This year Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will finally cement their Hope and Crosby–for-the-modern-age act with the feature film Sisters. You could even argue that performers with traditional solo showcases, like Nick Kroll and Kroll Show, tend to work in a series of rolling, equally yoked duos: Kroll and Jon Daly, or Kroll and Jenny Slate. (“PubLIZity” wouldn’t be funny with only one Liz.) What’s notable is not just that duos are back, but why they’re back — and how these twosomes reflect a distinctly modern and ascendant comedic sensibility.
The double act was born of theatre: of the necessity, in noisy halls, to have two comedians — one to deliver the punch lines, and one to repeat them again, to make sure they’re heard over the din. And there’s something inherently theatrical about duos — unlike stand-ups, who engage the audience directly, duos engage with each other, behind the fourth wall. The comedic current, if the circuit is successful, is flowing between the performers, not between the performer and audience. This meant duos were perfectly suited to live radio, for example, a medium that’s not particularly stand-up-friendly. (Sure, you can listen to a live stand-up set performed in front of a laughing crowd, but imagine a set delivered on radio without any audience reaction.) In the post-1975 heyday of stand-up, the era of great comics, from George Carlin to Steve Martin to Richard Pryor to Jerry Seinfeld to Roseanne, the audience learned to crave direct address. Talk to us, not to each other — that’s where the action was. So comedy went in one of two directions: toward the intimacy of the solo performer, and toward the anarchy of the sketch group. You either commented on the craziness of life, or you reenacted it with a crew of other loons. Duos, with their feigned mutual antagonism and antiquated badinage, got lost in the middle ground.
Now, consider Key & Peele, arguably the most classic of the current duos, right down to their physical presentation — “The two men are physically incongruous,” writes Zadie Smith in a recent New Yorker profile. “Key is tall, light brown, dashingly high-cheek-boned, and L.A. fit; Peele is shorter, darker, more rounded, cute like a Teddy bear.” Yet they personify the modern advantage of the duo — the power of the comedic fellow traveler. They aren’t enemies; they’re co-conspirators. In the sketch “Auction Block,” arguably their greatest (thought the competition for that title is stiff), it’s not one man lobbing jokes to a befuddled other; it’s two men facing down the ultimate absurdity, side by side, shoulder to shoulder.
That’s the telltale innovation of the modern comedy duo. Today’s double acts aren’t split into straight-man/banana-man classifications; they’re made up of two equals boldly venturing, hands clasped, into the anarchic unknown. It’s Abbi and Ilana, each with distinct personalities, yet brazenly facing the world together. It’s those weirdo, shape-shifting, platonic sometime-bedmates Fred and Carrie, navigating the fun-house world of Portlandia. The essence of the classic duo schtick — from Abbott and Costello to Burns and Allen to the Smothers Brothers — is the idea that one person can’t stand the other. One is the clueless naïf; the other the simmering sophisticate. Yesterday’s duos were built on comedic friction, but today’s are built on comedic cohesion.
This is the genius, in hindsight, of Mr. Show. Bob and David weren’t some bickering twosome; they seemed like actual friends. (And they set the stage for the now-standard convention of having both members of the duo act as kibitzing hosts for their show.) The lunatic side of that same coin is Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, whose bond was so tight, and sensibility so simpatico, that they existed almost like a closed comedic ecosystem. Tina and Amy work well now because we love to imagine they’re real-life BFFs, and it’s no accident that Gabe and Jenny’s web series is titled “Bestie X Bestie.” More than a renaissance of comedy duos, we’re seeing the rise of the comedy besties.
Modern, post-Catskills stand-up was built on the notion of a lone person kicking against the world — whether cuttingly noting its many deficiencies or absurdly sending them up. The modern duo, in contrast, is the timely compliment to the ascent of “like” culture: It’s comedy that’s built, above all, on the acknowledgment and celebration of a shared sensibility, starting with the twosome that’s creating it. (As Jesse David Fox notes, even lone stand-ups now do better being personal and conversational rather than rattling off polished wisecracks.) The stand-up might still be an ideal tour guide to the head-shaking absurdity of the world, our wisecracking Charon the Ferryman, but we’ve also come to appreciate the joys of antic collaboration, the fun of seeing two like-minded people who are inviting us to join in their fun. That’s the promise, and the appeal, of the modern comedy duo: It’s the triumph of the buddy system. Things are always easier, or at least funnier, with a bestie at your side.