Saturday, June 6, 2015

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: The Rest Cure and Others

"The Rest Cure" (aka "Crazy House")

I once heard that Willie and Eugene Howard originated the "Rest Cure" sketch (also known as "Crazy House").  Though their authorship is conceivable, I could find no evidence to confirm it.  In 1904, Dutch comedy duo Davey and Everson debuted an act called "A Crazy House," but there is no way to determine if this was the same routine.  In March, 1913, Gus Fay was featured in the "Rest Cure" routine at New York's Gayety theatre.  This is the earliest confirmed record of the routine.  At least three versions of the "Rest Cure" routine were being performed in New York theaters in 1927.  Versions were being presented by the Columbia and Mutual burlesque wheels and James Coughlan performed a third version at the 5th Avenue Theatre. 

"What makes a balloon go up?"
Costello: "What makes a balloon go up?"
Abbott: "Hot air."
Costello: "So what's holding you down?"
Abbott and Costello used this joke in a film (Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, 1945) and a television episode (The Abbott and Costello Show's "Getting a Job," 1953).  It was a simple, time-tested joke that had been popularized in vaudeville many years earlier by blackface comedians John Swor and Charles Mack. 

"Two Tens for a Five"

Abbott and Costello used the "two tens for a five" routine in their debut film, One Night in the Tropics (1940).  It was known at the time to be a vaudeville standard.  Unfortunately, though, I could find no clue as to its origins.  No newspaper record that I investigated contained the slightest suggestion of this delightfully silly business.  A joke that appeared in a 1895 edition of the San Jose Letter had to do with an old colonel being conned by a young man with this bit of fast talk.  We at least know that the routine had previously turned up in two early sound shorts, The Lunkhead (1929) and Hot Spot (1932).

"7 x 13 = 28"

African American comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles introduced the "7 x 13 = 28" math routine on the vaudeville circuit and later showcased the routine in a grocery store sketch in their 1921 Broadway play "Stumble Around."  They called it their "mulsifying and revision" bit.  M-G-M recorded the team performing the routine for the 1928 short film Jimtown Speakeasy

White actors Ches Davis and Emmett Miller donned blackface to recreate the routine for the minstrel show tribute Yes, Sir, Mr. Bones (1951).

The slow pace of the scene ruins the humor.  Percy Kilbride's drawl didn't help matters when the routine turned up again that same year in Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm.

It took Costello's nimble delivery to make this routine as funny as it could be.  

Miller and Lyles were true originals.  Let us take a look at the actual Flournoy Miller recreating one of his other popular routines, "Indefinite Talk," with Scatman Crothers.


The reviews of several burlesque revues refer to a stock cross-talk routine known as the "racetrack" routine.  In all likelihood, this is the "mudder/fodder" routine that became a favorite of Abbott and Costello fans.  A Variety critic credited Owen Martin and Ed Lee Wroethe as the originators of this comic banter.  The most extensive description of the "racetrack" routine was published in the New York Clipper on December 21, 1921.  It read as follows,
Ed Lee Wrothe and Owen Martin came next with a new act billed as 'Now.'  The story revolved around a race track and consisted of mostly track chatter.  The act all the way through was funny to a lot of the audience who understood it, and occasionally here and there a laugh was registered.  The act opened in front of a New York tenement.  Ed Wrothe, as a janitor whose wife had saved considerable money, put over some very good lines that registered strong on laughs.  Following this, the act goes into 'three' with a race track setting and Martin keeps up a rapid fire of talk in the language of the track.

"Buzzing the Bee"

Here is an excerpt from a Variety review dated November 9, 1917:
"The French Burlesquers" is the ostensible name of the current troupe, but Billy Grogan Spencer is featured over the title.  He is teamed with Nat Young, the latter doing a Hebrew.  They get laughs with rough stuff.  One of their stunts was called "buzzing the bee."  It consisted of one circling around the other, who when he says 'give it to me,' receives over his countenance a mouthful of water from the "buzzer."
A version of "Buzzin' the Bee" was included on Pigmeat Markham's 1968 album "Backstage."

"Who Dyed?"

Surprisingly, no newspaper record could be found of the "Who dyed" routine, which is now regarded as a burlesque classic.  The routine goes as follows:
Straight Man: "Where you working?"

Comic: "Market street cleaner and dyes."

Straight Man: "What do you do there?"

Comic: "I dye."

Straight Man: "You what?"

Comic: "I dye for a living.  If I don’t dye I can’t live."

Straight Man: "Are you sick?"

Comic: "No. You don’t have to be sick to dye."

"Silver or what?" and "Tell who?" 

The burlesque team Carson and Willard, who I mentioned earlier in this article series, specialized in wordplay routines.  They received an enthusiastic write up from the New York Clipper for delivering this type of patter in a 16-minute skit performed at the American Theatre in June, 1919.  What patter they originated and what patter they simply copied cannot be said.  All I can say is that the comic business that was mentioned in this particular review later became enshrined in the formidable gag catalog of Abbott and Costello, whose exceptional talents allowed them to corner the market on this type of humor.

Carson and Willard's exchange about silver ore later turned up in Abbott and Costello's Mexican Hayride (1948).  The scene starts out with Abbott admiring a piece of jewelry.
Abbott: "Just think when it comes out of the ground, it is nothing but crude hunks of silver ore." 

Costello: "Silver or what?"

Abbott: "Silver ore!  It's been lying in the ground for thousands of years.  When they dig it up, they smelt it." 

Costello: "If it's a thousand years old, no wonder they smelt it."
Another of Carson and Willard's favored wordplay routines turned up later in Abbott and Costello's Hit the Ice (1943).
Abbott: "Teller!"

Costello: "Tell who?"

Abbott: "Teller in the bank."

Costello: "Tell who in the bank?"

Abbott:  "Listen, stupid, I want a teller in the bank!"

Costello: "Well, go ahead and tell her!  Who's stopping you?"


A Variety critic came across a "pick-a-number" routine at the Olympic Theatre in February, 1922.  He wrote, "[Clyde] Bates and [Harry] Jines as the two come-ons try and pick a number which the straight man bets he can discover.  It's an old bit but was well handled and registered."

Additional note

I did follow one false lead in my research on "The Rest Cure."  A lunatic asylum was the setting of a popular sketch called "Pompey's Patients," which was performed in minstrel shows in the 1800s.  The sketch had reportedly changed little when it was later transferred to vaudeville under the name "Lunatic Asylum."  Someone dug the old script out of an attic for a show at San Francisco's National Theatre in August, 1907.  Variety reported, "The Lunatic Asylum is old enough to be new, and was strange to a major portion of the audience." 

I have a vague idea of the skit's premise based on assorted comments that I picked up here and there in newspaper accounts.  Though I was unable to confirm the exact and complete content of the act, I do not believe that it is the same act as "The Rest Cure."  If I understand it correctly, this act had to do with a young man visiting an insane asylum to obtain the director's consent to marry his daughter.  Through a series of misunderstandings, the asylum director mistakes the young man for a patient and the young man mistakes the asylum director for a patient.

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