Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s on First?’ Was Kind of a Rip-Off

The ‘greatest comedy routine of the 20th century’ wasn’t actually from the 20th century
Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s on First?’ Was Kind of a Rip-Off

Legendary comedians — and even more legendary porn connoisseurs — Abbott and Costello accomplished a lot in their careers, starring in one of the most popular radio shows of all-time, their own TV series and numerous classic films, including the definitive horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the underrated murder mystery spoof Who Done It?

But the duo will always be best known for their classic “Who’s on First?” routine, in which Lou Costello becomes increasingly confused and annoyed over a conversation about improbably-named baseball players, including Who, What, Why and I Don’t Know.

The sketch was picked as the “greatest comedy routine of the 20th century” by Time Magazine, and in 1956, a solid gold record pressing of “Who’s on First?” was installed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

As Jerry Seinfeld pointed out in the TV special Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld, “there’s no logical explanation of how these players could have been given such bizarre names. Or how they ended up on the same team together. Are these first names? Last names? Nicknames?”

Seinfeld concluded that “these are all problems that vaudeville audiences of the late 1930s did not have, as they watched Abbott and Costello turn this silly conversation into show business legend.”

But a big reason why vaudeville audiences weren’t remotely thrown by “Who’s on First?” is because they’d seen variations of it countless times before. 

As outlined by the Library of Congress, “Who’s on First?” was “rooted in burlesque,” where comedy routines were “passed down for decades and were almost always considered to be public domain.” And, unfortunately, like a whole lot of American popular entertainment, Abbott and Costello’s bit can be directly traced back to racism. Wordplay sketches prior to the 1920s involved mocking ethnic stereotypes, pairing a “naive immigrant” with a “streetwise straight man.” Before “Who’s on First?,” there was “Who’s the Boss?” — not the Tony Danza sitcom, but rather a “minstrel crosstalk routine” in which the “boss” was named “Who” and his employees were “What” and “Ida Know.”

There was also “I Work on Watt Street” performed by vaudevillian comedy team Weber and Fields (and others). In that sketch, an immigrant arrives in New York and asks a conductor, “Can you tell me where I get off to Watt Street?” To which the conductor replies, “What street?” 

In another account of the sketch, which was performed as early as 1885, two German immigrants are trying to make plans. When one asks where to pick the other up, he replies, “Watt Street.” The first man gets more and more frustrated: “I’m asking you, don’t you ask me! Now tell me the street.” The “Watt Street” bit was so popular, it even surfaced in a 1931 Little Rascals short. 

Incidentally, Weber and Fields also had a sketch that combined wordplay confusion with an explanation of baseball.

Abbott and Costello weren’t the first ones to wed the “Who’s the Boss?” routine with a baseball-themed act either. A sketch called “Baseball’s Who’s Who” was “popular on the Mutual burlesque circuit in the 1920s.” And both Bud Abbott and Lou Costello performed similar baseball skits separately before teaming up. 

It’s undeniable that Abbott and Costello packaged all of these concepts in a lean, road-tested, arguably perfect routine, but they certainly owe a debt to decades of comedians who came before them. 

To answer Seinfeld’s question then, it’s less surprising that vaudevillian audiences didn’t have any problems understanding “Who’s on First?” so much as it is surprising that they weren’t sick to death of the whole concept by the time Abbott and Costello were performing it. 

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