Thursday, August 27, 2015
Comedy Routine of the Day: "Jonah and Whale"
An old routine was never the same once it found its way to Abbott and Costello. Abbott and Costello refashioned routines to accommodate their unique performing style and they managed in the process to make a routine funnier than it had ever been before.
Take, for instance, the "Jonah and Whale" bit. This is one of my favorite Abbott and Costello routines. I have wanted so badly to learn where this sad and silly banter came from, but its origins have long remained elusive to me. But, finally, I came across a script of "Jonah and a Whale" that predated the Abbott and Costello version. The script is part of Greg Rouleau Papers, which have been archived at the Wisconsin Historical Society. It isn't called "Jonah and the Whale" because the story doesn't have a Captain Jonah. It does have a captain, but our seafaring hero is referred to simply as "the captain." As it turns out, this bit was originally an ethnic joke designed to be delivered by a monologist. Unlike the Abbott and Costello version, the humor did not derive from a straight man repeatedly interrupting the comic. There was no talk of crab apples, or a jack-knife dive, or the Immaterial Ocean.
The story, itself, is pretty much the same. A large whale is following a ship. The ship's captain sees this as a bad omen and wants to frighten away the whale. The script reads, "[The captain] grabbed a three legged stool and threw it at the whale, who immediately swallowed it, but kept following the ship." The captain now realizes that the whale is hungry. He orders the crew to toss overboard an entire case of oranges and a large bunch of bananas. The whale swallows the oranges and bananas, but the creature is obviously still hungry because it continues to swim vigorously after the ship. The captain decides that they must throw a live man overboard to satisfy the whale's appetite and be saved. Because no crew member is willing to sacrifice their life, the captain orders the men to draw lots. It is a Greek sailor who draws the unlucky lot and must be fed to the whale. But even this generous meal doesn't stop the whale, forcing the crew to engage in a bitter battle with the creature. In the end, the whale is killed with a harpoon and its corpse is hauled on board the ship. The crew cuts open the whale. The joke ends as follows: "What do you think. There was that Greek seated on the three legged stool trying to sell the oranges and bananas, three for five cents."
I have long been aware of the ethnic stereotype of the Italian fruit seller, but this joke appears to capitalize on a stereotype of a Greek fruit seller.
It is an appealing joke, but perhaps it takes too long to get to the punchline. How do you solve this problem and, at the same time, adapt the joke to a double act? Abbott and Costello found a way around both problems perfectly.