Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Double Acts and Gender

I wanted to talk more about the role of details in jokes, but was derailed and driven to distraction by Frankie Boyle's sick joke and now Brian Logan's piece in The Guardian, in which he asks why there are so few male-female comedy acts?

The double act is, after all, one of the most durable comic formats. But a quick range across its greatest exponents reveals – unsurprisingly – few receding to zero male-female duos. Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise . . . – the all-male acts obviously predominate. French and Saunders, most notably . . . show that woman-plus-woman is a formula that's gaining traction.
But you'll run out pretty soon if you look for great – or indeed any – male-female duos.

Tempting though it is to nitpick through the piece, I won't, except to note that this last line is just a bit embarrassing; one is at least obliged to mention George Burns and Gracie Allen and Elaine May and Mike Nichols. (If he were only talking about current duos, then why do his examples run back to the earlier parts of the twentieth century?)
You might surmise that the male-female dynamic militates against comedy – but for the many examples throughout the history of sitcom and rom-com that disprove the idea. So is it something to do with the specific exigencies of the live double-act?

A good question! Logan has spotted something that is all too easy to miss: many of the best comic male-female relationships take place in sit-coms (Spaced, for example, or Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock) and rom-coms (Beatrice and Benedick).

Unfortunately, despite his own protests, he goes on to staunch this line of questioning with:
Or maybe it's just that – depressing generalisation alert – men and women really do have divergent senses of humour, and that the intensity of a double-act collaboration necessarily exposes that.

Yes, it is a depressing generalisation, and there's nothing substantive in it: double-act collaborations get their frisson from differences and divergent senses of humour (see, for example, The Mighty Boosh); in addition, the same rationale would also pose problems for sit-com and rom-com male-female comedy partnerships. There may well be sociological, sociopolitical rationales for the disproportionate lack of male-female comedy duos, but let's leave aside armchair Venus-Mars observations to the sexperts, or, much better, to Tina Fey (*failed link to brilliant New Yorker article, Lessons from Late Night*), and go back to his question. Does it have something to do with the exigencies of the live double-act?

Maybe not; maybe it has to do with comedy itself? So let's ask, first, why double-acts are such a mainstay in comedy? I would argue that it is another manifestation of the underlying presence of doubling in comedy. Whether doubling is understood as structural (in the formation of ambiguity through, say, the precious detail and the unspoken), as part of comedy's form (impersonation, caricature, parody), as comedy's social role in providing commentary (see, for example, the doubled-voice of Stephen Colbert's The Word), as a way of conceiving what I previously called the symbiotic relationship with the Other, doubling necessitates relationship and difference. In the double act, doubling is played out in characterisation and dialogue, where the relationship is typically enacted in characterisation and the difference in dialogue.

The problem is that male-female relationships are massively overdetermined (as we see in Logan's claim about different senses of humour: whether or not it is true or meaningful, he is nevertheless demonstrating the overdetermination of the male-female relationship, the surplus of meaning freighting the relationship); this overdetermination affects both characterisation and dialogic possibilities. This is not to say that double-acts cannot be sexually charged (obviously, male-male double acts simmer with homoerotics), just that there is a specific challenge for a male-female double acts to surpass overdetermination.

Regarding two brilliant male-female double acts on television - Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, and Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg on Spaced - think of the extent to which Fey and Stevenson are desexualised on the show to neutralise sexual overdetermination and to give the relationships and dialogue room to do the type of work we associate with comedy double acts. One example, common to both shows: both women fart. Of course, you would be right to say that both pairs of relationships are not without sexual sparks or sexual tensions, but the charm and endurance of their double-act permits these sparks and these tensions as ambiguous, uncertain, tentative (and, if they were acted on, unfulfilling) largely because of the massive desexualisation that Daisy Steiner and Liz Lemon endure. The point here is not to settle for received opinion about what constitutes male or female characteristics, such as a gendered sense of humour, and I do not intend to distill Daisy and Liz to desexualisation; rather, I want to point out that overdetermination of the male-female relationship is a barrier that needs to be overcome, just as overdetermination of race is a barrier that needs to be overcome in mixed-race double acts (of which there are also surprisingly few). One way to overcome this overdetermination is to desexualise the woman. (Another way around it is to desexualise the man by making him gay - but that would never happen!)

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