William (Bud) Abbott and Lou Costello (born Louis Francis Cristillo) performed together as Abbott and Costello, an American comedy duo whose work in radio, film and television made them the most popular comedy team during the 1940s and 50s. Thanks to the endurance of their most popular and influential routine, "Who's on First?"—whose rapid-fire word play and comprehension confusion set the preponderant framework for most of their best-known routines—the team is, as a result, featured in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Contrary to popular belief, however, the duo was not inducted into the Hall.)
Bud Abbott was a veteran burlesque entertainer from a show business family. He had worked at Coney Island and ran his own burlesque touring companies. At first he worked as a straight man to his wife Betty, then with veteran burlesque comedians like Harry Steppe and Harry Evanson. When he met his future partner in comedy, Abbott was performing in Minsky's burlesque shows.
Lou Costello had been a burlesque comic since 1930, after failing to break into movie acting and working as a stunt double and film extra. He appears briefly in the 1927 Laurel and Hardy silent two-reeler, The Battle of the Century, seated at ringside during Stan's ill-fated boxing match. As a teenager, Costello had been an amateur boxer in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey.
The two first worked together in 1935 at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater on 42nd Street-now the lobby of the AMC movie complex in New York. When AMC moved the theater 200 feet west on 42nd Street to its current location, they "pulled" it by giant balloons of Abbott and Costello.
Other performers in the show, including Abbott's wife, advised a permanent pairing with Costello. The duo built an act by refining and reworking numerous burlesque sketches into the long-familiar presence of Abbott as the devious straight man, and Costello as the stumbling, dimwitted laugh-getter.
Movies and fame
The team's first known radio appearance was on The Kate Smith Hour in February, 1938. "Who's on First?" was first performed for a national radio audience the following month. Abbott and Costello stayed on the program as regulars for two years, but the similarities between their New Jersey-accented voices made it difficult for listeners (as opposed to stage audiences) to tell them apart due to their rapid-fire repartee. The problem was solved by having Costello affect a high-pitched childish voice, and their remaining tenure on the Smith show was successful enough to get them roles in a Broadway revue "The Streets of Paris" in 1939.
In 1940 they were signed by Universal Studios for the film One Night in the Tropics. Cast in supporting roles, they stole the show with several classic routines, including "Who's on First?" The same year they were a summer replacement on radio for Fred Allen. Two years later, they had their own NBC show.
Universal signed them to a long-term contract, and their second film, Buck Privates, (1941) made them box-office stars. In most of their films, the plot was a framework for the two comics to reintroduce comedy routines they first performed on stage. Universal also added glitzy, gratuitous production numbers (a formula borrowed from the Marx Brothers comedies) featuring The Andrews Sisters, Ted Lewis and his Orchestra, and other musical acts. They made 36 films together between 1940 and 1956. Abbott and Costello were among the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world during World War II. Other film successes included Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?, Pardon My Sarong, The Time of Their Lives, Buck Privates Come Home, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.
In 1942, Abbott and Costello were the top box office draw with a reported take of $10 million. They would remain a top ten box office attraction until 1952.
After working as Allen's summer replacement, Abbott and Costello joined Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1941, while two of their films (Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost) were adapted for Lux Radio Theater. They launched their own weekly show October 8, 1942, sponsored by Camel cigarettes.
The Abbott and Costello Show mixed comedy with musical interludes (by vocalists such as Connie Haines, Ashley Eustis, the Delta Rhythm Boys, Skinnay Ennis, and the Les Baxter Singers). Regulars and semi-regulars on the show included Artie Auerbach ("Mr. Kitzel"), Elvia Allman, Iris Adrian, Mel Blanc, Wally Brown, Sharon Douglas, Verna Felton, Sidney Fields, Frank Nelson, Martha Wentworth, and Benay Venuta. Ken Niles was the show's longtime announcer, doubling as an exasperated foil to Abbott and Costello's mishaps (and often fuming in character as Costello routinely insulted his on-air wife). Niles was succeeded by Michael Roy, with announcing chores also handled over the years by Frank Bingman and Jim Doyle. The show went through several orchestras during its radio life, including those of Ennis, Charles Hoff, Matty Matlock, Jack Meakin, Will Osborne, Freddie Rich, Leith Stevens, and Peter van Steeden. The show's writers included Howard Harris, Hal Fimberg, Parke Levy, Don Prindle, Eddie Cherkose (later known as Eddie Maxwell), Leonard Stern, Martin Ragaway, Paul Conlan, and Eddie Forman, as well as producer Martin Gosch. Sound effects were handled primarily by Floyd Caton.
In 1947 Abbott and Costello moved the show to ABC (the former NBC Blue Network). During their time on ABC, the duo also hosted a 30-minute children's radio program (The Abbott and Costello Children's Show), which aired Saturday mornings, featuring child vocalist Anna Mae Slaughter and child announcer Johnny McGovern.
