The Moment: Who’s on First (1945)
Who’s to Thank: Exactly. (Actually, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello)
The Setup: Sure, it’s a little moldy and provincial, but in its day, Who’s on First was the paradigm of straight man/buffoon comedy. Abbott is the manager of the Junior Youth Foundation Baseball Team. His buddy Lou, hoping to finagle a spot on the club, asks to know all the players’ names. Abbott gladly obliges.
The Punchline: Sadly for Costello, the players’ names read a lot like the Zappa family tree: Who, What, I Don’t Know, Why, Because, Today, Tomorrow and I Don’t Give a Darn. When Costello asks “Who’s on first?” Abbott answers, “Yes,” and the joke’s rolling. What the skit lacks in believability (does anyone really think this little mess couldn’t have been cleared up by line six?) it makes up for in sheer speed, wordplay and timing.
The genius is in the performances. Watch amateurs follow the script verbatim and generate few laughs. Then listen to the original and hear the difference. Costello’s mounting frustration and Abbott’s limitless enthusiasm and patience turn what could have been a forgettable language trick into a classic comedy routine.