Abbott and Costello were an American comedy duo composed of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, whose work on radio and in film and television made them the most popular comedy team of the 1940s and early 1950s. Their patter routine “Who’s on First?” is one of the best-known comedy routines of all time, and set the framework for many of their best-known comedy.
The team’s first known radio broadcast was in 1938 and at first, the similarities between their voices made it difficult for radio listeners to tell them apart. As a result, Costello affected a high-pitched, childish voice. “Who’s on First?” was first performed for a national radio audience that year.
The “Who’s on First?” sketch was based on other burlesque wordplay routines. Depending upon the version, Abbott has either organized a new baseball team and the players have nicknames, or he points out the proliferation of nicknames in baseball. The infielders’ nicknames are Who (1st Base), What (2nd Base) and I Dunno (3rd Base). The key to the routine is Costello’s persistent confusion over pronouns, set against Abbott’s unwavering nonchalance.
Abbott and Costello began honing the routine shortly after teaming up in 1936, and performed it in vaudeville acts in 1937 and 1938. It was first heard by a national radio audience in March 1938 when the team was on the Kate Smith Radio Show. The sketch is believed to be available in as many as twenty different versions, ranging from one minute to about ten minutes. The team could time the routine at will, adding or deleting portions as needed for films, radio or television. The longest version is seen in “The Actors’ Home” episode of their filmed TV series…
Sadly, the duo’s popularity declined in the 1950s mostly the reason for their decline was overexposure. Universal dropped the comedy team in 1955 after they could not agree on contract terms. The Internal Revenue Service charged them for back taxes, forcing them to sell their homes and most of their assets, including the rights to most of their films.
In his last years, Costello made about ten solo appearances on The Steve Allen Show doing many of the old routines without Abbott. On 3rd March 1959, not long after completing a lone solo film he died of a heart attack three days short of his 53rd birthday.
Abbott attempted a comeback in 1960 with Candy Candido. Although the new act received good reviews, Bud quit, saying, “No one could ever live up to Lou.” In 1966, Abbott voiced his character in a series of 156 five-minute Abbott and Costello cartoons made by Hanna-Barbera. Lou’s character was voiced by Stan Irwin. Bud Abbott died of cancer on 24th April 1974.
They are the only “non-baseball personnel” to be memorialized in the Baseball Hall of Fame. A plaque and a gold record of the “Who’s On First?” sketch have been on permanent display there since 1956, and the routine runs on an endless video loop in the exhibit area.