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Retro : Who's on Thursday Night? : SEINFELD GETS BUMPED ON THANKSGIVING NIGHT BUT HE GETS TO WORK (SORT OF) WITH HIS IDOLS

November 20, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bad news is that "Seinfeld" won't be airing on Thanksgiving Day. But the good news is that Jerry Seinfeld is. NBC's king of Thursday-night comedy is the host of a new special, "Abbott & Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld," part of the evening's reshuffled lineup.

The one-hour tribute to the beloved comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello features clips of their memorable routines from film and TV, including the immortal "Who's on First?," never-before-seen home movies and poignant memories from their offspring: Bud Abbott Jr., Vicki Abbott Wheeler, Chris Costello and Paddy Costello Humphreys.

Needless to say, they're thrilled that Seinfeld is paying tribute to their parents. "We are really happy with Seinfeld too," says Bud Abbott Jr. "I guess he was a fan when he was a kid."

"He's so nice," adds Paddy Costello Humphreys. "I think what really made me feel good is that (in the special Seinfeld says) that 50 years later, you still have people laughing at the material as much as when it first came out. The material is really timeless."

Abbott and Costello began working together in burlesque in the mid-'30s and soon took radio and Hollywood by storm. Under contract to Universal, they hit box-office gold in the '40s with such movies as "Buck Privates," "Keep 'em Flying, " "In the Navy," "The Time of Their Lives," "Ride 'em Cowboy" and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." During World War II, they raised more than $89 million for war bonds.

The team also found success in TV. They frequently appeared on the live 1951-54 NBC weekly series "The Colgate Comedy Hour," and starred in their own popular syndicated series, "The Abbott and Costello Show," which aired from 1952 to 1955.

In 1956, one year before they amicably ended their partnership, Abbott and Costello became the first non-baseball celebrities inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, solely on the success of their "Who's on First?" routine. Costello died in 1959; Abbott in 1974.

Humphreys believes the duo clicked because they were pieces of a puzzle "that when put together, fit so perfectly. I don't think my dad could have worked and been successful with anybody else. I think the chemistry between them was absolute magic. I think that's why they are just as funny today as they were back then."

Abbott Jr. points out that the pair's humor was pure burlesque. "There were whole scripts based on (burlesque) routines," he says. "Seinfeld said a lot of the comedy on his show is based on Abbott and Costello because they don't pick fun at anybody but themselves. They don't have a scapegoat. They always made themselves the humor. I think kids and adults can relate to that kind of humor."

Before teaming up with Costello in 1935, Abbott worked in burlesque for 20 years as a show producer and straight man. "He actually was a good comedian too," says Abbott Jr. "There are two movies that Dad and Lou did, 'The Time of Their Lives' and 'Little Giant,' where they weren't in the movies as a pair. They had separate roles."

As a little girl, Humphreys loved watching her father in "Keep 'em Flying." "There's a scene when he was on a torpedo and it is running amok. That was hysterical to me. As a kid, you really get into the slapstick stuff. Later, you start appreciating some of the finer points of what they were doing, like timing."

The special also delves into their off-screen lives. Though Abbott was a fast-talking sharpie on screen, in real life "he was a really quiet gentle person," says Abbott Jr. "That's why I have so much respect for what he did. I knew at a young age he was a very famous star, but I knew he was so good at what he did because when he was off camera, he was a different person. He was the best there was. I was always very proud of him."

Costello, Humphreys says, was really a big kid at heart. Especially at Christmas. "Christmas for him was the big time of the year," she says. "You should have seen the house. What he had on the outside of the house was absolutely incredible: life-size Santa Claus, sleigh and reindeer on the roof. Everything was lit up. It got to the point that our neighbors across the street put up a sign on the front lawn that simply said, 'See our display across the street.' "

And both men cared for their fans. Humphreys recalls her father receiving a letter soon after "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" was released.

"It was from the parents of a little boy who was so frightened by the movie. He was so frightened by the thought of my father being injured or killed by Frankenstein. My dad called him and talked to him and assured him that he was fine and that it was just a movie."

"They were both very generous," Abbott Jr. says. "The things I saw in my life you just don't see today. They'd buy people homes, take care of operations. Half the people they didn't know that well. When you take from the public like that you have to give something back, too. That's very important."

"Abbott & Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld" airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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