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Who's on First

Started by Barry Admin, May 13, 2022, 12:13:47 AM

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Barry Admin

I'm completely fascinated by this bit at the moment and would love to learn more about it. A friend brought it to mind with a gif of this scene from Winnie the Pooh:


It has the same kind of misunderstanding and wordplay, particularly near the end.

So that got me to thinking about Who's on First. This is seemingly the earliest filmed version:


And I really like this later version as it has an audience:


As I say, I'd love to know more about the history of the bit, and also if there are any known antedecents to it, or whether it's just considered a product of music halls and such.

Dex Sawash


letsgobrian

Long had a soft spot for the Woodstock Slappy version from Animaniacs, definitely helped by being one of the TMS animated sketches.


I remember the Slovin & Allen version from their Comedy Central special being funnier than I'm now finding it in 2022.

https://streamable.com/tmn55t

Petey Pate

Quote from: letsgobrian on May 13, 2022, 01:40:54 AMLong had a soft spot for the Woodstock Slappy version from Animaniacs, definitely helped by being one of the TMS animated sketches.


That's very similar to the version of the routine performed by The Credibility Gap in the early 1970s, using band names such as The Who and Yes. Harry Shearer plays a rock musician here before Spinal Tap.


The routine is not really that well know in the UK is it? Presumably because the baseball connection and Abbott and Costello not being TV mainstays like Laurel and Hardy. That said, I'm sure that there have been Anglicised versions of it, and it's not as if there aren't equally famous British comedy bits based on misunderstanding and wordplay (Four Candles comes immediately to mind).

wrec

I definitely saw it as a kid - not sure if it was in some kind of clip show or what. And there was a lot of old American comedy on Irish TV in the 80s. But I've  referenced it, online and off, to people I'd assume would know it, only to be met with bewilderment.

The Culture Bunker

I think my first "exposure" to the sketch was the Skinner/Chalmers reference to it in the Simpsons, an it went totally over my head not only from having no knowledge of the original skit but also knowing nothing about baseball positions.

The Police Squad! "who shot Twice?" is perhaps my favourite spin on the idea, if that counts.

BeardFaceMan


Is the version that always springs to mind when I hear this.

gilbertharding

As an English person born in 1969, I can confidently say the first time I ever heard of this 'bit' was the first time Rain Man was broadcast on tv. If I'd seen it at the cinema, then it would have been then.

Perhaps older British people than me would have heard about the Abbott & Costello version, but there can't have been many of them...

notjosh

This one from Airplane II was shared (INAPPROPRIATELY) in the Zucker Bros thread.



Barry Admin

Wow it's really interesting to see that people have such different experiences of this famous bit. I can't even remember when I first saw or heard of it tbh.

I definitely watched Abbott and Coatello whenever I could as a kid. Wasn't so much into the horror films really, I think. I'd be intrigued to know if their TV show was shown over here?

Quote from: wikiThe key to the routine is Costello's mounting frustration set against Abbott's unyielding formality.

That's wiki's analysis of Who's on First, and it says it was based on "other earlier burlesque wordplay routines", which I'm really keen to find out more about.

I love the sense of rhythm - just the sheer speed and passion of Costello's New Jersey delivery is wonderful.

JaDanketies

Quote from: The Culture Bunker on May 13, 2022, 10:26:16 AMI think my first "exposure" to the sketch was the Skinner/Chalmers reference to it in the Simpsons

"Not the pronoun, but rather a player with the unlikely name of "Who" is on first."

I think I got the joke from that little skit, but I think I've seen a longer version of it too. The Simpsons also had an Iranian one; Krusty says: "Hussein's on First, Ayatollah's on second and..."  I can imagine there's a good full-length version of this joke out there but finding the Simpsons quote was challenging enough

Someone did a deep dive of the origins of this a few years ago but, usefully, I can't remember who.

The first time I heard of 'Who's On First?' was in Rain Man


Gurke and Hare

Quote from: notjosh on May 13, 2022, 11:23:21 AMThis one from Airplane II was shared (INAPPROPRIATELY) in the Zucker Bros thread.

Also:


Claude the Racecar Driving Rockstar Super Sleuth

Quote from: The Culture Bunker on May 13, 2022, 10:26:16 AMThe Police Squad! "who shot Twice?" is perhaps my favourite spin on the idea, if that counts.
That was the first example I thought of. Here it is:


Ignatius_S

Quote from: Barry Admin on May 13, 2022, 11:38:27 AM...That's wiki's analysis of Who's on First, and it says it was based on "other earlier burlesque wordplay routines", which I'm really keen to find out more about.

I love the sense of rhythm - just the sheer speed and passion of Costello's New Jersey delivery is wonderful.

