page-header-img

Comedy Classics: “Who’s on First”

Comedy Classics “Who’s on First”

Every now and then, a comedic routine seems to take on a life of its own, becoming so popular that it is fondly remembered through the ages. There is perhaps no routine that fits this description quite as well as Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First.” Whether you are a frequent guest of Montreal comedy clubs or only have a passing knowledge of stand-up comedy, you’ve likely heard this routine. Thus, we at Comedyville Comedy Club wanted to take a look at the history of this Abbott & Costello classic that was named the Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th Century by Time magazine.

Who Were Abbott & Costello?

Abbott & Costello were a very popular American comedy duo. The pair, comprised of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, first began working together in New York City in the 1930s. They developed a number of sketches for the popular burlesque shows on vaudeville. Abbott played a typical person while Costello portrayed a dumb and often emotional person.

The team expanded their act to radio by the end of the 1930s, having their own show that began in 1940. With their voices sounding too similar, Costello changed his voice to one with a higher pitch for performances so they could be distinguished on radio shows. They debuted their “Who’s on First” routine for the first time shortly after their show launched.

Over the ensuring years, the duo quickly rose in popularity. Abbott & Costello had a 22 year career which included appearing on Broadway, radio, movies, and television. Together, the pair made 38 movies; however, their greatest comedic legacy is the “Who’s on First” routine.

Comedy Classics: “Who’s on First”

Abbott and Costello performing
“Who’s on First?”
(Public Domain)

What Was “Who’s on First” About?

“Who’s on First” was a routine that took advantage of the use of homophones and complexities within the English language to create a confusing situation. This was similar to many of the pair’s acts, which often used puns and wordplay to draw laughs.

In this baseball-themed skit, Abbott attempts to tell Costello about the starting lineup, including a first baseman, second baseman, and third baseman whose names were “Who,” “What,” and “I Don’t Know” respectively. Throughout the bit, other players are introduced who have names like “Because,” “Why,” “Tomorrow,” and “Today.”

Costello, portraying the fool, misses this point and proceeds to spend the rest of the routine inquiring about the names of the players. This ensues in a fast-paced back-and-forth between the comics. Costello’s questions to Abbott invariably generate confusing responses. For example,

Costello: “Who’s on First?”
Abbott: “Yes”
Costello: “I mean the guy’s name.”
Abbott: “Who.”
Costello: “The guy at first base.”
Abbott: “Who’s on first!”
Costello: “Why are you asking me?”

The sketch goes on for roughly eight minutes, with Costello getting increasingly angry and frustrated with the responses while Abbott stays cool and factual. However, neither are ever to overcome the communication gap. The sketch typically ends with Costello losing his patience, and shouting, “I Don’t Care,” causing Abbott to reply, “Oh, that’s our shortstop.”

While the sketch was rehearsed, it was often improvised with the two playing off of one another resulting in the exact same sketch rarely being delivered twice.



Why Is It Significant for Stand-up Comedy?

The “Who’s on First” routine is an incredibly funny bit of comedy, generating nearly constant laughs over the course of it. Its popularity is certainly due not only to the numerous turns of phrase within but also to the excellent chemistry because the characters played by Abbott & Costello.

As a whole, the routine is quite complex, yet the pair pull it off flawlessly. It requires strong delivery, impeccable timing, and the ability to improvise as needed. It was loved by many people at the time, including United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who invited the duo to perform it for him on multiple occasions.

It is also frequently replicated or referenced in popular culture. Eugene Levy and Tony Rosato performed a variation of the act on SCTV featuring a misunderstanding about the names of rock groups such as “The Who,” and “Yes.” Johnny Carons also performed a spoof of it, playing the character of then-U.S. President Reagan and using names of foreign dignitaries.

There are far too many adaptations and references to mention over the years, but you can see the act referenced in shows and movies such as The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy, The Kids in the Hall, Bojack Horseman, and even the children’s show My Little Pony.

If you love comedy classics, you are sure to love the comics that take the stage at Comedyville Montreal where we proudly host the best comedy shows in English in the city. We would love to have you as a guest at an upcoming show.

 

Post by Eddie Case, exclusively for Comedyville.com, All rights reserved.
Comedyville is a Comedy Club located in Downtown Montreal. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *