Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: "Who's On First?" part 1

Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine can be traced back to an old vaudeville routine called "Watt Street," which was also known as "Who's the Boss?" and "The Baker Scene." Theatre critics of the day credited Weber and Fields as the originators of the routine.

Joe Weber and Lew Fields
The sort of act in which a play on words caused the comic to misunderstand what the straight man was saying came to be commonly known as a crosstalk or a cross-fire routine.  Much of the humor of the routine came from the rapid-fire delivery of the comedians.  The faster the delivery, the more the audience laughed.

Clarence Kolb and Max Dill

Weber and Fields' principal rivals, Clarence Kolb and Max Dill, also used the "Watt Street" routine as part of their act.  In January, 1908, Variety's Sime Silverman admitted to being bored to hear Kolb and Dill perform the "Watt Street" routine in their "Lonesome Town" show.  He suggested that it was time to do away with the routine because, since its debut years earlier, "hundreds did the same thing until it became so well known and monotonous ushers had to wake the audience up."

But Silverman was tired of lots of vaudeville comedy.  He complained bitterly of the "passé dialogue and obsolete knockabout."  He wrote, "Some years ago before Weber and Fields made New York believe they were funny Mr. Fields had a playful habit of kicking Mr. Weber in the stomach - or where his stomach would have been had not Weber inserted a pillow.  With every kick came a roar, and if Mr. Weber was being propelled a sufficiently long distance backwards before falling it brought a couple of roars.  It was known as 'knockabout,' an obsolete form of amusement, adopted by many in the days of long ago and now left only to the entertainment at the customary 'concert' after a circus performance."  From today's perspective, the idea of knockabout humor being declared obsolete in 1908 is ludicrous.  No matter how often Silverman and other theatre critics expressed boredom with the overly familiar "Watt Street" routine, it had no effect at all on the general public.  The complaints of theatre critics was not about to make this well-liked routine go away.  The "Watt Street" routine, with little or no change, would maintain a dominant presence in vaudeville and burlesque shows for another thirty years.

Weber wears his padded stomach proudly.

Al Raymond and Frank Caverly performed a popular rendition of the "Watt Street" routine for many years.  Their performance of the routine was singled out in reviews of their act from 1908 to 1913.


George M. Carson and Jacob Willard, German comedians who dressed in standard frock coats and high hats, performed the "Watt Street" routine at the Columbia theatre in March, 1914.  A Variety critic found that they brought a "new twist" to the routine that prevented the audience from being "bored to death."

Other funny names and expressions caused wordplay confusion in comedy acts.  In April, 1912, Ted and Clara Steele introduced their own variation on the "Watt Street" routine.  A Variety critic wrote, "A portion of the cross-fire is built around the phrase 'Is it?' similar to Watt street."  In September, 1915, George Richards and William Armstrong initiated a play on words talking about a man named "Goodbye."  The critic described the routine as being "something a little worse than 'Watt street.'"  Jack Mundy introduced a variation of the "Watt Street" routine in his act "The Speeders" in January, 1923.  This time, the funny name was "Hugo Tugh," which was repeatedly mistaken for the phrase "You go, too." 

In February, 1924, Bert Bertrand and Jimmy Walters essayed the "Watt Street" routine as part of a show called "Wine, Women and Song," which was staged for the Columbia circuit.

In April, 1925, Weber and Fields performed the "Watt Street" routine at the Palace Theater as part of their "Reminiscences" show.  A Variety critic wrote, "[A]fter having seen the Weber and Fields material butchered, beaten and bruised by hundreds during 25 years or more, from turkey burlesque shows to Broadway productions, it still is fresh and new and as funny as ever as these two incomparables do it."  The critic believed that, when it came to other renditions of the routine, the "lifters. . . died before they [even] started."

Harry Lang and Bernice Haley were successful with a version of the "Watt Street" routine.
Haley: "What's his name?"

Lang: "That's it."

Haley: "Well, what is it?"

Lang: "That's it. . .Watt."
Their rendition received such an enthusiastic reaction from crowds that Warner Brothers recorded the team performing the routine for the Vitaphone short Who's Who? (1930).  Lang later performed the routine opposite Billy Gilbert for a highly publicized show at the Paramount theatre in May, 1939.

Jack Mather as The Cisco Kid and Harry Lang as Pancho record The Cisco Kid Radio Show.

Additional notes

The aforementioned Raymond and Caverly headlined vaudeville bills for more than 30 years.  The team was never able to establish themselves in the film industry despite repeated attempts.  Powers Picture Plays featured the team in a 1914 short Adventures of Limburger and Schweitzer and Paramount featured the team in a 1930 short Confounded Interest.

Not everyone today sees humor in the old cross-talk routines.  Here is a sketch in which Kids and Hall emphasize the illogic of routines like "Who's On First?" and "Two Tens for a Five."

In closing, let us get a glimpse at Weber and Fields in action.

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