ABBOTT and COSTELLO The callous con man/straight man could manipulate his short, chubby patsy into anything even the belief that he was not actually present: “Are you in St. Louis?” “No.” “Are you in Chicago?” “Of course not!” “Well, if you’re not in St. Louis and you’re not in Chicago, you must be somewhere else.” “Ye-es.” “Well then, if you’re somewhere else, you’re not here!”
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello did not change their on-stage characters or even their jokes, but audiences through the decades, from vaudeville to radio to television to movies, did not tire of them. As comedians, they were inferior to Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers, but for pure nonartistic hilarity they were second to none, and that is the explanation of their success. Not masters of filmic form, they put across some of the zaniest moments ever captured on celluloid.
Louis Francis Cristillo (Lou Costello) was born in 1906, probably in Paterson, New Jersey, the locale for most of his comedy routines. As an athletic and considerably slimmer young man he ventured to Hollywood, where he worked his way up from lugging around fake buildings as a prop man, to jumping off them as a stunt man. He abandoned this role as one of Hollywood’s early daredevils to explore the life of the vaudeville comedian. This delivered him to the man of his destiny.
William (Bud) Abbott was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 1895. His mother was a wild horseback rider for the Ringhng Brothers Circus, and as a youth he divided his time between lion taming and race-car driving. When a chain of theaters he built up failed, Abbott teamed up with Costello in 1930 for an engagement in a Brooklyn grindhouse.
Years of touring burlesque theaters landed the duo a regular spot on Kate Smith’s radio program in 1938. The national hookup propelled them from burlesque to Broadway: they were in Streets of Paris in 1939. Abbott and Costello’s first important film came in 1941: it was Buck Privates, in which they are involuntarily volunteered for the army—with sidesplitting consequences. But whatever the setting, whatever the medium, their unequal comic relationship remained constant.
In all, they made 38 films together, some poor, some good. They include Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), the very funny Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and follow-ups like Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953).
Greatest of all their routines is their classic cornucopia of confusion, the “Who’s on First?” bit. It opens with Abbott delineating the lineup for their baseball team. Who’s on first base, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know’s on third. But, as usual, Costello is bewildered by his partner’s swift patter:
Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third . . .
Costello: Yeah, do you know the fellow’s name?
Costello: Well, who’s on first?
Costello: I mean the guy playing first.
Costello: The fellow playing first.
Costello: The first baseman.
Costello: The guy playing first.
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: Well, what are you asking me for?
In the end, the exasperated Costello gives up, shouting, “I don’t give a damn!” Abbott counters, “He’s our shortstop.”
They had a reputedly amicable break- up in 1956, but two years later Abbott sued Costello, claiming his former partner had rooked him out of his share ($222,655) of the proceeds from their television series. Was it life’s perfect irony—the sucker apparently conning the con man? But specific guilt or treachery is a matter of speculation. Suffice it to say that a memorable partnership ended on a sour note. Lou Costello died the next year (1959), Bud Abbott succumbed in 1974 after enjoying a nationwide television revival of their work.