In 1951, they moved to television as rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour. (Eddie Cantor and Martin and Lewis were among the others.) Each show was a live hour of vaudeville in front of a theater audience, revitalizing the comedians' performances and giving their old routines a new sparkle.
Beginning in 1952, a filmed half-hour series, The Abbott and Costello Show, appeared in syndication on local stations across the country. Loosely based on their radio series, the show cast the duo as unemployed wastrels. One of the show's running gags involved Abbott perpetually nagging Costello to get a job to pay their rent, while Abbott barely lifted a finger in that direction. The show featured Sidney Fields as their landlord, and Hillary Brooke as a friendly neighbor who sometimes got involved in the pair's schemes. Another semi-regular was Joe Besser as Stinky, a 40-year-old sissy dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Gordon Jones was Mike the cop, who always lost patience with Lou. The simple plotlines were often merely an excuse to recreate old comedy routines—including "Who's on First?" and other familiar set pieces—from their films and burlesque performances. The Abbott and Costello Show ran two seasons, but found a larger viewership in reruns from the late 1960s to the 1990s. In 2006 the shows were released in two five-DVD sets.
Both Abbott and Costello met and married women they knew in burlesque. Bud Abbott married Betty Smith in 1918, and Lou Costello married Anne Battler in 1934. The Costellos had four children; the Abbotts adopted two.
Abbott and Costello faced personal demons at times. Both were inveterate gamblers and had serious health problems. Abbott suffered from epilepsy and turned to alcohol for pain management. Costello had occasional, near-fatal bouts with rheumatic fever. On November 4, 1943, the same day that Costello returned to radio after a one year layoff due to his illness with rheumatic fever, his infant son "Butch" (born November 6, 1942) died in an accidental drowning in the family's swimming pool.
During 1945, a rift developed when Abbott hired a domestic servant who had been fired by Costello. Stung by Abbott's move, Costello refused to speak to his partner except when performing. The team's films of 1946 reflect the split, with the comedians appearing separately in character roles. Abbott resolved the rift in 1947 when he volunteered to help with Costello's pet charity, a foundation for underprivileged children.
In the 1950s Abbott and Costello's popularity waned as their place as filmdom's hottest comedy team was taken by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who, legend has it, were discovered by Abbott and Costello. Another reason for the decline was overexposure. Abbott and Costello's routines, already familiar, were now glutting the movie and television markets. Each year they made two new films, while Realart Pictures re-released most of their older hits; their filmed television series was widely syndicated, and they did the same routines frequently on the Colgate program. (Writer Parke Levy told Jordan R. Young, in The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV's Golden Age, that he was stunned to learn that Bud and Lou were afraid to perform new material.) Universal dropped the comedy team in 1955, and after one more independent film, Bud Abbott retired from performing.
In 1956, the Internal Revenue Service charged them for back taxes, forcing them to sell their homes and most of their assets, including their film rights. In 1957 they formally dissolved their partnership.
Lou Costello made about ten solo appearances on The Steve Allen Show and headlined in Las Vegas. He appeared in episodes of GE Theater and Wagon Train. On March 3, 1959, shortly after making his lone solo film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, Lou Costello died of a heart attack just short of his 53rd birthday.
Bud Abbott attempted a comeback in 1960, teaming with Candy Candido. Although the new act received good reviews, Bud quit, saying, "No one could ever live up to Lou." A serious weakness of the new act was that it copied the old act. Abbott and Candido simply reprised old Abbott & Costello routines, with Candido blatantly imitating Costello. Candido would then do a comedic monologue in his own persona while Abbott took a break backstage, then the finale consisted of both men performing the classic "Who's on First?" routine.
Abbott made a solo appearance on an episode of GE Theater in 1961. In 1966 Bud voiced his character in a series of 156 five-minute Abbott and Costello cartoons made by Hanna-Barbera. Lou's character was voiced by Stan Irwin. Bud Abbott died of cancer on April 24, 1974.
The cartoon series was not the first time Abbott and Costello were in animation. During the height of their popularity in the 1940s, Warner Bros.'s Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies animation unit produced 3 cartoons featuring the pair as cats or mice named "Babbit and Catstello." One of the cartoons, "A Tale of Two Kitties," introduced Tweety. The other cartoons were "A Tale of Two Mice" and "Mouse-Merized Cat." In all 3 cartoons, Tedd Pierce (normally a storyman/writer for the cartoons) and Mel Blanc, respectively, provide voice impressions of the comedy duo.
The revival of their former television series in syndicated reruns in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped spark renewed interest in the duo, as did the televising of many of their old film hits. In 1994, comedian Jerry Seinfeld—who says Abbott and Costello were strong influences on his work—hosted a television special Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld (the title refers to the duo's popular film series in which they met some of Universal's famed horror picture characters), on NBC; the special was said to have been seen in 20 million homes.
"Who's on First?"
