I'm playing all the right notes — but not necessarily in the right order.
A legendary British comic double act, both of whom got OBEs. Consisted of Eric Morecambe (John Eric Bartholomew, 14 May 1926 – 28 May 1984), (the dark-haired "funny man") and Ernie Wise (Ernest Wiseman, 27 November 1925 – 21 March 1999) (the blond-haired "Straight Man"). They met as teenagers and learned their skills as a Vaudeville double-act during the 1940s and 50s, so by the time they got to be on TV, they were primed for success — but didn't get it. Their first TV show Running Wild (1954) suffered from what in hindsight was Early Installment Weirdness, and an early newspaper gag went "Definition of TV: the box in which they buried Morecambe & Wise". Morecambe, the more anxiety-ridden of the two, carried the cutting in his wallet for the rest of his life, as a sort of portable Motivational Lie.The duo went back to live performance for seven years, before landing a second TV show on the British commercial network ATV, Two of a Kind (1961-1968). This was better-written and made them famous, including a memorable episode where they rubbed up against The Beatles, but there was more to come. In 1968 the writers of Two of a Kind, Dick Hills and Sid Green, quit the show and it was widely felt within British TV that Morecambe and Wise were finished. However, a BBC executive hooked them up with a gifted scriptwriter named Eddie Braben who understood them better than any previous writer, and The Morecambe & Wise Show (1968-1977) was the result.Full of classic sketches and celebrity guests, and with the central dynamic between the duo brilliantly retooled by Braben, it made them more popular than ever before. A running gag was that Ernie considered himself a talented playwright and would ask the guests to take roles in the latest "play what I wrote". This allowed them to do spoofs of famous plays and films, playing Eric and/or Ernie's Large Ham tendencies for maximum funny. Christmas editions of the show earned the highest viewing figures in British TV history up to that point: 20 million people are estimated to have watched their 1977 Christmas special, making it in turn an integral part of A Very British Christmas. The story goes that the National Grid had to prepare in advance for almost everyone in Britain putting on the kettle at the same time after it finished. The show's success made the duo into national treasures.The Morecambe & Wise Show had a Channel Hop to commercial TV in 1978, but Braben was left behind, and while the later version of the show contained many classic moments, the duo's final work was in general less brilliant than their 1970s peak.Morecambe died in 1984, from a fatal heart attack after a public performance. Wise died in 1999. Both of their deaths were front-page news.YMMV tropes are here.
They contained examples of the following:
Actor Allusion: In the Anthony and Cleopatra sketch alone, Eric sat on Glenda Jackson's Oscar ( and then stole them at the end) and after Eric enters holding a sign reading "SPQR", it flips and changes to "Luton FC" (which he owned at the time).
In the 1977 Christmas Special, set on an old Navy ship, they had a cameo from Arthur Lowe and most of the Dad's Army cast. As Lowe's character leaves (after suffering a mutiny), he looks at Eric and says he'll see him hang.
Arthur Lowe: No, that's Eric Morecambe. (points to Eric Wise) That's Mr Wise.
John Le Mesurier: Oh. (they both leave)
When they came back to TV after Morecambe's recovery from his first heart attack, they smiled, said hello to the audience and then Eric pulled open the lapel of his jacket and said to his chest "Keep going, you fool!"
Anachronism Stew: Often Played for Laughs, such as having modern technology and pop culture references in the sketches set in the past. For example, one sketch has Lady Hamilton ring up Admiral Nelson on the phone during the Battle of Trafalgar.
Aside Glance: Eric played this straight, as you'd expect from an old-school variety performer, but once the duo were on TV he also devised a way to turn it Up to Eleven: while someone else was talking, he would sometimes glance into another camera, turn to face it, and then just beam foolishly at it without saying anything. After a while Ernie would join him, beaming over his shoulder, and if there was anyone else on stage at the time they would eventually join in too, for as long as Rule of Funny permitted, until they would all go back to the dialogue.
In the Hills & Green era, Eric tended to be the Butt Monkey of the duo but Braben cleverly reinvented the duo's dynamic, removing Ernie's Mean Boss tendency and turning him into a DitzyLarge Ham; Eric, in turn, acquired jester and Stoic Woobie tendencies, the latter exemplified in the "Singin' in the Rain" sketch (actually not written by Braben) in which Ernie dances happily while Eric gets wetter and wetter. The role of Butt Monkey was given to their guests, who put up with endless humiliation in the name of funny.
