I might as well get this one out of the way while I’m thinking about it. Arguably the best constructed joke ever in the history of anything. For you young whippersnappers, Bud Abbot is the tall guy on the right. He’s a straight man. I’ll explain what that is (again) in a minute. Lou Costello’s the short funny guy on the left. Now educate yourself by watching this routine, or review it if you’re already familiar. I’m not posting these links for my health, y’know. What are they teaching kids in school these days? This should be mandatory in everyone’s curriculum.
What exactly is a joke? Some people get a lot more complicated, but essentially (almost) every joke has two things: a premise and a punchline. The premise consists one or more facts which the joke teller brings to the attention of the audience. Why? To set up the punchline, so oftentimes comedians refer to the premise as the set up or “wind up” which is a more appropriate baseball reference given today’s subject matter. The punchline is a word, sentence or other response to the presented facts, which is intended to surprise the audience or otherwise make their brain think in a way contrary to what the presented facts suggest.
By the way this is a primary reason why some comics prefer not to use profanity. There’s an ongoing argument that shock & awe words like shit or fuck tend to illicit nervous laughter from an audience, and therefore putting profanity into the punchline is cheating. You’re getting an audience to laugh without actually working for it. Anyone who has seen Richard Pryor at work should stop using that argument, but they do anyway. But I digress. Suffice to say Abbot & Costello worked at a time when profanity on stage was strongly discouraged. You could do it in some seedy bars & speakeasies, but if you wanted to get gigs that paid actual money, and perform in reputable places or on tv and the movies (both very new phenomena in Abbot & Costello’s time) you never uttered a shit or fuck. That was just a given. This didn’t change much until the 1960s. You’ll notice the Who’s On First routine is squeaky clean in this department.
When talking about a duo like Abbot & Costello, Reiner & Brooks, Martin & Lewis, or Burns & Allen, usually it’s the straight man setting up the joke, and the comic or funny man who gets all the laughs. The straight man (Bud Abbott) feeds the set ups to the comic (Lou Costello), who then hits the audience with punchlines. There’s also a lot of boxing and fighting references in comedy. It’s a very violent sport.
I’ll break your arm if you say who’s on first!
Just watching this alone isn’t enough though. It helps if like me you enjoy dissecting stuff like this to actually get a transcript and follow along. There’s multiple versions of this gag because Abbott & Costello performed it a lot. Each time there’s very slight differences, but unlike yesterday’s “2000 Year Old Man” with Brooks & Reiner, this routine was not improvised. Both Abbott & Costello knew the entire dialogue backwards and forwards, and both men knew their responsibilities in order to get the gag to work.
If you watch about 2:45 in the first video link above, there’s a point where the two of them get a little flustered. Not so much that it ruins the gag for a casual viewer, but to someone like me who picks this stuff apart probably too much, it becomes clear something has gone wrong. It’s either because Costello has missed a punchline that Abbott is waiting for, or Abbott isn’t ready to move on to the next part of the gag. If this is Abbott’s fault, it’s called “milking” and he does it just a few seconds too long. If it’s Costello’s fault, Abbott was expecting Costello to say something and he didn’t hear it, so after awhile he just moves on down the script.
Costello is waiting for Abbott to say “After all, the man’s entitled to it” and Abbott isn’t saying it yet. Costello can’t go any further in the gag until Abbott feeds him the next straight line. The seconds between 2:30 and 2:57 are from a comedian’s perspective both the funniest and cringiest part of that entire performance. I woulda liked to have been a fly on the wall backstage after those two walked off into the wings. Both of them would probably have argued that the other guy screwed up. A normal viewer wouldn’t notice, but they’re stuck in a loop that only Abbott can get them out of, and that’s partly by design.
Stay out of the infield!
So the premise here is that baseball players have strange names. For example, on the fictitious team that Abbott is managing, Who is on first base, What is on second base, and I Don’t Know is on third base. One can argue that this is the punchline, and they could stop here. But they don’t. The names of the players are both punchlines in and of themselves, presented by the straight man Abbott, and they are additional parts of the premise. We later learn that outfielders are known as Because and Why, the pitcher is Tomorrow, the catcher is Today, etc. These names are specifically chosen to wind up the comic (Costello) and give him the reason to say what he does for the rest of the piece. The majority of the routine is watching Costello’s character squirm out of feined ignorance regarding the ball players’ names. Brilliant in its elegance and expertly executed, but the gag itself is so complicated that the guys themselves often seemed confused whenever they ran through it, which again is by design and part of why it’s such a wonderful work.
The final punchline, that Abbott gets to say, is about the shortstop, which may have surprised audiences more back then than it does now, cuz the straight man didn’t often get to have the last laugh back then. This may not have been the first time that happened, but it had happened less enough prior to Abbott & Costello to make this notable.
That’s the first thing you said right!”
“I don’t even know what I’m talkin’ about!
There were many Double Acts way back when. It was far more common to get with a partner and pool your resources to try and make it big. Nowadays it’s far less common. Times have changed for comedians. It’s actually easier to break into show business if you don’t have a partner, cuz the industry will try to wheel & deal with each of you separately and that often leads to internal strife. This is also noticeable among musicians. A record company will want to make a deal with the lead singer but furnish him with studio musicians already on their payroll. You can keep a band together, but you have to fight for it, and some parts of the industry purposefully make it very difficult. I guess the old war strategy of divide and conquer still works.
Comedians since Abbott & Costello have used this brilliant but dated piece of work to address modern naming conventions. A couple guys from National Lampoon once did a variant of this bit using names of bands performing together for a concert. I can’t find a YouTube link or other copy of it anywhere on the Web, which might give you an idea how unfunny it was. If memory serves the National Lampoon version featured Harry Shearer (many voices on The Simpsons) and David Lander (Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley).
Whaddaya mean you don’t know who those guys are either? Oh, I give up.