Published on July 3, 2016
William “Bud” Abbott and Lou Costello were an American comedy duo whose work in vaudeville and on stage, radio, film and television made them the most popular comedy team during the 1940s and early 1950s. Their patter routine “Who’s on First?” is one of the best-known comedy routines of all time and set the framework for many of their best-known comedy bits.
Bud Abbott (1897–1974) was a veteran burlesque entertainer from a show business family. He worked at Coney Island and ran his own burlesque touring companies. He first worked as a straight man with 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, and had been working at least a decade before meeting Lou Costello.
Lou Costello (1906–1959) 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 Laurel’s ill-fated boxing match. (As a teenager, Costello had been an amateur boxer in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey.) Costello was introduced to burlesque through the “Ann Corio Show”, in which he performed as a “dancing juvenile,” who came out before the top banana and warmed up the audience – only he would get the laughs.
The two men first worked together in 1935, at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater on 42nd Street —now the lobby of the AMC Empire movie complex in New York City. This first performance together occurred due to Costello’s regular partner being ill. When AMC moved the old theater 168 ft (51 m) further west on 42nd Street to its current location, giant balloons of Abbott and Costello were rigged to appear to pull it.
Other performers in the show, including Abbott’s wife Betty, advised a permanent pairing. 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.
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, Marilyn Maxwell, 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, Matty Malneck, Jack Meakin, Will Osborne, Fred 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 B. Stern, Martin Ragaway, Paul Conlan, and Eddie Forman, as well as producer Martin Gosch. Sound effects were handled primarily by Floyd Caton. Guest stars were plentiful, including Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters, and Lucille Ball.
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.
Who’s on First?” is Abbott and Costello’s signature routine. (They, however, usually referred to it as “Baseball.”) The sketch was based on other burlesque routines with similar wordplay. Depending upon the version, Abbott has either organized a new baseball team and the players have nicknames, or he points out the proliferation of nicknames in baseball (citing St. Louis Cardinals sibling pitchers Dizzy and Daffy Dean) before launching the routine. The infielders’ nicknames are Who (first base), What (second base) and I Don’t Know (third base). The key to the routine is Costello’s persistent confusion over pronouns, and Abbott’s unwavering nonchalance. Audio recordings are readily available on the internet.
Abbott and Costello began honing the routine shortly after teaming up in 1936 and performed it in vaudeville in 1937 and 1938. It was first heard by a national radio audience in March 1938, when the team were regulars on the Kate Smith radio show. By then, John Grant had been writing or adapting other sketches for the team, and he may have helped expand “Who’s On First?” prior to its radio debut. Grant stayed on as a writer for Abbott and Costello into the 1950s. One notable appearance of the sketch is from a 1951 broadcast.
Abbott and Costello performing “Who’s on First?”
“Who’s on First?” is believed to be available in as many as 20 versions, ranging from one minute to about 10 minutes. The team could time the routine at will, adding or deleting portions as needed for films, radio, or television. If they needed to fill four minutes, for example, Abbott and Costello would do four minutes’ worth of the baseball bit. 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. A live performance commemorating the opening day of the Lou Costello, Jr. Youth Foundation, in 1947 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.
In the full-length version of “Who’s on First?”, all of the positions are mentioned except right field.
Abbott and Costello performed a special “Who’s on First?” for a USO Command Performance. This is the only known recording that Costello says “I don’t give a damn” at the end.
For a radio performance on June 20, 1945, Abbott was ill and was unable to perform on the Walgreens 44th anniversary special. Sidney Fields, in his role as Professor Mellonhead, was the “fill-in” manager in the absence of Abbott and performed the straight man role with Costello.
Both Abbott and Costello met and married women they knew in burlesque. Abbott married Betty Smith in 1918, and 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, his infant son Lou Jr. (nicknamed “Butch” and born November 6, 1942) died in an accidental drowning in the family’s swimming pool. Maxene Andrews remembers visiting Costello with sisters Patty and LaVerne during his illness, and remembered how Costello’s demeanor changed after the tragic loss of his son, saying, “He didn’t seem as fun-loving and as warm…He seemed to anger easily…there was a difference in his attitude.”
During 1945, a rift developed between the two when Abbott hired a domestic servant who had been fired by Costello. Angered by Abbott’s decision, Costello refused to speak to his partner except when performing. The following year, they made two films in which they appeared as separate characters rather than as a team (Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives). This may have been a result of the tensions between them, plus the fact that their most recent films had not done well at the box office and Lou wanted to change the formula. Abbott allegedly resolved the rift when he volunteered to help with Costello’s pet charity, a foundation for underprivileged children, and suggested naming it the “Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation”. The facility opened in 1947, and still serves the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles.
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. 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 also re-released most of their older hits; their filmed television series was widely syndicated, and the same routines appeared 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.) They were forced to withdraw from Fireman Save My Child in 1954 due to Costello’s health, and were replaced by Hugh O’Brian and Buddy Hackett. Universal dropped the comedy team in 1955 after they could not agree on contract terms. In the early 1950s, the Internal Revenue Service charged them for back taxes, forcing them to sell their homes and most of their assets, including the rights to most of their films.
In 1956 they made one independent film, Dance with Me, Henry, and Lou was the subject of the television program This Is Your Life, then formally dissolved their partnership in 1957.
In his last years, Costello made about ten solo appearances on The Steve Allen Show and headlined in Las Vegas. He also appeared in episodes of GE Theater and Wagon Train. On March 3, 1959, not long after completing his lone solo film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, he died of a heart attack, just days short of his 53rd birthday.
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.” Abbott made a solo, dramatic appearance on an episode of General Electric Theater in 1961. In 1966, Abbott 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,