Call Back: Peter Cushing worked on one of their shows in 1969 which led to a running joke that he was never paid. All told he appeared on the show about six times, but didn't actually get "paid" until 1980. This is also something of a Brick Joke as when he finally does receive payment, he just shouts, "Paid! At last!" without any reference to having been on the show before.
The Cast Showoff: Wise's dancing. Morecambe could dance too, but Wise was a professional, to the point that Gene Kelly once said that his version of "Singing in the Rain" was the closest to the original he'd ever seen.
Catch Phrase: Ernie had "the play what I wrote", Eric had "This boy's a fool!"; "What do you think of it so far? Rubbish!" [with the last word being spoken by an improvised ventriliquist's dummy], and more.
One of the most famous derived from a sketch. Ernie pointed out that Eric was going bald and suggested he got a wig, telling him, "Some of your best friends have wigs and you'd never know it." Eric immediately assumed Ernie meant himself and tried to pull his hair off. For the next twenty years, Eric would interrupt whatever they were doing to stare at Ern's hair and comment, "You can't see the join!"
Whenever somebody spoke outside of Eric's vision and he was looking at somebody else he'd say: "You said that without moving your lips!"
Corpsing: Many contemporary critics noted how Eric essentially seemed exempt from the usual rules on this—he would regularly laugh at his own jokes and smile when he or Ernie messed up a line. The reason seems to be the 'domestic' dynamic Eddie Braben gave the pair with his flat sketches, letting their real friendship shine through—so the audience accepted Eric laughing at his own jokes the way a witty friend would in a Real Life conversation.
On the other hand, in the "Grieg Piano Concerto" sketch, while Eric, Ernie and André Previn all play their parts completely seriously, in the background you can see the orchestra's musicians struggling and failing to keep a straight face.
Credits Gag: A common feature when introducing a parody sketch (such as the Neopolean sketch and Anthony and Cleopatra) was to play with the names, saying Actor A was actually played by a second actor and saying that actor was played by a cat who was played by a completely different actor. Example.
Deadpan Snarker: Morecambe was one of these, although as their comedy became more subtle it tended to come out as more of a Stealth Insult. He remains one of the few people ever to outsnark John Lennon, during the Beatles' appearance on Two Of A Kind in 1963:
Eric: What's it like being famous?
John: Well, it's not like in your day, you know.
Eric: Ha! That was an insult, that is! [to Ernie]] You didn't expect that, did you? [to John] What do you mean, "not like in my day?"
John: Well, me dad used to tell me about you, you know. [John holds his hand down below his waist, to indicate how small he was at the time. Eric looks at it.]
As time went on, Ernie & Eric's idiot/bigger-idiot relationship became so strong that the role of Deadpan Snarker was actually handed to their guests; in the Grieg Piano Concerto sketch, Andre Previn is very much the Only Sane Man, complete with Death Glare as Eric's behaviour drives him higher and higher up the wall.
Early Installment Weirdness: There is a very significant shift in tone and format from the Hills and Green-written to the Eddie Braben-written series.
Initially Eric and Ernie were confused by the presence of the Lady Who Comes Down At The End, only later smiling and nodding as though her interruption is completely expected.
Arthur Tolcher did an actual segment on the show playing progressively smaller harmonicas before accidentally swallowing the last one, prior to the Running Gag of him randomly appearing and starting to play only to be brushed off with 'Not now, Arthur'.
Embarrassing First Name: Eric was always claiming that the "Des" in Des O'Connor was short for "Desperate", "Desert", etc.
Penelope Keith also did it to Eric, referring to him as "Derek Moron".
Newscaster Cameo: Trope Codifier. Prior to Morecambe and Wise, newscasters had generally been considered dignified and distant figures in British television. Their number with Angela Rippon started to change this, but it really took off when almost every British newscaster at the time starred with them in "There Ain't Nothing Like A Dame". This started a tradition, which still survives today, of the newscasters indulging in a massive cross-channel crossover musical number, usually for Comic Relief.
No Fourth Wall: Obviously, because show was mostly them on stage facing an audience. During the "Singin' in the Rain" sketch, a very wet Eric is being ignored by Ernie so turns to the camera and says, "I'm wet through, folks!"
Obfuscating Stupidity: There are a number of hints that Eric is in fact the more intelligent member of the partnership but he acts dumb in order not to disappoint Ernie's intellectual pretensions.
