The double act, also known as a comedy duo, is a predominantly British institution, a term used for describing the comedic tradition of a pair of performers. The two would usually comprise of a 'straight man' or 'feed' and the 'comic', the purpose of the feed being to set up jokes for the comic. This would rely heavily on comic timing.
Morecambe and Wise are widely regarded as the greatest British double act. Although technically Eric Morecambe was the comic and Ernie Wise was the feed, it was in reality one of the most equal relationships of its genre.
Other such British acts include The Two Ronnies, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, Reeves and Mortimer, French and Saunders, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones and Fry and Laurie. However, in all of these double acts, the role of 'comic' and 'straight man' are not that obvious, and largely interchangeable. More obvious examples of the comic-feed dynamic are Cannon and Ball or Little and Large.
The first notable double act was probably Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel could loosely be described as the comic, though the pair did not fit the mold in the way that modern double acts do, with both taking a fairly equal share of the laughs. Also, unlike most other double acts, their work was filmed in Hollywood and one of the members, Oliver Hardy, was American. Therefore, though most of the scripts were written by Stan, the American influence could clearly be seen, as their work was produced in the form of short films rather than stand-up routines and sketches.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore perhaps also deserve a mention as being the first double act to go against the grain, and turn their double act into a complex analysis of the two's relationship. Also there was not so much a comic-feed relationship as there was a master-slave relationship (though this may be exaggerating the point somewhat). In many of the sketches (especially the Pete and Dud exchanges) Cook played the domineering know-it-all (who knows nothing) and Moore the put-upon know-nothing (who also knows nothing). This dominance was accentuated by the difference in height between the two, and the speed of Cook's mind which meant that he could ad-lib, and force Dudley to corpse in a Pete and Dud dialogue, leaving Moore helpless to respond. As the partnership progressed into the improvised Derek and Clive dialogues, these light-hearted attempts to make Dudley laugh bacame, as a result of Peter's growing insecurity and alcholism, vindictive attacks on the defenceless Dudley. However, carrying on the tradition of going against the grain of traditional double acts, when the partnership dissolved in the late '70s, it was Peter whose career stalled due to boredom, alchoholism and lack of ambition, whilst Dudley went on to become one of Hollywood's most unlikely leading men.
In the USA and Canada, the tradition was more popular in the earlier part of the 20th century with vaudeville-derived acts such as Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, and Wheeler and Woolsey , and continuing into the TV age with Martin and Lewis, Bob and Ray, Wayne and Shuster, Allen and Rossi , Burns and Schreiber , Rowan and Martin, and Nichols and May . More recently, the idea has been largely supplanted by that of the "buddy movie " genre, which has introduced several notable comedy partnerships not formally billed as a single act in the manner of the preceding. The earliest example of such a team may be Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; later examples include Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, and David Spade and Chris Farley.