Who’s On First, But Why?

By: Dirk Voetberg

A review of The Colgate Toothpaste Abbott and Costello Comedy Radio Hour

Village Voice, February 16, 1938

Last night, anyone tuning into the National Broadcasting Company’s Colgate Toothpaste Abbott and Costello Comedy Hour definitely heard something new and, according to the reaction of the studio audience, very funny. But does funny by itself satisfy the mission of comedy?

For the benefit of those who think it does: okay, let’s first ask, do Abbott and Costello even get funny right? Sure, it can’t be denied that the duo’s formula works: friendships between thin and fat men founded on insults, Schadenfreude, and physical abuse are objectively hilarious. But Laurel and Hardy have a greater difference in weight between them than Abbott and Costello. And, with Hardy’s shimmeringly ingenious recent gain of 24 pounds, the crown of laughs, many say, should actually become his and Laurel’s again. Yes, this “crown” is just a metaphor. But the fact that it’s not a real crown per se only makes it that much easier for these two comedians to “wear” it simultaneously.

Also, obviously, there’s the new Shuffles and Stu Show on NPR, a station that is of course now suddenly all the rage just as it’s becoming a mere shadow of what it was when I discovered it years ago. But at least S&S are fresh, shimmeringly so. And, in their short career, they’ve already proven they can tickle uncontrolled guffaws out of the saddest farmer’s belly with their brand of restrained slapstick. In one brilliant routine, “The Net Gross,” the duo try their hands as accountants. After a few hours of uneventful tallying and reckoning, and just as the audience sounds as though it’s ready to jump out of its collective seat and hightail it back to whence it collectively came, Shuffles makes an error in calculating the asset appreciation somewhere deep in the records — so hilariously deep. In perfect timing with a sour, elastic “boing!” sound-effect, Shuffles begins to silently torture himself mentally for his failure. The laughter was as explosive as can be hoped for from a studio audience somewhat preoccupied with finding any kind of work and whether they and their children will be eating ever again.

But, while Abbott and Costello may not necessarily be the funniest comedy act today, they at least usually offer us something unique…something more…something, to quote me from what I just said, “more.” For example, this is from an episode last year: “Lou, if you had $20 in one pocket, and $5 in another pocket, what would you have?” Lou answers, “Someone else’s pants on.” Most jokesters would have just ended it there with that predictable punchline (I knew from a mile away that Lou wasn’t going to say, “$25”).

But Abbott adds this to the mix: “Lou, sometimes you can be so stupid.”

This last line morphs a pretty thin gag into something shimmering (with Costello obviously representing America as it is now and Abbott representing Abbot and Costello commenting on America [Costello] of which Abbott is a part [yet is commenting on]) and yields a giddy core-sample hinting at what lays within: a layered post-Swiftian satire on the unbridled, shimmeringly ugly capitalism that brought our country to the Depression it’s mired in now and tops it off nicely with a good dose of agitprop on how some form of socialism is the only way out the mess.

But Abbott and Costello’s show last night simply did not achieve whatever it is I just intended to describe.

It started out well enough with the two interacting as a baseball team manager and his assistant. Risky, sure. But a kind of risky I’m frankly braced for even if some audiences aren’t. But I soon felt like some bedraggled laboratory rat in an experiment which, to follow the metaphor, quickly became what is to a laboratory rat as confusing radio-listening is to a human:

“Well then, who’s on first?” Costello asked. (Good question. I mean, we all want to know “who’s on first.”)

“Yes,” Abbott replies. (This doesn’t seem to answer the question or even acknowledge it.)

“I mean the fellow’s name.” (A glimmeringly reasonable clarification.)

“Who!” (It’s apparent at this point that the routine may be running adrift.)

“The guy on first!”


Etc. etc.

This goes on for another several, consecutive minutes. Now, of course, I completely get that this is an experiment — failed though it is — in repetition and rhythm. But there’s no there there.

And, sure, the studio audience howled with laughter, but it was a laughter that seemed to say, “I don’t get that this is an experiment in repetition and rhythm. I’m confused and don’t find this very funny.” But, even if I’m wrong, even if the hysterics were genuine, let’s face it, how many of the typical audience member understands — truly grasps — the definition of humor and what it’s supposed to really accomplish?

The only highlight of last night’s program was actually nothing AbbCost offered, but rather the soon-to-be legend Marybeth Devreaux’s rendition of “I’ve Got a Man Who’s Infallible” with her pop vocal confection floating over hooks that were nothing if not sinewy — although possibly shimmering too.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid this routine marks the beginning of the end of this once charming and often times important comic force. But comedy is too precious a resource — especially in these hardscrabble times — to be wasted like this.

Perhaps Lou needs to keep those stranger’s pants now. And hold on to that $25. And whatever else is in those pockets. If it’s of value.

The Colgate Toothpaste Abbott and Costello Comedy Radio Hour is on at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesdays on NBC Radio and is also sponsored by Cadillac, Maker of Fine Automobiles You Can in No Way Afford.


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