Bob Hope and Bing Crosby might be on the road to nowhere if they tried to team up today the way they did in old Hollywood.
Today's funny folks reunite now and then, like Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in "Step Brothers," a follow-up to their 2006 comedy "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."
But cynical audiences now might carp at perpetual pairings that were a movie staple in the days of Hope and Crosby, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy or Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon or Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson have hung around together on screen or popped up in cameos in each other's movies, but even they have to be mindful of moviegoers who gripe that Hollywood dishes out too much of the same old thing.
"It became a stigma, which is kind of unfair," Ferrell told The Associated Press in an interview alongside Reilly. "Could Hope and Crosby exist today without getting, like, here they go, another ‘Road' picture? Let me guess, ‘Road to Bali.' They'll probably open with a song, then they'll get in trouble, then more of the same. You'd just get picked apart."
Adam McKay, director of "Step Brothers" and "Talladega Nights," said escalating salaries also can make it uneconomical to pair up top comedy stars, who can pull in $20 million a movie.
Movie marketing is built heavily around solo stars — the new Adam Sandler comedy, the latest Eddie Murphy farce — and marquee talent sometimes can be reluctant to give up any of the limelight, McKay said.
"One of the reasons that this all came together again is that Will is such a cool guy. A lot of the bigger actors or comedians, they don't want to share with another person," Reilly said. "That's why so many of these movies are one-man-show kind of situations, and Will is much more like a theater actor in that way. He's willing to share the stage."
"Step Brothers" casts Ferrell and Reilly as middle-aged losers — unemployed slackers, one living with his dad (Richard Jenkins), the other with his mom (Mary Steenburgen). When their parents wed, the two become instant family, sibling rivalry springing up from the start.
Comedy teams of old were inseparable entities
Sharing the stage was the bread-and-butter for some comedy stars in old Hollywood. Along with duos, there were comedy teams such as the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers and the Three Stooges that worked as inseparable entities.
Unlike today's free-agent stars, actors were under contract to particular studios, which tended to keep many of their performers in predictable niches that were familiar and comfortable to fans.
"Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, these guys were willing to make a lifetime commitment to the act, and it took them literally a good chunk of their life to get the rhythm and timing down," said Rob Farr, founder of Slapsticon, a comedy film festival in Arlington, Va., featuring flicks from early Hollywood. "These days, no actor with an ego wants to tie themselves down to a partner for decades at a time."
While players such as Hope and Crosby mixed it up with solo careers, the idea of splitting up successful comedy teams to let them pursue individual projects would have been bad business to studio executives.
"People weren't screaming for a Stan Laurel solo vehicle," said Reilly, a big Laurel and Hardy fan. "I just got this biography about the two of them, so I'm sure I'll find out a little more about the dynamics that kept them working together, but I think they just worked. A fat guy and a skinny guy. That's what people wanted to see."
Old-style comedy teams were tailored to the players' strengths, the lovably dopey Laurel opposite bossy Hardy, zany Costello opposite stoic and flustered Abbott.
Few actors today would be willing to put up with such narrow confines.
‘Everybody now wants to be the comic’
"In the old days, traditional comedy teams had a straight man and the comic," said Wes Gehring, who teaches film at Ball State University and specializes in comedy. "Everybody now wants to be the comic. Everybody wants to be the funny one. Nobody wants to be the second banana now."
"You never want to appear needy or desperate with comedy," McKay said. "You always want the illusion of, oh my God, here's an incredibly funny person. They happen to step in front of the camera, oh my God, they're hilarious. Like a wild animal if you can catch them in front of the camera. It's really an incredible thing to see.
"And the second you start to see any sort of calculation happening, people feel like that's somehow cheap or makes it all fake."
Modern Hollywood has had some instances of comedy actors teaming up several times beyond mere sequel reunions, among them Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor and Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.
Informal ensembles also spring up, such as the gang of improvisers in Christopher Guest's flicks or the troupe in the Judd Apatow comedy machine.
"I wish there were more people with that attitude of like, it's fun to see this collection or people or these two guys together," Ferrell said.
Added Reilly: "I would work with people I know over and over if I had my choice. There's a few directors I've met that I really love. There's a few actors that I've met that I really love, and if I did nothing but movies with those people for the rest of my life, it would be great."