“Who’s On First?” radio debut was 85 years ago

On March 24, 1938,  Abbott and Costello were finally permitted to perform their signature comedy routine, “Who’s On First?,” on radio for the very first time.

It would have been sooner if Ted Collins, Kate Smith’s manager and the producer of her CBS radio show, thought the routine was funny.

Today, it’s hard to imagine that anyone had doubts about “Who’s On First?,” which is arguably (pun intended) the most famous comedy routine of all time. But one decisive person did…at least in the beginning.

Performing in 1938 or early 1939

Henny Youngman and an executive with the William Morris agency had brought Abbott and Costello to Collins’ attention seven weeks earlier.

In an audition in Collins’ office, Bud and Lou launched into their surefire baseball routine, but Collins stopped them mid-stream.

“They’ll hiss you off the air if you do that,” he admonished them.

Had Collins seen “Who’s On First?” with an audience he would have had no qualms.

After the William Morris agent cajoled him, Collins signed the team to perform a different routine that night, February 3. The next day, at least two radio critics praised the comedy team, although other listeners complained that they had difficulty distinguishing the boys’ voices. Lou adopted a shrill falsetto for all subsequent appearances. To modern audiences it sounds excessive, but it fit with Costello’s child-like character and his tag line, “I’m a baaad boy.”

Collins brought Abbott and Costello back week after week and, to insure a steady supply of verbal routines,  John Grant, a respected burlesque straight man and producer, was summoned to write or adapt material for them. Grant remained Bud and Lou’s chief collaborator through radio, movies and television until his death in 1955.

Ted Collins
Collins didn’t think it was funny

In the weeks following their radio debut, the boys continued to campaign for “Who’s On First?” but Collins was unyielding.

According to legend, the team tried a gambit to force the producer’s hand. They told Collins that they didn’t have anything prepared for the March 24 broadcast. This may have been true, but considering that Grant had recently arrived with a treasure trove of routines, it may be apocryphal. Perhaps Grant put some finishing touch on the sketch that appeased Collins, or Collins watched the boys perform it in front of an audience. In any case, “Who’s On First?” made its national radio debut that night.

It was an instant hit. CBS received a record number of phone calls and letters from listeners, and Bud and Lou’s profile and popularity ratcheted up exponentially.

Collins, now a believer, supposedly ordered the routine repeated every month, but Abbott and Costello used “Who’s on First?” sparingly on radio (and television) for fear of overexposure. It wasn’t until seven months later that they did it on Kate’s show again. In between, Bud and Lou did the routine perhaps a hundred times in motion picture stage shows and at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.

The routine had been around in burlesque in one form or another since the turn of the century. Its most famous predecessor was Weber and Fields’ “I Work on Watt Street” dialogue. In the 1920s a routine called “Who’s Your Boss?” was floating around. By the 1930s the idea had been adapted to baseball. Bud’s wife, Betty, later recalled,“Bud had done the baseball bit a long time before he worked with Lou. That was public domain. He did it with some comic, I can’t remember who.”

Bud and Lou had joined forces just two years earlier in 1936. They adopted the routine (which they usually referred to as “Baseball”) almost immediately.  They kept honing it in burlesque, what was left of vaudeville, and Costello’s garage. Betty recalled,“[Bud] and Lou put an awful lot of stuff in it, a lot of new material.”

Abbott and Costello took what was a short story and turned it into a novel, expanding the sketch to its very limits to create the the last word in wordplay routines.

Time magazine proclaimed it the “Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th Century” in 1999. The Greater Los Angeles Press Club, with great foresight, declared the same almost fifty years earlier. It was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1956, where it has run in a continuous loop since 1967. The skit has become a cultural touchstone that has transcended comedy as a metaphor for miscommunication and double-talk in business, politics, and everyday life.

And it all started 85 years ago on March 24.•




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