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'Who's on First?' Is Still a Home Run

Comedy: Sixty years after its radio debut, it's still hilarious. But who wrote the classic comedy bit is a little less clear.

March 26, 1998|STEPHEN COX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

" 'Who's on First?' is the funniest sketch in the history of comedy teams in show business. I laugh every time I hear it. Abbott and Costello were comedic geniuses."

--Larry King

If ever a formula for laughs transcended the decades, it was the wheeling banter about the whos, whats and wheretos of a baseball team.

Beautifully slapped into America's consciousness by a pair of seasoned burlesque comedians named Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the routine known as "Who's on First?" dizzied a nationwide audience for the first time on the CBS radio "Kate Smith Hour" 60 years ago this week.

It almost didn't happen.

While pinch-hitting for comedian Henny Youngman on Smith's popular radio program, rookies Abbott and Costello were trying to make a name for themselves, burning their best material at the microphone. Smith's mentor and producer, Ted Collins--who wasn't enamored by these burlesque comedians sharing the bill with his star--was reluctant to have them do their crazy baseball hit, claiming it was too complex for the at-home audience.

It took the force of pudgy Lou Costello to get "Who's on First?" on the air. Frustrated that he couldn't persuade Collins to let them do their ace routine, cigar-chomping Costello decided it was time to play a little hardball. All week, during rehearsals, Costello told Collins that he and Abbott were out of routines for the Thursday night performance. At the 11th hour, out of desperation for material, Collins frantically ordered the game to begin.

Bud: I'm telling you. Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third.

Lou: You know the fellows' names?

Bud: Yes.

Lou: Well, then who's playin' first?

Bud: Yes.

Lou: I mean the fellow's name on first base for St. Louis.

Bud: Who.

Lou: The guy on first base.

Bud: Who is on first base.

Lou: Well, what are you askin' me for?

Just as Abbott and Costello expected, audiences around the country went wild over the sketch, and that very night, the routine catapulted the comedians into superstardom. It was equivalent to such fate-sealers as, say, Roseanne's standout debut on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

In a 20-year partnership, Abbott and Costello amassed an extensive show business resume: a nice run in a Broadway show, a longtime radio show on NBC and ABC, 36 motion pictures together, a syndicated television series and an insanely successful war bond tour that netted Uncle Sam $78 million in the early 1940s.

Throughout their career, Abbott and Costello performed and preserved countless old burlesque and vaudeville chestnuts--routines that made the rounds, in other words.

All these years later, no one is quite sure if "Who's on First?" was an exception.

"They weren't innovators," says Abbott's nephew, Norman Abbott, an Emmy Award-winning director and producer. "Chaplin was a first. Buster Keaton was a first. Lenny Bruce was a first. Redd Foxx was a first. Abbott and Costello were flat-out joke men. They took existing material and did it better than anyone else."

Without question, "Who's on First?" became Bud and Lou's most recognized, most popular bit, requested by crowds big or small, anywhere they traveled--even by President Truman for his inaugural gala in 1949. Depending on what city they were in, they would insert the name of the appropriate ballclub. While touring Europe, they even transformed the routine to fit soccer.

The comedians were careful, however, not to wear out their ace, performing the full routine in only one film, "The Naughty Nineties" (1945). In 1956, Leo Durocher helped induct "Who's on First?" and the comedians into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. By then, Costello estimated that he and Abbott had performed the routine some 15,000 times.

No one is absolutely sure who penciled the routine, or where it was born. What, when and how remain unanswered, too. Norman Abbott claims that Lou Costello wrote it. "It was based on [another] piece of material," he says. "But Lou wrote the baseball sketch. That's his."

The late comedian Phil Silvers, a veteran vaudevillian himself, once said, "Nobody knows where 'Who's on First?' came from. Everybody used to do it. I did it myself with Rags Ragland. But Bud and Lou had the first crack at the big-time audiences with it. . . . It's a piece of Americana."

Milton Berle, one of the few survivors of the vaudeville era, agrees: "Oh, it goes way back to burlesque. It was one of the clean bits," says Berle, who turns 90 in July. "I performed a version of it with Jack Albertson. We all knew it. It's public domain now, but Bud and Lou were the originators. I think they wrote it."

*

It is commonly understood that both Bud and Lou created the routine, or at least reshaped it, along with their writer, John Grant. It became an Abbott and Costello vehicle, and Bud and Lou kept the bit for their own, molding it, nurturing it, exposing it and claiming it.

Performing the routine with rapid-fire speed and unwavering tempo seems to have been their secret for success with this verbal labyrinth.

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