Are comedy double acts making a comeback?

By Luke Jones
BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House

Image caption,
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise in 1975

I can't name a new, young TV comedy double act and neither can Barry Cryer.

The comedian and writer says: "I want to spot a young double act and say 'oh boy, it's still going'. But it hasn't happened for me yet."

At the start of his career he wrote for the gold standard of comedy duos, Morecambe and Wise.

"It's like telepathy," Cryer says. "It's rapport, a chemistry. They feed off each other."

At the height of their powers, Eric and Ernie raked in more than 28 million viewers.

But out in the Edinburgh drizzle, scanning the listings boards and combing through the pile of leaflets I've been handed, it's slim pickings for double acts.

They've overwhelmingly made way for stand-ups or comedy troupes.

Media caption,
Barry Cryer on writing for Morecambe and Wise.

"It's what my generation chose to watch," a lady waiting for a show to start tells me. "Your generation are happy with stand-up."

"No offence nana, but Morecambe and Wise - nobody would watch that nowadays," her granddaughter chips in.

For better or for worse they agree the comic double act is dead.

But this is the largest arts festival in the world. Spend enough time in the sticky beer-smelling student union rooms which have been trussed up as venues, as you'll find that old staple of British television in rude health.

'It's coming back'

The majority is sketch-based. Duos such as Goodbear or Studio 9. But old style variety has also had a revamp.

Double Denim, comprising of Australian comedians Michelle Brasier and Laura Frew largely consists of games with the audience and group renditions of Shania Twain classics.

Laura Anderson of Hurt and Anderson says double act stock is on the rise.

"Double acts mostly work as a sketch or a character comedy thing," she says. "And as far as I can tell sketch is getting more and more popular again. It ebbed away and I think it's coming back."

Image source, Georgia Hurt and Laura Anderson
Image caption,
Georgia Hurt and Laura Anderson, better known as Hurt and Anderson.

When they started in 2011, they say there were almost no female comic duos on the fringe.

"Now we're treading them under foot," she says. "They're everywhere!"

"On the circuit. Not the mainstream consciousness," her comedy partner Georgia Hurt adds.

'Real chemistry'

After selling out their Edinburgh festival debut last year, Barney Fishwick and Will Hislop are back as the double act Giants.

For a large proportion of their act they are Norwegian pop sensations.

"The EU is a big, beautiful dance floor", they say. Everyone dancing together, "or as we like to call it, the free movement of peoples".

"The final product is this year", Hislop jokes.

They met at four days old and have been good friends ever since.

Image source, Dee McCourt
Image caption,
Will Hislop and Barney Fishwick, known together as 'Giants', acting casual.

Why a double act? Fishwick says it allows "for conflict", adding: "It's that weird thing where there is this real chemistry, there's love at the basis of it."

"There's also hate", Hislop interjects.

They say a connection is required, a trust which allows them to veer off in different directions during their act.

"We know each other's rhythms as it were, so we know what we're likely to think," Hislop says.

"So if there's someone in the front row wearing Crocs, I know that Barney finds Crocs really funny so I'll leave that to him because I don't have a lot of Crocs material."

As I queue for another show, I get the family next to me to list comedy double acts.

"Can I say Torvill and Dean?".

It seems comedy duos aren't back in the mainstream just yet.

You can hear more on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House.

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