"Who's on First?" is Abbott & Costello's signature routine. They always referred to it informally as "Baseball." Depending upon the version you are hearing, Abbott has a) organized a new baseball team, and the players have nicknames; or, he is pointing out the proliferation of nicknames in baseball---usually launching a variation on St. Louis Cardinals sibling pitchers Dizzy and Daffy Dean, before launching the routine with the infielders' nicknames of Who (first base), What (second base) and I Don't Know (third base). The key to the routine: Lou Costello's unwavering pronoun confusion and Bud Abbott's unwavering nonchalance.
Before very long the team could time the routine at will, adding or deleting portions as needed for films, radio, or television. If their director asked them to fill four minutes, for example, Bud and Lou would do four minutes' worth of the baseball bit. "Who's on First?" is believed to be available in as many as 20 versions, ranging from one minute to about 10 minutes. The longest version is seen in "The Actors' Home," an episode of their filmed TV series, in which "Who's on First?" constitutes the second half of the program. Perhaps the best rendition of the act was a live performance commemorating the opening day of the Lou Costello, Jr. Youth Foundation, in 1947. This special performance was recorded, and has appeared on numerous comedy albums. The team's final performance of "Who's on First?" was seen on Steve Allen's TV variety show, in 1957.
Other Abbott & Costello routines are variations on the "Who's on First?" wordplay. Perhaps the most successful was "Hertz U-Drive," about renting a car. On one of their radio broadcasts, the duo preceded yet another version of "Who's on First?" with a similar routine hooked around Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller; on another, they unleashed perhaps their third-best such routine, "Fleeing Flu".
In the full-length version of Who's on First, all of the positions are mentioned except right field.
The comedy group The Credibility Gap performed a rock & roll update of "Who's on First?" using the names of rock groups The Who, The Guess Who, and Yes, recorded and released on their first album, "The Bronze Age of Radio."
In the 1988 movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman's autistic character Raymond Babbitt recites an affectless "Who's on First" as a defense mechanism when others become upset with him or something does not go his way.
NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006), a drama about life backstage at a television comedy series, used "Who's on First?" as a plot device when the parents of cast member Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) visit from Ohio, and he gives them a tour of the theater. However, they have little understanding of comedy and have never heard of "Who's on First?" In an attempt to relate to his parents just before they begin the long drive back to Ohio, Tom gives them a recording of "Who's on First?", which (according to the show's mythology) was first performed in the Addison Theater—the august building which later became Studio 60.
An episode of the Veggie Tales children's show, "Duke and the Great Pie War", features a character named The Abbot of Costello who tests two of the characters using a modified "Who's On First?" routine.
An episode of Animaniacs featured the characters of Skippy and Aunt Slappy doing a version of the skit at Woodstock, using the band names of The Who, The Band and Yes instead of the names "Who," "What" and "I Don't Know."
Harvey Korman (Bud) and Buddy Hackett (Lou) portrayed the duo in Bud and Lou, a 1978 NBC made-for-television biopic.
In The West Wing first season episode "He Shall, from Time to Time...," White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry refers to Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman as Abbott and Costello.
Jerry Seinfeld is an avid fan and "The Old Man" (Season 4, Episode 18, aired 18 February 1993) featured a cantankerous old man named "Sid Fields," played by veteran actor Bill Erwin, as a tribute to the landlord from the Abbott & Costello TV show. The influence of Abbott & Costello on Seinfeld was discussed in a 1994 NBC program "Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld." In Episode 30, Kramer hears the famous Abbott & Costello line "His father was a mudder. His mother was a mudder."
The Video Game Half-Life 2: Episode Two has two characters in it named Griggs and Sheckley. The Commentary for the game has stated that Griggs and Sheckley are modeled after Abbott and Costello, respectively.
In 2003 Montclair State University dedicated a student residential complex aptly named The Abbott and Costello Center on Clove Road in the Little Falls portion of the university's campus.
In the web comic Ozy and millie on the strip for 25th July 2000, Millie's mother muses "I'm not sure doing Abbott and Costello routines is in the parental job description," when asked why "They" are.
On the January 13, 2001 episode of Saturday Night Live host Charlie Sheen and SNL cast-member Rachel Dratch performed a modified version of "Who's on first?" in a vaudeville reminiscent sketch wherein the names "Who", "What" and "I Don't Know" were used in reference to prostitutes that perform only one specific service but no others, culminating in a joke where Sheen says "You know what, I don't give a damn," to which Dratch replies, "Oh, you mean my crack dealer."
Bobby called Jack and Victor "Abbott and Costello" to wind them up in a 2002 episode of Still Game.
In 2001, Australia's deputy Prime Minister Peter Costello was widely known to be expecting to take over from John Howard as PM. It was also widely rumoured that the Workplace Relations' Minister, Tony Abbott was making a play to take over Costello's position as deputy. The rumours, denials and public comments became almost comical leading the opposition leader Kim Beazley to comment in an ABC interview, "We've now apparently got on our hands the Abbott and Costello show. The question is who's on first?". The public responded by frequently referring to Abbott and Costello as "Abbott and Costello".
Photograph is from the movie Buck Privates and was Hand Oil Tinted by Artist Margaret A. Rogers.