Friday, February 17, 2012

"Who's on First?": A Classic Routine that Stands Alone

It is unfair to say that Abbott & Costello forged a career in radio, film and television simply by recycling old burlesque routines.  The team had a unique way of working with established material that is worth examination.

The comic pair acquired their most famous routine, "Who's on First?", from an early burlesque routine called "The Baker Scene."  Here is an excerpt from the routine: 

Comic: I'd like to get a job in that bakery. Who's the boss?
Straight Man: Yes.
Comic: That's what I'm asking. Who's the boss?
SM: Yes.
C: Who's the guy you're working for?
SM: Exactly.
C: I'm asking you for the last time, what's the name of your boss?
SM: No, Watt's the name of the street.

No recorded version of the routine is known to exist, but a variation of the routine in which the bakery has been replaced with a candy factory can be found on a 1946 recording of the "It Pays to Be Ignorant" radio show.

Abbott said that, before he teamed with Costello, his repertoire included a version of "The Baker Scene" called "Who's the Boss?". Clearly, Abbott and Costello exploited the basic premise of "The Baker Scene" to create something that was far more elaborate and funnier than the original routine.  It worked to their advantage to jettison an ample part of the routine that dealt with the bakery term "loafing," the double meaning of which served to further complicate the wordplay, and keep the chatter focused on Costello's confusion and frustration over the odd names presented to him by Abbott.    The pair later adapted the excised "loafing" dialogue into a separate routine.

It is perhaps more important than anything else that, by adopting the baseball theme, the team succeeded into making the routine highly appealing to the American public.  A fellow named Who waiting to tag out a runner on first base is more intriguing than a fellow named Who kneading dough in the back of a bakery.

The writing credit for "Who's on First?" is generally given to Abbott & Costello's longtime head writer John Grant, but authorship of the routine has fallen into controversy in recent decades. The controversy is discussed at length on John Thorn's "Our Game" blog.

Grant proved again and again that he could work wonders in adapting old routines for Bud and Lou.  His work speaks for itself and it seems a waste of time to consider the insubstantial claims of pretenders.  Of course, one cannot deny the invaluable contributions that Abbott & Costello themselves made to the routines.  The duo managed, in their own inimitable way, to take the hoariest of routines and make them fresh and lively for all time.

The Chills and Tickles of Mannequin Abuse

A thin line separates comedy and horror, both of which provide events that are surprising, audacious and surreal.  In silent films, comedians often managed in their violent abuse of mannequins to dislocate mannequin parts.  They might yank off an arm, tear loose a leg, or pop off a head. Their abuse knew no bounds. They might toss a mannequin out of a window, run it over with a car, or throttle it with all their might. A mannequin is treated no differently in this creepy scene from Luis Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), a psychological study of a would-be serial killer.

The Leaf Blower as a New Comic Tool

A longstanding routine that involved a comedian being unable to control an overly powerful vacuum cleaner has been replaced in recent years by a comedian being unable to control an overly powerful leaf blower.


The outrageous gags of classic comedy, which have no place in the more mundane world of modern sitcoms, maintain a home on television in cartoons and commercials.  Although exceptions can  turn up at unusual times in television and movies.  Larry Semon once made himself look neat and efficient eating an unruly pile of spaghetti through the use of  camera tricks.  Another time, he used reverse photography to show Jimmy Aubrey effortlessly pouring beer into a mug even though Aubrey was, at the time, holding the bottle and mug at least two feet apart.  Similar to Semon's food tricks was a gag featured in Chronicle (2012) in which a young man eats Pringles through the use of telekinesis. 

I write in The Funny Parts about "animal rampage" comedies.  A scene from Fox's new animated Napoleon Dynamite series delivers all of the essential elements of a classic "animal rampage" comedy.

Dessert and Schizophrenia

Does this strange scene from Fringe remind you of an old comedy routine?

As two alternate dimensions are being overlaid due to the meddling of a diabolical scientist, the diner owner finds his brain being occupied by multiple consciousnesses. This type of situation would not have been out of the ordinary for Lou Costello, who often fell victim to people behaving in a schizophrenic manner.  However, the following diner scene from Keep 'Em Flying (1941) provides a logical explanation for the contradictory actions of the server - Costello is in fact dealing with twins.

Breezy Homage

The influence of Buster Keaton can easily be found in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, an animated short that has been nominated this year for an Academy Award.  Here is a clip:

Citizen Kane Loses His Pants

It happens at times that a prestigious dramatic actor will endeavor to pass from tragedy to comedy by applying his skills to a tried-and-true routine.  Below, Errol Flynn performs the mirror routine in Never Say Goodbye (1946).

Orson Welles performs the man-loses-his-pants-at-party routine in Three Cases Of Murder (1955).

High-Rise Comedy Lives On

The climax of Tower Heist (2011) features Matthew Broderick dangling from a car suspended by ropes over the side of a skyscraper.  This scene generally recalls the "high and dizzy" climaxes of many classic comedies, but it specifically recalls the climax of a 1926 Lloyd Hamilton comedy called Careful Please.

Reviews of "The Funny Parts"

Few things in life bring me greater pleasure than favorable notice of my work.  I am grateful for the following reviews of The Funny Parts, the first written by David Kalat for TCM's Movie Morlocks and the second written by Jordan Young for the Los Angeles Examiner.

Mr. Kalat provides his own astute commentary (complete with clips) on a darkly funny routine involving a false leg, which underwent development while being traded back and forth between Harry Langdon and Charley Chase.