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Who's on First?

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Who's on First? is a vaudeville comedy routine made most famous by Abbott and Costello. In Abbott and Costello's version, the premise of the routine is that Abbott is identifying the players on a baseball team to Costello, but their names and nicknames can be interpreted as non-responsive answers to Costello's questions. In this context, the first baseman is named "Who"; thus, the utterance "Who's on first" is ambiguous between the question ("which person is the first baseman?") and the answer ("The name of the first baseman is 'Who'").

HistoryEdit

"Who's on First?" is descended from turn-of-the-century burlesque sketches that used plays on words and names. Examples are "The Baker Scene" (the shop is located on Watt Street) and "Who Dyed" (the owner is named Who). In the 1930 movie Cracked Nuts, comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey examine a map of a mythical kingdom with dialogue like this: "What is next to Which." "What is the name of the town next to Which?" "Yes." In English variety halls (Britain's equivalent of vaudeville theatres), comedian Will Hay performed a routine in the early 1930s (and possibly earlier) as a schoolmaster interviewing a schoolboy named Howe who came from Ware but now lives in Wye. By the early 1930s, a "Baseball Routine" had become a standard bit for burlesque comics across the United States. Abbott's wife recalled Bud performing the routine with another comedian before teaming with Costello.[1]

Bud Abbott stated that it was taken from an old routine called "Who's The Boss?", a performance of which can be heard in an episode of the radio comedy program It Pays to Be Ignorant from the 1940s.[2] After they formally teamed up in burlesque in 1936, he and Costello continued to hone the sketch. It was a big hit in 1937 when they performed the routine in a touring vaudeville revue called "Hollywood Bandwagon".[1]

In February 1938, Abbott and Costello joined the cast of The Kate Smith Hour radio program, and the sketch was first performed for a national radio audience that March.[1] The routine may have been further polished before this broadcast by burlesque producer John Grant, who became the team's writer, and Will Glickman, a staff writer on the radio show.[3] Glickman may have added the nicknames of then-contemporary baseball players like Dizzy and Daffy Dean to set up the routine's premise. This version, with extensive wordplay based on the fact that most of a fictional baseball team's players had "strange nicknames" that seemed to be questions, became known as "Who's on First?" By 1944, Abbott and Costello had the routine copyrighted.

Abbott and Costello performed "Who's on First?" numerous times in their careers, rarely performing it exactly the same way twice. They did the routine for President Franklin Roosevelt several times. An abridged version was featured in the team's 1940 film debut, One Night in the Tropics. The duo reprised the bit in their 1945 film The Naughty Nineties, and it is that longer version which is considered their finest recorded rendition. They also performed "Who's on First?" numerous times on radio and television (notably in The Abbott and Costello Show episode "The Actor's Home").

In 1956 a gold record of "Who's on First?" was placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, New York. A video (taken from The Naughty Nineties) now plays continuously on screens at the Hall.

In the 1970s, Selchow and Righter published a Who's on First? board game.

In 1999, Time magazine named the routine Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th century.[4]

An early radio recording was placed in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in 2003.

In 2005, the line "Who's on First?" was included on the American Film Institute's list of 100 memorable movie quotations.

SketchEdit

The names given in the routine for the players at each position are:

The name of the shortstop is not given until the very end of the routine, and the right fielder is never identified. In the Selchow and Righter board game, the right fielder's name is "Nobody".[5]

At one point in the routine, Costello thinks that Naturally is the first baseman:

Abbott: You throw the ball to first base.
Costello: Then who gets it?
Abbott: Naturally.
Costello: Naturally.
Abbott: Now you've got it.
Costello: I throw the ball to Naturally.
Abbott: You don't! You throw it to Who!
Costello: Naturally.
Abbott: Well, that's it—say it that way.
Costello: That's what I said.
Abbott: You did not.
Costello: I said I throw the ball to Naturally.
Abbott: You don't! You throw it to Who!
Costello: Naturally.

