Bud Abbott and Lou Costello never called their most famous routine “Who’s on First,” although that's where it resides in the collective lexicon. To them, it was simply referred to in shorthand, as “Baseball.” They were masters of this bit, an outrageous and deceptively brilliant touch of intellectual nimbleness that the comedy pair perfected in their Vaudeville act in the 1930s, before they even had a radio show. It followed them as technology advanced, from stage to radio to the movies to television, and fortunately, now CD, DVD and mp3. Evidently, Abbott and Costello possessed such a dextrous mastery of this bit that they could ad-lib impromptu versions of any duration, depending on the situation, the audience, and the medium. “Who’s on First” has pretty much been perquisite listening for aspiring comedians since it was first performed on radio in 1938, and it continues to pop up, in baffling contexts ranging from The Simpsons to Rain Man. In 1999, Time magazine anointed it Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th Century; a version lives in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry; the line “Who’s on First” is on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Memorable Movie Quotes. If you want to know why Abbott and Costello were some of the most famous and highest-grossing entertainers of the 1930, 1940s, and 1950s, this a good place to start.
As with most high-concept comedy, a brief deconstruction is not going to incite yucks and guffaws. Basically, the routine furiously milks Abbott's confusion as he and Costello discuss a baseball team. Lou wants to know the names of the players; Bud tells him again and again, but the gag is that the nicknames of the players are mostly a string of pronouns:
First Base: Who
Second Base: What
Third base: I Don't Know
Left field: Why
Center field: Because
Accordingly, every question asked by Lou receives an accurate non-response from Bud that merely heightens the former’s befuddlement and anxiety. “Who’s on first?” “That’s right, Who’s on first.” “What is the name of the guy on second?” “That’s right.” “What?” “Right.” “What’s on second.” “I don’t know.” “He’s on third.”
The sketch relies on frenetic pacing, the fundamental miscommunication between the two, and the extent to which they refuse to break character. Bud (tall, bony, blasé and patronizing) is completely indifferent to Lou (short, pudgy, jarringly high-strung), and the latter becomes increasing frustrated at his own inability to comprehend. The wordplay reaches dizzyingly levels of verbal and conceptual facility, as Abbott and Costello never miss a beat in an amazingly dense, adroit display of mental gymnastics. Ultimately, Lou, apoplectic and exasperated, quits trying and throws up his hands in defeat, shrieking in torment, “I Don't Give a Darn!” thus setting up the punchline for Bud, who calmly corrects him: “Oh, no. He’s our shortstop.”
Ironically, Abbott and Costello’s most beloved bit contained within it the seeds of the duo’s demise. The two were stage performers not writers, and while their original material made them the most popular stars of the 1940s, they simply wouldn’t or couldn’t incorporate new material. Eventually, audiences got tired of seeing and hearing the same jokes again and again with different backdrops, and the pair’s popularity waned. They would be supplanted as the Kings of Comedy in the 1950s by another team that took the louche-straightman-versus-spastic-clown tandem to new heights: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Still, Abbott and Costello have been relentlessly documented on CD; dozens of hours of their radio performances are available from the Radio Library label. And there’s always the duo’s masterpiece: Who’s on First: A Collection of Classic Routines (On the Air, 2000). The 1945 film The Naughty Nineties has an arguably superior performance, and it’s available on DVD, in The Best of Abbott & Costello, Vol. 2 (Universal, 2004). Cheers for a wily, century-old Vaudeville act that can still steal home.