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 British music halls, 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 the fall of 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 on March 24 of that year. 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:
|Third base||I Don't Know|
|Shortstop||I Don't Give a Darn! or I Don't Care!|
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 appears to parody Abbott by saying what appears to be gibberish to him, accidentally getting it right:
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 1936–37, Joe DiMaggio had played a number of games at right field (20 in 1936).)
Writing credits for the sketch are unknown though, over the years, numerous people have claimed or been given credit for it. Such claims typically lack reasonable corroboration. For example, a 1993 obituary of comedy sketch writer Michael J. Musto states 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.
Copyright infringement case
In 2015 the heirs of Abbott and Costello filed a federal copyright infringement lawsuit in the Southern District of New York claiming unauthorized use of over a minute of the comedy routine in the play Hand to God. The lawsuit was filed against the playwright Robert Askins, the producers and the promoters. The defense claimed that the underlying "Who's On First?" routine was in the public domain because the original authors, Abbott and Costello, were not the ones who filed a copyright renewal, but the court did not see the need to make a final determination on that. The court ruled against the heirs, saying that the use by the play was transformative fair use. The heirs appealed, eventually to the US Supreme Court, which, in 2017, declined to review the case.
Notable performances and derivatives
The sketch has been reprised, updated, alluded to, and parodied innumerable times over the decades 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.
- Johnny Carson's spoof of then-president Ronald Reagan preparing for a press briefing included "Hu is on the phone", a reference to fictional Chinese leader Chung Dong Hu.
- In the 1988 film Rain Man, the film's titular character played by actor Dustin Hoffman begins to nervously repeat the skit when his brother Charlie, played by actor Tom Cruise, makes him anxious by meddling with his personal effects.
- 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 the Animaniacs segment "Woodstock Slappy", Slappy and Skippy Squirrel attend the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where they pay homage to the routine. Similar to the SCTV version, Slappy confuses The Who, The Band, and Yes for proper nouns.
- In The Simpsons episode "Marge Simpson in: "Screaming Yellow Honkers"", Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner attempt to perform the routine, but Chalmers gives up after Skinner explains the joke with his first line: "Not the pronoun, but rather a player with the unlikely name of 'Who' is on first."
- 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").
- The biography of Lou Costello written by his daughter Chris is titled Lou's on First.
- A variant of unknown origin, called "Abbot and Costello do Hebrew," is popular in the Jewish American community. Its humor draws from the homophonic similarity of a number of words in English — hu, he, me, ma, and dag are homophones of the Hebrew words for he, she, who, what, and fish respectively.
- The skit is an easter egg on Google Assistant, Siri, and Bixby. Asking Google Assistant "OK Google, Who's on first?" will lead to the response "Yes, he is." or "Exactly." Siri responds "Correct. Who is on first." Bixby responds "I think Who gets the ball and throws it to What."
- On the Invasion of the Neptune Men episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1998, during one host segment, Mike and the 'Bots put on a Who's On First themed skit concerning Japanese Noh Theater.
- Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, in December 2012, featured a variation of the routine called "Who's on First?: The Sequel." Depicted with vintage touches (black and white images, retro costumes, etc.) the skit finds host Jimmy Fallon in the Bud Abbott role and announcer Steve Higgins as Lou Costello. The twist here is that "Who," "What," and "I Don't Know" actually join in on the quick repartee, with the players respectively played by Billy Crystal, Late Night head writer A. D. Miles, and Jerry Seinfeld.
- Three episodes of Family Guy make reference to the routine - "Extra Large Medium", "You Can't Do That on Television, Peter" and "Secondhand Spoke"
- The 1980 movie Airplane! has a variation of this skit's style with the aircraft crew including people named Oever and Roger, easily mistaken for the radio terms "roger" and "over."
- In season 11 of All That, the “Good Burger” sketch used that routine, in which Kel Mitchell’s character Ed became confused when musical guest H.E.R. walked in to place a order after she told him who she was.
- In the video game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a puzzle called “Who’s On First” relates to the ambiguity of words such as “your/you’re”, “their/there”, etc.
- 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, a single; Dodgers announcer Vin Scully said, "Shades of Abbott and Costello, I can finally say, 'Hu is on first base.'"
- Curse of knowledge
- Propositional attitude
- Four Candles, a sketch from the British sketch comedy program The Two Ronnies with a similar premise involving misinterpreted phrases.
- "A Shakespearean Baseball Game", a Wayne and Shuster sketch first performed in 1958
- 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.
- "Best of the Century". Time. December 26, 1999.
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