Abbott's explanations leave Costello hopelessly confused and infuriated, until the end of the routine when he finally appears to catch on. "You got a couple of days on your team?" He never quite figures out that the first baseman's name literally is "Who". But after all this he announces, "I don't give a darn!" ("Oh, that's our shortstop.") That is the most commonly heard ending, which varied depending on the perceived sensibilities of the audience. The even milder "I Don't Care" was used in the version seen in the film The Naughty Nineties. A recording of the obvious "I Don't Give a Damn" has also turned up on occasion.

The skit serves as a climax for an Abbott and Costello radio broadcast which begins with Costello receiving a telegram from Joe DiMaggio asking Costello to take over for him.[6]

Writing creditEdit

Numerous people over the years have claimed credit for writing the sketch, but such claims typically lack reasonable corroboration.

For example, in a 1993 obituary of writer Michael Musto, it stated that shortly after Abbott and Costello teamed up, they paid Musto $15 to write the script.[7]

Furthermore, in the 1996 obituary of songwriter Irving Gordon, a claim was made that he had written the sketch.

Notable performances and derivativesEdit

The sketch has been reprised, updated, alluded to, and parodied innumerable times over the years in all forms of media. Some notable examples include:

  • Abbott and Costello occasionally referred to the skit. In their film Who Done It? when their characters are trying to sort out watts and volts ("What are volts?" "That's right."), Lou cuts it short with, "Soon you'll be telling me What's on second base!" Also, at the beginning of their later film Mexican Hayride, when Costello catches up with Abbott, Costello says, "Who told me there was oil in my backyard? Who got me to sell phony stock to my friends? Who ran away with the money? Who got Mary mad at me? And if you're tired of hearing 'Who', I got a 'What' for you... on second base!"
  • Abbott and Costello also performed the routine with other partners. Sid Fields filled in for Abbott on a Walgreens anniversary radio special in 1945 when Bud was ill and was unable to perform. Fields also performed with Costello in Las Vegas in 1958 after Abbott and Costello split. Abbott did the routine with his new partner, Candy Candido, in 1961.
  • Late night television host Johnny Carson gave a memorable rendition showing President Ronald Reagan being briefed by an aide. Puns were made with the names of Chinese leader Hu Yaobang (who?), of Yasser Arafat (yes, sir) and of Interior Secretary James G. Watt (what?). In 2003, an updated version of the routine circulated on the Internet featuring George W. Bush, replacing Watt with Kofi Annan (coffee?), identifying the aide as Condoleezza Rice (with eggroll?), Yasser Arafat ("Yes, sir." "Yassir?") and replacing Hu Yaobang with Hu Jintao.
  • The comedy troupe The Credibility Gap did a rock group variation on this routine involving a promoter, played by Harry Shearer, and a newspaper advertising salesman, played by David L. Lander. The acts were The Who, The Guess Who and Yes.[8]
  • Shearer additionally plays off of the bit occasionally during his weekly radio broadcast Le Show; while imitating the voices of famous politicians having fictional conversations with each other about diplomatic visits to China, confusion ensues when discussing Chinese President Hu Jintao ("who?") and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ("when?").
  • A sketch in an episode of the Canadian TV series The Kids in the Hall features an attempt to stage the act, which is foiled by a straight man (Dave Foley) who is at first inattentive, and then outsmarts the joke by explaining, in tedious detail, why the other comedian was confused. ("No no, Watt is on—oh, I see what your problem is! Look, you're confused by their names, because they all sound like questions.")
  • In the 1988 film Rain Man, autistic protagonist Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman in an Academy Award-winning performance) repeatedly mumbles this routine when nervous or frightened.
  • In the Newbery Medal-winning book The Westing Game, the restaurant in Sunset Towers owned by James Shin Hoo and his family becomes more successful when its name is changed to Hoo's on First. Hoo's partner in the eponymous game suggests the name change, but he rejects it at first because he feels it would only make sense if the restaurant was on the first floor of the building, rather than the top floor. Eventually the business grows to be a chain of ten restaurants named sequentially, i.e. Hoo's on First through Hoo's on Tenth.
  • A sketch using video from the video game World of Warcraft reworks this classic, using tanks and paladins, and other World of Warcraft terms. It is called "Who's the Tank?". This WoW Machinima was created by Mike Davis and Mike Schroeder.
  • The sketch comedy show In Living Color parodied the popular skit. David Alan Grier and Damon Wayans played the Reverend Al Sharpton and the Minister Louis Farrakan respectively.
  • The comic strip Get Fuzzy did a variation that used a telephone switch board instead of bases ("Hu's on First")
  • A question the fictional Quiz show Up Your Ante in the HBO Series Oz was asked about the routine. Omar White says he hates baseball while Augustus Hill says he hates Abbott & Costello.
  • The US Acres episode "Who Done It?" from the show Garfield and Friends shows a variation of the "Who's on First" routine, with three dogs hired as farmhands named Who, What, and Where causing similar confusion among the main characters (especially Roy Rooster).
  • When Australian federal politicians Peter Costello and Tony Abbott sued Bob Ellis for allegations made about their sex lives in his book Goodbye Jerusalem, the Australian radio comedy drama How Green was my Cactus made a parody of the sketch using the comedians' voices, not the politicians. Abbott tries to explain to Costello that they've been called next ("I thought you were called "Abbott"?) to go before the Judge ("What time does he go?") to sue the book publisher ("Why do we have to go to her?").
  • In 2009 Mark Esslinger produced a three minute short film "Who's on First?" based on the routine. It starred Mark and his eight year old daughter Lana Esslinger in the Costello role. The film went on to win Best Family Short at the 2009 Garden State Film Festival. http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/11202b7737/who-s-on-first
  • Zach Weiner, in his comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, did a variation based on the Periodic table.[11] He also composed a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Theater Short parodying the same skit. [12]

