The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 17 Sep 2019

The straight man comes first

Today it occurred to me that in the many comedy duos that feature a “straight man” and a “comedian”, the straight man is invariably named first. The central example, of course, is Abbott and Costello. But we also have:

  • Laurel and Hardy
  • Burns and Allen
  • Rowan and Martin
  • Martin and Lewis
  • Bert and Ernie

and this even extends to entirely fictitious pairs such as Jeeves and Wooster, Harold and Kumar, or Sam and Max, Freelance Police. Also, if you are a mathematician, Smothers and Smothers. This is why people hate mathematicians.

I did Google search for "Kermit and Fozzie" (hits outnumber "Fozzie and Kermit" by around three-to-one) and "Kermit and Miss Piggy" (hits outnumber "Miss Piggy and Kermit", although only by about 60%.)

Wikipedia says this is no accident!

In vaudeville, effective straight men were much less common than comedians. The straight man's name usually appeared first and he usually received 60% of the take.

But my co-worker Jeff Culverhouse found a counterexample: Silent Bob is certainly the straight man of Jay and Silent Bob.

Wikipedia also has a list of American Comedy Duos. Not all of them follow the straight man / comedian pattern, and I don't recognize many of those that do. More research is needed.

[ Addendum: I wanted to find a gender-neutral term for "straight man", but failed. ]

[ Addendum 20220623: I thought of another counterexample: Wallace and Gromit. ]

[ Addendum 20230221: Google search hits for “Tom and Dick Smothers” outnumber those for “Dick and Tom Smothers” to more than 7 to 1. (20600 to 2670.) Dick was the straight man. ]

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