New from the Archives: Comedy Duos Are Overdue

December 1, 2002 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs

Show biz dysfunction notwithstanding – heck, show biz dysfunction standing – CBS’ “Martin and Lewis” was at least as much fun as a trip to the wax museum. If you didn’t feel a pang of hunger for the glory days of the comedy duo while watching it, you’re either still licking your psychic wounds over the mid-’50s breakup of Dino and Jerry – after the dissolution of the Beatles, it remains the most painful pop cultural split ever – or you’re too young to remember when two could tango to the tune of standup.

In recent years, except for the magic act of Penn and Teller and the wholesome revue of Al and Tipper Gore (speaking of wax), there has been a dearth of laughsome twosomes. But in the wake of Martin and Lewis (and, of course, Abbott and Costello), we had Wayne and Shuster (67 times on Ed Sullivan!), Rowan and Martin (before “Laugh-In,” they starred in a Western!), Allen and Rossi (the former boasting the most riotous white-guy Afro this side of Steven Wright) and Stiller and Meara (Jewish hubby and Catholic wife – there’s a concept!).

And let us not leave out the great Bob and Ray, who were to zany sketch comedy what Marconi was to party lines, or forget how the popular music scene was dotted less rewardingly by (ouch!) the twin pianos of Ferrante & Teicher, crooners Sandler & Young and folk-rockers Chad and Jeremy and Peter and Gordon. Back then, two was not the loneliest number you could ever do.

Allen and Rossi

What was great about many of these comic pairings was their lively potential for less-than-copacetic chemistry. Everytime you watched short, squat and sweaty Marty Allen (“Hello Dere!”) do that pinched-toe dance while smooth and handsome Steve Rossi sang straight (and not so impressively), you could visualize Allen stomping on his partner’s toes and Rossi decking his clownish sidekick for upstaging him. Never mind what their official histories tell you: You just knew that Dick Martin wanted to ruffle Dan Rowan’s cocktail hour sophistication and Rowan wanted to wipe that google-eyed grin off his buddy’s face.

In comedy, neurosis rules. Comedians want to “kill” each other as much as the audience. Just ask Jerry Lewis (effectively played by Sean Hayes in the CBS film). For all his expressions of love for the womanizing Dean Martin (Jeremy Northam, in a bolder, more inspired turn that captured the man’s unfathomable undercurrents), he did anything it took to steal attention from him, whether it meant mugging during one of his songs or bending over backstage with manufactured stomach pain. But to succeed, a duo has to perform as one, with clockwork precision, so that every gesture and inflection pays off. When you get three or four minutes on Sullivan to do your thing, you can’t miss a beat. (Question: Did Senor Wences and his talking hand count as a duo?)

With this format just begging to be dusted off for a new generation, I can’t figure out why no up-and-comers have had the genius to lay claim to it. How many cookie-cut standups can be trotted out on the stage of Zanies before someone figures they can rock the house with a doubles act?

Why is it that standups aren’t seizing on the buddy formula when it’s throwing down heavy box office returns at the movies (witness the various combinations and permutations of Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, who in “I Spy” drags Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte’s opposite in “48 Hrs.,” back into the fray).

When you’re struggling to get by as a solo, I suppose, it doesn’t make sense to halve your paydays by taking on a partner. At last look, sitcoms were making individual comics very rich: Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Tim Allen and Ray Romano for beginners. And it’s not as though variety shows are about to spring back onto the tube to usher in any new trends. The late-night talk shows are a comic’s only real shot at wide exposure.

Rowan and Martin

Beyond the economic factors, though, is the basic me-me-me-ness of standup, as reflected in Seinfeld’s need to go back to the drawing board before the documentary cameras and expose his difficulties in putting together a new routine. Comedy is damned hard, he tells us in “Comedian.” (To which I might say, if I were being a jerk, no, being held in Guantanamo not knowing when or if you’re getting released or what you’re being held for – that’s hard.) So duo comedy is twice as tough, right? Not with two minds beating as one!

It can be argued that Martin and Lewis enjoyed greater personal triumphs after their breakup than they did as the wildly popular team that gave us such films as “Pardners” (Dean Martin is Slim Mosely Jr. and Slim Mosely, Sr.; Jerry Lewis is Wade Kingsley Jr. and Wade Kingsley, Sr.). Jerry starred in his own hit movies, flowered as an auteur, conquered the French and roped in millions for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. To the great surprise of many people, Dino not only didn’t sink, he swam as a movie star, crooner, chainsmoking lounge king and TV host, doing as much for Italian-American pride as Tony Soprano has done for Italian-American anger.

But you can also advance the notion that their parting of ways never stopped haunting them. Dino ended up in a state of private misery, detached from his own life. Jerry, who ended up taking on Ed McMahon as his sidekick (no problem with egos clashing there), has had a troubled personal life as well. Could be their falling out had nothing to do with their subsequent troubles – maybe their psychic screws were just waiting to loosen, and their instabilitiy as individuals was what produced their special chemistry. However you want to pop-psychoanalyze them, just as John and Paul in their solo careers never matched their efforts as Beatles, Lewis and Martin on their own never created the excitement – the pandemonium – that they did when they were joined at the hip. When they were hip enough to dance to each other’s song.

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