Who's on First?
"Who's on First?" is a comedy routine made famous by Abbott and Costello. The premise of the sketch is that Abbott is identifying the players on a baseball team for Costello, but their names and nicknames can be interpreted as non-responsive answers to Costello's questions. For example, the first baseman is named "Who"; thus, the utterance "Who's on first" is ambiguous between the question ("Which person is the first baseman?") and the answer ("The name of the first baseman is 'Who'").
"Who's on First?" is descended from turn-of-the-century burlesque sketches that used plays on words and names. Examples are "The Baker Scene" (the shop is located on Watt Street) and "Who Dyed" (the owner is named "Who"). In the 1930 movie Cracked Nuts, comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey examine a map of a mythical kingdom with dialogue like this: "What is next to Which." "What is the name of the town next to Which?" "Yes." In English music halls (England's equivalent of vaudeville theatres), comedian Will Hay performed a routine in the early 1930s (and possibly earlier) as a schoolmaster interviewing a schoolboy named Howe who came from Ware but now lives in Wye. By the early 1930s, a "Baseball Routine" had become a standard bit for burlesque comics across the United States. Abbott's wife recalled him performing the routine with another comedian before teaming with Costello.
Bud Abbott stated that it was taken from an older routine called "Who's The Boss?", a performance of which can be heard in an episode of the radio comedy program It Pays to Be Ignorant from the 1940s. After they formally teamed up in burlesque in 1936, he and Costello continued to hone the sketch. It was a big hit in 1937, when they performed the routine in a touring vaudeville revue called "Hollywood Bandwagon".
In February 1938, Abbott and Costello joined the cast of The Kate Smith Hour radio program, and the sketch was first performed for a national radio audience that March. The routine may have been further polished before this broadcast by burlesque producer John Grant, who became the team's writer, and Will Glickman, a staff writer on the radio show. Glickman may have added the nicknames of then-contemporary baseball players like Dizzy and Daffy Dean to set up the routine's premise. This version, with extensive wordplay based on the fact that most of the fictional baseball team's players had "strange nicknames" that seemed to be questions, became known as "Who's on First?" Some versions continue with references to Enos Slaughter, which Costello misunderstands as "He knows" Slaughter. By 1944, Abbott and Costello had the routine copyrighted.
Abbott and Costello performed "Who's on First?" numerous times in their careers, rarely performing it exactly the same way twice. They did the routine for President Franklin Roosevelt several times. An abridged version was featured in the team's 1940 film debut, One Night in the Tropics. The duo reprised the bit in their 1945 film The Naughty Nineties, and it is that longer version which is considered their finest recorded rendition.[a] They also performed "Who's on First?" numerous times on radio and television (notably in The Abbott and Costello Show episode "The Actor's Home", widely considered the definitive version).
In 1956, a gold record of "Who's on First?" was placed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. A video (taken from The Naughty Nineties) now plays continuously on screens at the Hall.
In the 1970s, Selchow and Righter published a "Who's on First?" board game.
The names given in the routine for the players at each position are:
- First base: Who
- Second base: What
- Third base: I Don't Know
- Left field: Why
- Center field: Because
- Pitcher: Tomorrow
- Catcher: Today
- Shortstop: I Don't Give a Darn
At one point in the routine, Costello thinks that the first baseman is named Naturally:
Abbott: You throw the ball to first base.
Costello: Then who gets it?
Abbott: Now you've got it.
Costello: I throw the ball to Naturally.
Abbott: You don't! You throw it to Who!
Abbott: Well, that's it—say it that way.
Costello: That's what I said.
Abbott: You did not.
Costello: I said I throw the ball to Naturally.
Abbott: You don't! You throw it to Who!
Abbott's explanations leave Costello hopelessly confused and infuriated, until the end of the routine when Costello finally appears to catch on.
Costello: Now I throw the ball to first base, whoever it is drops the ball, so the guy runs to second. Who picks up the ball and throws it to What. What throws it to I Don't Know. I Don't Know throws it back to Tomorrow—a triple play.
Abbott: Yeah, it could be.
Costello: Another guy gets up and it's a long fly ball to Because. Why? I don't know. He's on third, and I don't give a darn!
