Guardian article about double acts

Can the Cameron-Clegg comedy double act survive?

From Eric and Ernie to The Mighty Boosh, Cameron and Clegg should heed a few lessons if they want their standup act to last

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

If the dark, final days of Gordon Brown's premiership rather echoed Krapp's Last Tape, a brooding figure staring into the abyss, reliving the painful recording of his encounter with a woman from Rochdale, Beckett admirer Nick Clegg will know that public regard for his double act with David Cameron scarcely approaches that of Punt and Dennis, never mind Vladimir and Estragon.

Double acts, like politics, are inherently theatrical, a contrived coalition humanised when they betray their inner tensions. Yet, notwithstanding the new deputy prime minister's mock offence at being labelled "a joke" by his new partner – an episode awkwardly relived in their first joint press conference last week – the Cameron and Clegg Show has thus far failed to deliver.

We love double acts; comedy history bulges at the seams with them. When Laurel and Hardy, French and Saunders or The Mighty Boosh bicker, we nevertheless discern the genuine, underlying affection between them – even when, as in the case of Pete and Dud, it corrodes into mutual loathing. Double acts are frequently compared to marriages – so the media, deprived of deeper insight into Cameron and Clegg's relationship, hint that beneath it all lies some kind of homoeroticism.

How can comedic partnerships survive? On the face of it, it's almost surprising they do – splitting the money (or, more likely, debt), spending so long in each other's company writing, travelling and performing, all put strain on a friendship, not least because telling a friend and co-performer his or her ideas are terrible is one of the toughest conversations one can have. Take Newman and Baddiel, for example, who quit speaking offstage at the very height of their fame; tellingly, it's their squabbling History Today professors that remain the abiding memory of their pairing. Enduring double acts succeed while only seeming to obstruct each other – Ernie Wise's pretensions to be a playwright were sublimely undermined by Eric Morecombe's peerless buffoonery.

Stewart Lee's forthcoming book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, in which he analyses three of his own stand-up routines, briefly alludes to his former act with Richard Herring. For Lee, his rational, sarcastic and slim persona acted as a sort of brake on his chubby partner's childlike excess. But now that Herring's solo stand-up is exploring more measured, thoughtful territory, and Lee has acquired a degree of timber himself, on the rare occasions they've appeared onstage together over the last decade, the dynamic of these two paunchy, aggressively rational middle-aged men hasn't worked as well. Optimistically, though, Lee anticipates them reforming once they're old enough to be a proper Odd Couple again.

Herring, for his part, in his memoir How Not To Grow Up, recalls "wonderful dreams where I was punching him in his smug, leonine face, my fists like steaming jackhammers, over and over again ...". Even eschewing such violence, though, the double act affords an alibi, or tacit agreement, for lifelong friends to inflict verbal wounds in a manner that would be considered intolerably cruel outside the theatre.

Sometimes though, double acts seem to need each other, despite everything. Nominated for a Perrier Best Newcomer award at the 2005 Edinburgh fringe, Luke Toulson and Stephen Harvey bombed the following year, were unceremoniously dumped by their agent and came to hate the sight of each other. They split up shortly after. Yet they're back at the festival this August with a show intriguingly titled Toulson & Harvey Used To Be Friends, portraying Jesus and Judas among others. If they can't resurrect their friendship, they may at least save their double act.