They’ve been described as “the other popular comedy duo” from TV’s golden age, second only to Morecambe and Wise. But double-act life was not kind to Mike and Bernie Winters. They were together, they split up, they reunited. They agreed to separate for good, but set the date five years into the future. This, wrote one chronicler of comedy, was to “discover ever more rancorous ways to despise each other”. When they finally parted in 1978, it was only because their father had died: he had, Mike reported ruefully, “always wanted us to be together”. After that, Bernie replaced Mike with a St Bernard dog that became more popular than either of them.
The Winters – born the Weinsteins – were brothers, of course, posing the question: who, knowing the fraught history of the comedy double act, would enter into such a relationship with their own sibling? Creative and financial co-dependency, meet deep-seated familial rivalry! And yet the sibling comedy twosome endures. From the Chuckle Brothers to This Country duo Charlie and Daisy May Cooper – and beyond, into a new generation of mostly female sibling double acts – the hope springs eternal that mutual acrimony can be forestalled by love and a sense of humour shared since infancy.
Can it? One of today’s pre-eminent sibling duos is Flo & Joan, the musical comedy partnership of Rosie and Nicola Dempsey. Their last show, drolly titled Before the Screaming Starts, referenced After the Screaming Stops, 2018’s must-see documentary on Bros, the band comprising two brothers whose love/hate relationship hurled sparks out of the screen. “We watched it and were like, ‘Oh shit,’” says Nicola. “It was such a jarring film. A lot of our friends were like, ‘Before anything else happens, you should watch this and take some notes.’”
But Flo & Joan seem far from the Bros or Mike and Bernie Winters prototype. Yes, there’s the song Assister Suicide from their Kindness of Stranglers show, in which Rosie offers to slip fentanyl in Nicola’s tea, and Nicola fantasises about throwing Rosie down the stairs. But in person – or at least, via Zoom – it’s all sisterly harmony.
“It sounds cheesy,” says Nicola, “but family is more important to us than the job.” “And we know,” adds Rosie, “that this [career] could be taken away from us and we’d have to salvage a sibling relationship at the end. So if it gets to the point where we want to tear each other’s hair out, we just stop and remember that it’s only comedy songs and that we can’t go round to mum’s house and not talk to each other. So you have to be lighter on your feet with it.”
There are templates for the non-rancorous sibling comedy duo. Take the evidently loving and supportive Jamie and Natasia Demetriou, who make the sitcom Stath Lets Flats together – although they’ve never been a stage partnership. And who can forget (OK, most of us have forgotten) Cockney charwomen Gert and Daisy – AKA Elsie and Doris Waters – who reputedly helped Britain win the war via their popular radio shows, and were personally thanked by Churchill for doing so. Having shared music halls with Laurel and Hardy in the 1930s, Gert and Daisy lived and worked together happily until Doris’s death in 1978. Likewise, the Chuckle Brothers remained inseparable until Barry Chuckle’s recent demise – and beyond, if we’re to believe Paul’s claim that Barry now returns from the afterlife to comfort him in his dreams.
Chat to Marina and Maddy Bye – performing as the double act Siblings – and you could believe they’ll still be besties beyond the grave. “I’m overwhelmingly happy,” says Maddy to Marina, “if you do something really funny on stage. You can see it on my face. It’s a big sisterly thing.” These daughters of the comedian Ruby Wax gave been in lockdown together in their shared home. Says Marina: “When you’ve lived with someone all your life and come out of the same womb, you speak the same language. You understand each other’s rhythms, each other’s humour. When Maddy and I do comedy together, it’s like we could finish each other sentences. We never collide, we never interrupt.”
And then there’s the efficiency – attested to by Flo & Joan as well – of making comedy with a sibling. “If Maddy writes something I don’t think is funny,” says Marina, “I’ll just straight up be like, that’s not funny. In a double act without a sibling, I can’t imagine being able to speak that brutally.”
We’re getting to the nub, presumably, of why siblings might make comedy together: because they’ve spent their entire childhoods making each other laugh, and refining a worldview (and a way of communicating) that’s unique to them. Rose Rock – mother of superstar standup Chris and not-so-superstar standups Tony and Jordan – once told an interviewer, “Maybe it’s in the breast milk?” But Maddy Bye of Siblings prefers the nurture to nature argument: “Lots of siblings do plays together when they’re kids. And I guess it’s just the chance of doing that as a grownup.”
But Siblings don’t make comedy out of their closeness – they make comedy out of their rivalry. The shtick, based in truth, is that Marina is a trained actor with delusions of grandeur, and Maddy is a clown (taught by Parisian guru Philippe Gaulier) who undermines her at every turn. Siblings come together to their shows, the sisters tell me. “We play on the sibling competition,” says Marina, “because people really enjoy watching it.”
They’re not the first to do so: Sarah and Lizzie Daykin burned brightly but briefly in the mid-2010s with their double act Toby, which played sibling antagonism with a scarily straight bat. Flo & Joan, by contrast, actively avoid rivalry as a subject for comedy – but, like Siblings, their audiences just can’t help remarking on the sister thing. Says Rosie Dempsey: “They’ll tell us, ‘I brought my sister along. We think we look like you!’” Adds Nicola: “They never look like us. It’s just that one of them has blonde hair, and one has dark hair and glasses.”
A fascination with their personal relationship is clearly part of what draws audiences to sibling double acts. “People find siblings weird in general,” says Rosie. “Even as adults, if you meet two people in a bar, and one of them says, ‘This is my sister,’ it’s like, ‘Oh my GOD!’ We know what a sibling is – it’s not an odd new thing. But a lot of people can’t imagine working with a family member, and find it strange that anyone would want to.” Who never looked at the Chuckle Brothers in action and thought: there’s something a bit odd here?
“Then there’s the fact,” adds Rosie, “that if the show goes wrong, audiences are not only embarrassed for you, they’re embarrassed for your family.” Flo & Joan were scheduled to tour this spring, and expected to spend every day in one another’s company. Says Nicola: “If we were any other double act or a band, you wouldn’t think that was weird. But when it’s your sister and you’re adults, and you can say, ‘We haven’t spent a day apart since the beginning of January,’ people worry about you.”
“It’s in the audience’s subconscious,” says Rosie, “that the stakes are higher because they know other siblings who’ve fallen out, or they’ve watched [inheritance comedy-drama] Succession” – or indeed the Bros documentary. “So they’re closer to the edge of their seats to see if this is the show in which we finally punch each other in the face.”
That hasn’t happened yet, nor looks likely in either Flo & Joan or Siblings’ case. But then, like most family comedy duos these days, they’re female. Whither the brother-brother double acts? Do men feel more need to establish their independence from family ties? Is the male double act somehow doomed to “rancorous ways to despise each other” – or just punching each other in the face?
Perhaps, says Rosie Dempsey, with due caution, “it’s because women in families tend to take the maternal role. So at the end of the day, they have to come back to family. Whereas guys often flee the nest?” Either way, it’s left the field clear for Flo & Joan, or Siblings, to become the Chuckle Brothers de nos jours. “It’s working,” says Nicola Dempsey, cheerfully. “We write and perform well together. I know it makes us sound co-dependent and embarrassing, but as long as it’s fun, we’ll carry on.”
• Flo & Joan: Before the Screaming Starts tour dates have been rescheduled. Visit floandjoan.com for new dates. Their first comedy special, Alive on Stage, is available on Amazon Prime Video.
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