Abbott: What was that?
Costello: I said, I DON'T GIVE A DARN!
Abbott: Oh, that's our shortstop!
That is the most commonly heard ending. "I Don't Care" and "I Don't Give a Damn" have also turned up on occasion, depending on the perceived sensibilities of the audience.
The skit was usually performed on the team's radio series at the start of the baseball season. In one instance it serves as a climax for a broadcast which begins with Costello receiving a telegram from Joe DiMaggio asking Costello to take over for him due to his injury. (In this case, the unidentified right fielder would have been Costello himself. While Joe DiMaggio was best known as a center fielder, when Abbott and Costello honed the sketch in 1936-7, Joe DiMaggio had played a number of games at right field (20 in 1936).)
Numerous people over the years have claimed credit for writing the sketch, but such claims typically lack reasonable corroboration. For example, in a 1993 obituary of comedy sketch writer Michael J. Musto, it stated that shortly after Abbott and Costello teamed up, they paid Musto $15 to write the script. Furthermore, several 1996 obituaries of songwriter Irving Gordon mention that he had written the sketch.
Notable performances and derivatives
The sketch has been reprised, updated, alluded to, and parodied innumerable times over the years in all forms of media. Some notable examples include:
- The comedy troupe The Credibility Gap did a rock group variation on this routine involving a promoter, played by Harry Shearer, and a newspaper advertising salesman, played by David L. Lander, confusing the night's acts as proper nouns. The acts were The Who, The Guess Who and Yes.
- Eugene Levy and Tony Rosato performed a variation on this theme on the TV series SCTV, with the rock groups The Band, The Who, and Yes. The final punchline changed to "This is for the birds (The Byrds)!" "Ah, they broke up long ago!"
- In an episode of Animaniacs, Slappy and Skippy Squirrel attend the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where they pay homage to the routine. As with the SCTV version, Slappy confuses The Who, The Band, and Yes for proper nouns.
- An episode of Garfield and Friends includes a U.S. Acres cartoon featuring three dogs named Who, What and Where. Roy and Wade try desperately to know the dogs' names in an homage to the "Who's on First?" routine. At the end of the cartoon, they say Why is the name of their sister and Forget It is the name of their uncle.
- In an episode of The Simpsons, Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner attempt to perform the routine, but Chalmers gives up after Skinner says his first line: "Not the pronoun, but rather a player with the unlikely name of 'Who' is on first."
- The popular TV show How I Met Your Mother adapted the routine for a sixth season episode titled "Hopeless" where the group is trying to decide which night club to go to. However, the names of the clubs, such as "Was", "Where", "Lame", etc. lead to nothing but confusion. The skit references the Abbott and Costello routine when the oldest character, played by John Lithgow, blurts out, "I don't know. Third base!"
- In a 2012 edition of NBC 's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the host, joined by fellow comedians Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld, performed a "sequel" to the Abbott and Costello bit, shown in black-and-white. In the routine, Crystal plays "Who," while Seinfeld portrays "I Don't Know."
- In Season One (1989-1990), Episode 10 of The Kids in The Hall television program, David Foley and Kevin McDonald play two vaudevillians (named McGillicutty and Green) who attempt to perform the "Who's on First" sketch; however, Green (Foley's character) ruins the routine when he immediately realizes the confusion and proceeds to laboriously explain the joke, much to McGillicutty's dismay.
- Dustin Hoffman's character in the 1988 film Rain Man, who is an autistic savant, recites the entire "Who's on First" routine from memory believing it to be an actual puzzle that is meant to be solved.
- In 2008 Mike Schroeder made a World of Warcraft-themed "Who's on First" parody called "Who's the tank?" mimicking a raid group line up with the silly names with Who being the tank, What the mage, and I Don't Know the priest.
- In 2002 playwright Jim Sherman wrote a variation called "Hu's on First" featuring George W. Bush being confused when Condoleezza Rice tells him that the new leader of China is named Hu, pronounced similarly to the word "Who". Bush also misunderstands Rice's references to Yassir Arafat ("yes, sir") and Kofi Annan ("coffee").
