Who's on First?

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Abbott and Costello performing "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'").

History[edit]

"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.[1]

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.[2] 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".[1]

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.[1] 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.[3] 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.

In 1999, Time named the routine Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th century.[4]

An early radio recording was placed in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in 2003.

In 2005, the line "Who's on First?" was included on the American Film Institute's list of 100 memorable movie quotations.

Sketch[edit]

The names given in the routine for the players at each position are:

Position Player
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 Care

The name of the shortstop is not given until the very end of the routine, and the right fielder is never identified. In the Selchow and Righter board game, the right fielder's name is "Nobody".[5]

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: Naturally.
Costello: Naturally.
Abbott: Now you've got it.
Costello: I throw the ball to Naturally.
Abbott: You don't! You throw it to Who!
Costello: Naturally.
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!

Costello: Naturally.

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.[6] (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).[7])

Writing credit[edit]

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.[8] Furthermore, several 1996 obituaries of songwriter Irving Gordon mention that he had written the sketch.[9][10]

Notable performances and derivatives[edit]

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.[11]
  • Johnny Carson did a variation of the routine involving the then president Ronald Reagan preparing for a press briefing.[12]
  • In the 1988 film Rain Man, one of the film's main characters 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.[13]
  • 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!"[14]
  • In an episode of Animaniacs, 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.[15][16]
  • 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."[17]
  • 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").[18]
  • The biography of Lou Costello written by his daughter Chris is titled Lou's on First.[19]
  • The video game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes contains a puzzle based on and named after Who's on First, where the two players must communicate verbally to describe the contents and layout of a screen, using words and homophones of words a person would normally use in that situation.
  • 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 — who, he, me, ma (mother), and dog are homophones of the hebrew words for he, she, who, what, and fish respectively.[1]

Real-life parallels[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ 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.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Furmanek, Bob; Palumbo, Ron (1991). Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. New York: Perigee. ISBN 0-399-51605-0. [page needed]
  2. ^ "What did the baggy pants-leg say to the other?". It Pays To Be Ignorant. Retrieved September 21, 2011 – via Archive.org. 
  3. ^ This claim is made by Glickman's son. Glickman's obituary in Variety (March 23, 1983) does not list the sketch among his credits.
  4. ^ "Best of the Century". Time. December 26, 1999. 
  5. ^ "FAQ". Abbott & Costello Fan Club. Retrieved Sep 21, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Abbott and Costello - Whos On First Original 30 Min Live" (Radio). Abbot & Costello. Old Time Radio (OTR). #94 – via Internet Archive. 
  7. ^ "Joe DiMaggio". Baseball Reference. Statistics and History. 
  8. ^ Neill, Brian (November 1, 1993). "Michael Musto, 76, writer, filmmaker Series". Obituaries. St. Petersburg Times. p. 5B – via ProQuest. 
  9. ^ "Irving Gordon". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1911. 
  10. ^ Oliver, Myrna (December 3, 1996). "Irving Gordon: Composer of 'Unforgettable'". Los Angeles Times. 
  11. ^ Lloyd, Robert (November 10, 1999). "Sketch Artists". LA Weekly. Retrieved September 21, 2011. 
  12. ^ "Johnny Carson as Reagan, a "Who's On First" spoof". YouTube. 
  13. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095953/quotes
  14. ^ "SCTV: Midnight Express Special: Cast, Reviews, Summary, and Awards". Allmovie.com. September 8, 2011. Retrieved September 21, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Ragamuffins / Woodstock Slappy". Animaniacs. Episode 59. March 1, 1994. 
  16. ^ Mendoza, N.F. (August 14, 1994). "Shows for Youngsters and Their Parents Too: 'Animaniacs' Get on the Peace Train; Disney's 'Red' Gets a Court Trial". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 1, 2011. 
  17. ^ "Marge Simpson in 'Screaming Yellow Honkers' (1999): Quotes". IMDb.com. 
  18. ^ "Hey George, Hu is the new leader of China". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 5, 2014. 
  19. ^ Costello, Chris (1982). Lou's on First. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0312499140. 
  20. ^ "Allie Watt Statistics and History". Baseball-Reference.com. Sports Reference LLC. 
  21. ^ Golda, Gregory J. "Who's on First". Integrative Arts 10: The Popular Arts. Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved October 19, 2014. 
  22. ^ Monstovich, B.J. "Hu's on 1B !". Retrieved July 8, 2014 – via YouTube. 

External links[edit]