The Perfectionist: They were both this but Morecambe was notorious for it, especially at the peak of their popularity in the 70s. All those supposed ad libs, aside glances, even the corpsing? All meticulously rehearsed. Morecambe himself was not the only one to think that his obsession with perfection had something to do with his heart trouble.
Producer John Ammonds was also like this. As Eddie Braben put it, "if you sent him a Christmas card, he'd send it back with a note asking for a rewrite".
Morecambe pretending to throw an invisible object in the air and "catching" it in a paper bag.
Celebrities shown working in menial jobs with the line "I worked with Morecambe and Wise, and look what happened to me."
There were two semi-regular Once an EpisodeBig Lipped Alligator Moments: harmonica player Arthur Tolcher would randomly rush on and start to play, only for Eric or Ernie to kindly brush him off with 'Not now, Arthur'; and at the end of many episodes, the "Lady who comes down at the end" (played by Janet Webb) appears to deliver a monologue about her little show, while Eric and Ernie smile and nod along.
Ernie's terrible plays.
Ernie's height ("he's only got little legs"). Eric would often tell Ernie to stand up when he was already standing.
Eric would often look at one person when a second person behind him said a line and he would say "You said that without moving your lips!" to the first person. He would turn to face the second as the first spoke and say "You can do it as well!"
Scenery Porn: Parodied, specifically the glitzy sets of 70s variety shows.
In one sketch, Eric, Ernie and guest star Penelope Keith, smiling in immaculate evening wear, elegantly descended a huge flight of stairs as the orchestra played, only to find that it ended with a long drop still to go, so that they had to climb awkwardly down to ground level. This was a Shout Out to an earlier sketch, in which the three of them had gone to the top of the stairs, only for Keith to fall off the back.
Ernie: Yes, well, I'll do it that little bit better, won't I?
Again, when Ernie was welcoming Lulu onto the show in effusive tones:
Ernie: Oh, Lulu, you're one of my biggest fans.
Special Guest: One every episode, several in the Christmas specials—not counting the more numerous music spot guest singers/bands.
Producer John Ammonds was famous for being able to get anyone as a guest star, no matter how big a star they were or how 'refined' their usual work was; writer Eddie Braben was half convinced he had a collection of blackmail photographs on the entire membership of Equity. His only failure was when he couldn't get Prince Charles, and even then apparently Charles was willing but the Palace vetoed it as too risky.
After a while, the show was so big and beloved that the biggest stars were queuing up to do it.
Surreal Humour: Not a major focus of their work but glimpses of it often showed up. For example, one episode began with Ernie asking for his violin, being handed a saxophone, nodding thanks and then being about to 'play' it with a violin-bow before being interrupted by Eric.
Take That: Most often at Des O'Connor as noted above, but occasionally aimed at other comedians such as Max Bygraves and Jimmy Tarbuck
Eric: Why don't you send that joke to Jimmy Tarbuck?
Ernie: Do you think he'd use my material?
Eric: Why not? He uses everyone else's.
Earlier in their career they were often compared to rival comedy duo Mike & Bernie Winters. Morecambe & Wise were friendly with them, but it didn't stop Morecambe coming out with a lethal snark at their expense:
Interviewer: Who do you think you'd be if you weren't comedians?
Throw It In: In spite of what people thought at the time, largely averted. Much of their charm derived from the fact that they seemed to be making it up as they went along, but in fact they rehearsed a lot and expected their guests to as well.
A rare exception was in the Piano Concerto sketch: André Previn hadn't had much rehearsal time and Morecambe in particular went into the sketch very nervous. When Previn delivered his line "I'll go get my baton ... it's in Chicago" with perfect comic timing, Morecambe can be seen to punch the air and ad lib the line "Pow! He's in! I like him! I like him!". For the rest of the sketch, Morecambe is visibly more confident.
Eric and the giant dummy he couldn't operate properly. He also messed around with muppets a fair bit as well. Such as the skull during his Hamlet soliloquy. Neither times did he really bother to try to not move his lips (which was half of the joke).
As noted above, although Eric Morecambe aimed a number of barbs at Des O'Connor, in real life they were good friends.
Young Future Famous People: In a segment on one Christmas show Eric and Ernie play naive soldiers sent on a suicide mission through German lines in World War One, during the course of which they run a motorbike and sidecar over a young Adolf Hitler and his comrades sitting around a campfire.