Zalusky: Here's the 'why' behind 'Who's on First?'

  • Author, comedian and comedy historian Nick Santa Maria.

    Author, comedian and comedy historian Nick Santa Maria. Courtesy of Nick Santa Maria

  • The cover of the "Annotated Abbott and Costello."

    The cover of the "Annotated Abbott and Costello." Courtesy of Nick Santa Maria

 
Updated 5/21/2022 8:20 PM

Abbott: Strange as it may seem, they give ballplayers nowadays very peculiar names.

Costello: Funny names?

 

Abbott: Nicknames, nicknames. Now on the St. Louis team we have Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third.

Costello: That's what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the St. Louis team.

Abbott: I'm telling you. Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third.

It's a comedic premise as simple as it is wonderfully absurd. Through the genius of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the routine has not only stood the test of time, but has become a part of baseball tradition, to the point where in 1956 the gold record of "Who's on First?" was enshrined with the bronze plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

I recently spoke about "Who's on First?" and Abbott and Costello with Florida-based actor, comedian, and comedy historian Nick Santa Maria, author of "The Annotated Abbott and Costello: A Complete Viewer's Guide to the Comedy Team and Their 38 Films," published by McFarland & Co. Inc.

In my own digging, I found to my surprise that another comedy team, Rags Ragland and Russell Trent, performed the routine on film in a 1939 Vitaphone Broadway Brevity called "Remember When," one year before Abbott and Costello made their film debut in "One Night in the Tropics."

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I also found an intriguing variant in a 1931 newsreel featuring an Australian comedy duo, Norman and Arnold, who do a similar routine based on one of them attending a concert involving two singers, "He Sang" and "Yu Sang."

One of them asks, "Did they both sing?"

"No, only one sang."

"Which one sang?"

"Yu Sang."

"Not me. I wasn't there."

So, where did this routine come from?

Santa Maria, who was also part of the comedy team Biffle and Shooster with the late Will Ryan, said, "Minstrel shows. Minstrelsy in the mid-1800s."

He said, "There were many versions of this, and not about baseball. That didn't happen probably until the 1930s. They started adapting it for baseball. But this routine is older than Bud and Lou put together."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The concept involved a mixing up of names.

He said, "Basically, it was, 'Where does she live?' 'She lives on What street?' 'What?' 'Yes.' That kind of a thing.

"It's a simple formula. And when Bud and Lou went to England, (where) they don't know baseball, they were going to do 'Who's on First?' come hell or high water."

So, the solution was, rather than adapting it for cricket, "They used the orchestra members. 'We've got some interesting players here. But they've all got nicknames,' " Santa Maria said.

To call "Who's on First?" an Abbott and Costello routine is something of a misnomer. "Everything Abbott and Costello did was based on a burlesque sketch," Santa Maria said. "But it was adapted for them. So they would do their own versions of it."

Abbott and Costello had a writer, John Grant, who was a walking encyclopedia of burlesque routines.

"His job was basically to take the scripts of their next film and, organically as he could, fit the routines into the script," Santa Maria said. "And they were old. I'm serious. We're talking 1800s.

"Their greatest legacy is that they preserved these great routines that would have been gone by now. They would have been in nobody's memory. So they preserved these things, and did them better than anyone else."

For proof, he said, watch anyone else try to do them.

As for "Who's on First?," "The premise is so contrived, when you think about it. People are really called Who? And What? And I Don't Know? I mean, it's absurd. It's crazy. But the thing is they each take it as seriously as Olivier doing Hamlet."

Another proof of the routine's success was the number of times they performed it without it growing tired.

Santa Maria estimates the duo performed the routine more than 10,000 times.

"And they never did it the same way twice. And that's what I love about it," he said. "Lou is always throwing a curveball or Bud throws a curveball. It's great."

And in one version, Lou says, "I don't give a damn," which, of course, turns out to be the shortstop.

"That was a Command Performance. It was only for soldiers. That was a show that only went overseas to the soldiers. So he was able to do that," Santa Maria said.

Santa Maria said the team likely performed it first in 1936.

The first time they performed it on radio was when they were regulars on the Kate Smith Show in 1938.

"Ted Collins, the producer, did not want them to do it. Didn't think the audience would follow it. And one day they sneaked it in, and Ted Collins gave them a raise and told them they have to do it at least once a month."

The last Abbott and Costello performance that was recorded -- they might have done it live afterward -- was on "The Steve Allen Show" in 1956.

In 1999, Time magazine voted "Who's on First?" the best comedy sketch of the 20th Century.

Santa Maria said, "And I happen to agree with that. It's a routine that never offends. And you can't say that about every routine."

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