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Abbott and Costello

Abbott (right) and Costello, 1942

William "Bud" Abbott and Lou Costello (born Louis Francis Cristillo) performed together as Abbott and Costello, an American comedy duo whose work on stage, radio, film and television made them the most popular comedy team during the 1940s and 1950s. Their patter routine "Who's on First?" set the framework for many of their best-known comedy bits.

FILMOGRAPHY IMAGES

Burlesque yearsEdit

Bud Abbott (1897—1974) 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 (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'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[1]--now the lobby of the AMC Empire movie complex in New York City. When AMC moved the old theater 168 ft (51 m) west on 42nd Street to its current location, giant balloons of Abbott and Costello were rigged to appear to pull it.[2]

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.

Movies and fameEdit

The team's first known radio appearance was on The Kate Smith Hour in February 1938. Initially, the similarities between their 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. "Who's on First?" was first performed for a national radio audience the following month.[1] They stayed on the program as regulars for two years, while landing 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 featuring The Andrews Sisters, Ted Lewis and his Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, 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 four films earning a total of $10 million. They remained a top ten box office attraction until 1952.

RadioEdit

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, 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.

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.

TelevisionEdit

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. Other semi-regulars were Shemp Howard,and fellow Stooge 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. Even though "Who's on First?" is the most famous routine, "Hey, Abbott!" is the most famous single line. Lou said it repeatedly on stage, radio and TV, often when he was in some sort of difficulty and needed help. The pronunciation was comical, with the emphasis on the "hey" and the second syllable of the last name.

Abbott and costello this is your life

Abbott and Costello on "This Is Your Life".

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. Since Bud and Lou owned the series, this allowed them to own these versions of their classic routines as well. 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.

Private livesEdit

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.[3]

During 1945, a rift developed 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. In 1946, they made two films in which they appeared separately rather than as a team. Some sources claim this was because the two men wanted to experiment with new kinds of comedy, but others say it was a result of the tensions between them. Abbott allegedly resolved the rift when he volunteered to help with Costello's pet charity, a foundation for underprivileged children.

Later yearsEdit

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 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.) 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, 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.

A depressed 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."

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.[4] Lou's character was voiced by Stan Irwin. Bud Abbott died of cancer on April 24, 1974.

Spin-offsEdit

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, Bob Clampett's "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.

Abbott costello caricature

Caricature of the pair.

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?"Edit

Main article: 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 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. 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.

For a performance on June 20, 1945 Bud Abbott was ill and was unable to perform on the Walgreens 44th anniversary radio special. Sidney Fields, in the his role as Professor Mellonhead, was the "fill-in" manager in the absence of Abbott and performed the straightman role with Lou Costello.

In popular cultureEdit

The comedy group The Credibility Gap performed a rock and 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. Later in the movie, Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) rents "The Naughty Nineties" on VHS to show Raymond the full and accurate version of the routine.

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 VeggieTales 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."

Dinosaucers featured an episode called "Allo & Cos-Stego Meet the Abominable Snowman," which featured many Abbott and Costello references, including variations on "Who's on First" and the Niagara Falls sketches.

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 Sidney Fields, 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.[5]

In the web comic Ozy and Millie on the strip for July 25, 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.[6]

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."

In a 2002 episode of the Scottish sitcom, Still Game, Boabby (Gavin Mitchell) called Jack and Victor "Abbott and Costello" to annoy them.

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".

In Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a 1993 spoof comedy directed by Mel Brooks, Dick Van Patten played the part of the Abbot. At one point, a man Chuck McCann who looked and sounded like Lou Costello yelled "Hey, Abbot!" at him, in exactly the same way Lou did in the Abbott and Costello movies.

In the 1999 episode of The Simpsons, "Marge Simpson in: 'Screaming Yellow Honkers'", Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner try their hand at being Abbott and Costello, but Skinner botches the routine six seconds into the act with delivery of the line, "Not the pronoun but a player with the unlikely name of Who, is on first."

They were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2009.

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Fear, Itself, Buffy says "If I were Abbott and Costello, this would be fairly traumatic," upon entering a frat house's Halloween party.

ReferencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 Abbott and Costello in Hollywood ISBN 0-399-51605-0
  2. The New York Times, Sunday, February 28, 1998
  3. Lou's on First: The Tragic Life of Hollywood's Greatest Clown Warmly Recounted by his Youngest Child ISBN 0-312-49914-0
  4. Toon Tracker: Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello cartoons
  5. Who's on First? At MSU, it's Bud and Lou
  6. Ozy and Millie

Further readingEdit

  • Maltin, Leonard, Movie Comedy Teams (1970, revised 1985) New American Library
  • Anobile, Richard J. (ed.), Who's on First?: Verbal and Visual Gems from the Films of Abbott & Costello (1972) Avon Books
  • Mulholland, Jim, The Abbott and Costello Book (1975) Popular Library
  • Thomas, Bob, Bud & Lou: The Abbott and Costello Story (1977) J.B. Lippincott Co. (Dual biography featuring a highly unflattering portrait of Lou Costello, contested by friends and family members)
  • Firestone, Ross (ed.), "Bud Abbott and Lou Costello" from The Big Radio Comedy Program (1978) Contemporary Books, Inc.
  • Maltin, Leonard, The Great Movie Comedians (1978) Crown Publishers
  • Costello, Chris, Lou's on First: The Tragic Life of Hollywood's Greatest Clown Warmly Recounted by His Youngest Child (1982) St. Martin's Press ISBN 0-312-49914-0
  • Cox, Stephen and Lofflin, John, The Official Abbott & Costello Scrapbook (1990) Contemporary Books, Inc.
  • Furmanek, Bob and Palumbo, Ron, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1991) Perigee ISBN 0-399-51605-0
  • Cox, Stephen and Lofflin, John, The Abbott & Costello Story: Sixty Years of "Who's on First?" (1997) Cumberland House Publishing (A revised and updated edition of The Official Abbott & Costello Scrapbook)
  • Dunning, John, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (1998) Oxford University Press
  • Nachman, Gerald, Raised on Radio (1998) Pantheon Books
  • Terrace, Vincent, Radio Programs (1999) McFarland & Co.
  • Young, Jordan R., The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV's Golden Age (1999) Past Times
  • Sies, Luther F., Encyclopedia of American Radio (2000) McFarland & Co.
  • Miller, Jeffrey S., The Horror Spoofs of Abbott and Costello: A Critical Assessment of the Comedy Team's Monster Films (2004) McFarland & Co.
  • Nollen, Scott Allen, Abbott and Costello on the Home Front: A Critical Study of the Wartime Films (2009) McFarland & Co.

External linksEdit

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