Real-life parallelsEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Abbott and Costello in Hollywood ISBN 0-3995-1605-0
  2. "It's in the episode that opens with the question "What did the baggy pants-leg say to the other?"". Archive.org. http://www.archive.org/details/ItPaysToBeIgnorantOtr. Retrieved 2011-09-21. 
  3. This claim is made by Glickman's son. Glickman's obituary in Variety (23 March 1983) does not list the sketch among his credits.
  4. "Best of the Century" Time Magazine, Sunday, Dec. 26, 1999.
  5. "Abbott & Costello Fan Club: FAQ". Abbottandcostellofanclub.com. http://www.abbottandcostellofanclub.com/faq.html. Retrieved 2011-09-21. 
  6. http://www.archive.org/download/otr_abbottandcostello/Abbott_and_Costello_-_Whos_On_First_Original_30_Min_Live_Rad.mp3
  7. Neill, Brian. (November 1, 1993) St. Petersburg Times. Michael Musto, 76, writer, filmmaker Series: OBITUARIES Section: Tampa Bay and State; Page 5B.
  8. Robert Lloyd (1999-11-10). "Sketch Artists - Page 1 - Film+TV - Los Angeles". LA Weekly. http://www.laweekly.com/1999-11-18/film-tv/sketch-artists/. Retrieved 2011-09-21. 
  9. "SCTV: Midnight Express Special - Cast, Reviews, Summary, and Awards - AllRovi". Allmovie.com. 2011-09-08. http://www.allmovie.com/work/sctv-midnight-express-special-329627. Retrieved 2011-09-21. 
  10. now to post a comment! (2007-05-28). "Who's on Stage?". YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlXjIg4fH74. Retrieved 2011-09-21. 
  11. "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal". Smbc-comics.com. http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2349#comic. Retrieved 2011-09-21. 
  12. "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal". Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KcGNF0Is4U. 

External links Edit

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