I can’t remember the first time I saw this routine; it was years ago, on some comedy tv show, I think, which showed it to demonstrate perfect comic timing. This was in the days before Youtube (gasp!) so there weren’t many chances of hearing it. Over the years, I’ve thought about it often and something this week made me want to look it up…
William ‘Bud’ Abbott and Lou Costello were one of the most famous comedy double acts in the 1940s and 1950s. Abbott played the straight man while Costello took on the role of the dim-witted, clumsy laugh-getter.
Abbott (L) and Costello - from their radio show
They worked in vaudeville on stage before progressing to radio, film and television. They started in radio in 1938, and then moved on to films. Between 1940 and 1956, they made a total of 36 films, and were the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world during the Second World War. In the 1950s, they had their own tv show, ‘The Abbott and Costello Show’.
‘Who’s on First?’ is one of their best-known routines. It’s based around the names of a team of baseball players. Costello wants to know their names and Abbott is identifying them for him. But the names of the players inadvertently double up as non-responsive answers to Costello’s questions. To start, the first baseman is called ‘Who’, so Costello’s innocent question of ‘Who’s on first?’ leads to one hilarious misunderstanding after another.