- Two decades before Sherman's version, a similar routine was played on The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson as President Ronald Reagan growing increasingly confused in a meeting with his Chief of Staff, James Baker. In addition to Hu and Yassir, James G. Watt ("What?") is referenced, and the YMCA ("Why?").
- In an episode of Family Guy, a conversation between Chris and Stewie cuts away to a scene with Costello doing the routine with an owl that repeatedly says "Who" (reference to the similarity in sound of an owl's hoot to saying the word "who"). They are referred to as "Owl and Costello."
- A 2014 Pearls Before Swine comic strip also did a rock group variation which got more than 2,700,000 views and 27,000 shares in two days.
- A scene in Rush Hour 3 depicts "Who's on First," changing the words to the Chinese "Yu" and "Mi" which Carter mistakes for the English words "You" and "Me" causing confusion between the two people.
- Comedians Jay Leibowitz and David Foubert wrote and performed a Shakespearean version of "Who's on First" called "Who Doth Inhabit the Primary Position".
- In the Season 5 episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, "Tanks For The Memories", the skit is referenced by three pegasi.
- In the eleventh episode of the first season of BoJack Horseman, there was a character named Dr. Allen Hu (Who) and BoJack thought it was Doctor Who because Sarah Lynn explains that she first met him at a Halloween party. When BoJack tries to explain that he thought it was Who, no one in the room knew Doctor Who. At the end, the original skit is referred to by Sarah Lynn saying "third base" after Todd says "I don't know".
- In the claymation TV series The PJs, Thurgood and Smokey play a policeman and a crack addict as part of a comedy act entitled "Who's on Crack?", where Thurgood would try to find out the street names of the neighborhood's drug addicts.
- The videogame Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes has a module named "Who's on First", where players must press specific buttons labeled with similarly confusing words.
- During the 2015 Canadian federal election, Bonnie Hu, the Libertarian candidate in South Surrey—White Rock, joked "Remember: Hu's on first, Watts' on second!" in reference to Dianne Watts, the Conservative candidate.
- The biography of Lou Costello written by his daughter Chris is titled Lou's on First.
- On October 3, 1920, Allie Watt played one game at second base for the Washington Senators so that, for a brief time, 'What's on second'.
- In September 2007, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Chin-Lung Hu, a late-season callup from Albuquerque, got his first major league hit against the Arizona Diamondbacks; upon stopping at first base, Dodgers announcer Vin Scully proclaimed "Shades of Abbott and Costello, I can finally say Hu is on first base".
- Propositional attitude
- Four Candles, a sketch from the British sketch comedy program The Two Ronnies with a similar premise involving misinterpreted phrases.
- On the recording, one can hear muffled laughter in the background coming from the film crew, who are trying, but failing, not to crack up during the taping. After several takes, director Jean Yarbrough decided that it was a hopeless task to get them to stop laughing, so on the last take he left the laughter in.
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- This claim is made by Glickman's son. Glickman's obituary in Variety (March 23, 1983) does not list the sketch among his credits.
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- Neill, Brian (November 1, 1993). "Michael Musto, 76, writer, filmmaker Series". Obituaries. St. Petersburg Times. p. 5B – via ProQuest.
- "Irving Gordon". Encyclopedia Britannica. 1911.
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- "Ragamuffins / Woodstock Slappy". Animaniacs. Episode 59. March 1, 1994.
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- Fallon, Jimmy; Higgins, Steve; Crystal, Billy; Seinfeld, Jerry (December 20, 2012). "Who's On First?: The Sequel". Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Retrieved January 26, 2014 – via YouTube.
- "McGuillicutty and Green". The Kids in the Hall – via YouTube.
- "World of Warcraft: Who's the Tank?". YouTube. Nov 25, 2008. Retrieved Nov 25, 2008.
- "Hey George, Hu is the new leader of China". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 5, 2014.
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- "Laugh Tracks: Hot Pearls! Buy It Here!" (Facebook post). Retrieved October 22, 2014.
- Hu, Bonnie. "Remember: Hu's on first, Watts' on second!". Facebook. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
- Costello, Chris (1982). Lou's on First. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0312499140.
- "Allie Watt Statistics and History". Baseball-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC.
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