Saturday, April 10, 2010

Abbott and Costello: Who's on first?

When the trial of Australian Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu was about to start, someone wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald letters section pointing out that there were 3 co-accused to face trial as well but that Hu was on first.

This reminded me of an item from the email days of Bytes, which I reprint below:


Some years ago I tried to convince my kids that movies borrowed from the local video store did not need to be new releases to be good. If my memory serves me correct, as the narrator says on The Iron Chef, my kids were not convinced, at least not at that time. I believe that with added years they have come to accept that new releases can be crap and that oldies can be goodies.

Because Lou Costello (the short fat one of the two) was born on 6 March 1906 and died on 3 March 1959, ie 104 and 51 years ago almost to this date, today’s Bytes Movies is a dedication to Abbott and Costello’s most memorable routine, the classic Who’s On First sketch.

The youngsters of today will not have heard of it, much less seen it, unless they are aware that Dustin Hoffman as the autistic savant in Rain Man keeps muttering it.

It is a masterpiece of timing and I defy anyone to watch it today, sixty years later, and still not laugh.

Try it yourself…


See the skit by clicking on the following link:


- The Abbott and Costello routine evolved from turn of the century burlesque skits that used plays on words, often having unusual peoples’ names or place names to cause confusion. In 1930, for instance, comedian Will Hay performed a skit where he was a schoolmaster interviewing a schoolboy named Howe who came from Ware but now lives in Wye.

- Bud Abbott and Lou Costello worked in vaudeville separately but teamed up as a double act with Abbott as straight man in 1936, thereafter performing in burlesque shows, minstrel shows, vaudeville and movie houses.

- The Who’s on First sketch was a hit when they performed it in a touring vaudeville show called Hollywood Band Wagon. They continued to refine and hone it, focusing on the “strange nicknames” of the persons on the team, eventually patenting the routine in 1944.

- They never performed the sketch the same way twice.

- It was included in their film debut, A Night in the Tropics, in 1940 but the better version was featured in the 1945 flick The Naughty Nineties. The clip given above is from that movie.

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

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

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

- An updated version featuring George W Bush was widely circulated on the internet. See it at:

- On The Simpsons in a 1999 episode Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner try their hand at being Abbott and Costello, but Skinner botches the routine six seconds into the act by saying "Not the pronoun but a player with the unlikely name of Who, is on first", frustrating Chalmers and bringing the act to a quick end.

The later years:

After enjoying great success in the 1940’s, Abbott and Costello split up in 1957. Their popularity had waned in the 1950’s and their relationship had been tense for many years, partly by the 60%-40% split of income in favour of Abbott (the straight man was apparently always considered the more valuable), partly by Abbott’s problems with alcohol and party by Abbott having top billing.

Costello died in 1959.

Both had tax problems which forced the sale of all their assets. Both were heavy gamblers.

Abbott suffered from epilepsy for the whole of his life. In the 1960’s he suffered strokes and in 1972 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, dying of it in 1974 aged 78.

So that’s it, folks. I’m off, I’m getting a new hat from the Susquehanna Hat Company… oops, sorry, that’s their other famous routine.


  1. My belief is that is their split up was primarily caused by Abbott, who was 10 years older, refusing to work more due to declining health.

    The 60-40% salary split was allegedly reversed after their first hit movie (As was Costello's request for top billing which Paramount rejected.) These quarrels occurred too early in their careers to have been responsible for the break-up.

    Since Costerllo's solo efforts bombed and Abbott soon ran out of money, it is almost a certainty that they would have re-united had Costello lived.

  2. A great partnership and two men whose comic legend was famous and fun. Bud was the nice guy of the two, whilst sadly Lou had faults with heavy gambling being one [Lou had bookies runners come to the film sets each day to collect cash and more bets most of which lost] Lou was certainly the star of the two comedians show and wanted more money for that reason. He made the fatal error of requesting from Bud a 75% / 25% split, giving Bud no other option but to walk. Both men neglected their tax affairs and ran up personal debts which they took lightly by assuming that the next film they starred in would make them rich again. I feel sorry for Lou's family who inherited nothing from his once wealthy estate. Ignoring this aspect of both men's lives; it needs to be said I'm proud to have lived in the same era, to have had the chance to see two fine men having fun, and am one of the 20 million or so kids bothered by shyness and wariness who Lou helped to cure. God bless these fine two American entertainers.


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