It's a fascinating routine, both for the construction and its cultural impact; I got so interested that I did a lot of research into it.

In a nutshell, in American burlesque, there were a number of standard comedy routines that lots of performers did. People did the same sketches, but the difference is how they did them - i.e. know you tell the joke - different comedians would add their own touches. When Phil Silvers made his name as one of the top comedians in burlesque (and David Everitt's excellent biography of Nat Hiken has a lot of information about this), he always had a straight man but that straight man would change in every city. Essentially, Silvers would go to another city, pick up another comedian who would work as a straight man. They would do stock sketches, but the art was how Silvers come up with such great lines and ad-libbed material - no need to rehearse, just let Silvers do his thing. On USO tours, Silvers did a routine with Sinatra where he was giving the tips on how to be a good singer and one can easily imagine how Silvers would just make up new things or deliver them slightly different each time.  However, Silvers' deserved reputation for my an incredibly creative comedian who could just improvise and ad-lib did go against him as writers in some shows he was in, just wrote things like 'Phil to fill in ten minutes' for his funny spots.

There were lots of variation on the theme in Who's on First? and by the 1930s, there was what was considered 'the baseball scene' being performed - who actually wrote it, nobody knows. However, it's best to see the routine, like so much in burlesque, as a framework that comedians worked to, rather than a fixed script. (Burlesque didn't do scripts.) When Abbott & Costello performed their version on The Kate Smith Variety Show (although this was hugely popular and long-running, only a few episodes are in existence) to get acclaim. It made their names as national stars, but to a lot in the comedy industry, that name was mud - it was an incredibly unpopular move.

One issue was that it meant that comedians could no longer do the baseball routine because sp many people already knew it - and knew it as Abbott & Costello's sketch. Another issue was that, to all intents and purposes, the basic sketch like so much in burlesque, was in the public domain but A&C was symbolically claiming ownership by the performing it on radio and then claiming it legally by obtaining copyright. From various things I've read, this really make a lot of people in the business view the pair incredibly negative.

This is a decent and pretty comprehensive look at the A&C's routine and the history of the routine together with the nature of comedy in American burlesque: https://www.abbottandcostellofanclub.com/whos-on-first/


boinks

This more basic but still enjoyable scene from The Monkees tv show (Peter interviewed by a computer) reminds me of it too:

Ignatius_S

Quote from: Barry Admin on May 13, 2022, 11:38:27 AMWow it's really interesting to see that people have such different experiences of this famous bit. I can't even remember when I first saw or heard of it tbh.

I definitely watched Abbott and Coatello whenever I could as a kid. Wasn't so much into the horror films really, I think. I'd be intrigued to know if their TV show was shown over here?

I don't think their television show was shown over here - it would have been possible to listen to their radio ones via American Forces radio stations; exposure to US comedy this way was very influential on British comedy, including the likes of Bob Monkhouse and Dennis Godwin who effectively plagiarised it (but they wouldn't haven't alone by a long shot).

The TV show makes heavy use of burlesque routines, which is one reason why it's worth watching. But depending how much likes A&C means mileage will vary...

Barry Admin

@Ignatius_S superb post! Exactly the sort of info I was after regarding the history of the bit, thank you.

Twilkes

Jerry Seinfeld did a half hour TV show on it back in 2012 but it's not available anywhere online from what I've found. It may just be focused on the A&C routine though, not any prehistory.

FredNurke

Arguably goes all the way back to the Odyssey, with Odysseus claiming to be called "No-one", leading to the blinded Cyclops shouting out "No-one has wounded me!" and his mates all shouting back "Good for you!" and so on.

Barry Admin

Quote from: Ignatius_S on May 13, 2022, 12:43:13 PMhttps://www.abbottandcostellofanclub.com/whos-on-first/

Jesus Christ this is fucking brilliant, thanks again. I'm this far in:

QuoteIn "The Rogers Bros. in Panama," Gus was a character named "Hugo Kisser," while Max was named "A. Gustave Windt." Variety's critic gushed, "It is simply a shrieking delight to hear Gus tell his brother his name is 'You-go-kiss her' and have Max ask 'Who?' with many repetitions. It's screamingly ridiculous, and so original. Then Max says he is 'A Gust of Wind.' It is no use talking; they do know comedy on Broadway."

...and I just wanna know more more more and don't want it to end. I really love this kind of wordplay when it's well done, the "Airplane!" scene above is one that always lives with me.

I'm dying to know more about burlesque comedy now, this has been fascinating.

Barry Admin

Oh my gawd:

Quote from: that articleThe "Nobody" idea wasn't original, either. It goes back nearly three thousand years to The Odyssey, where the Greek hero Odysseus tells the man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is "Nobody." Later, when Odysseus and his men drive a red-hot staff into its eye, Polyphemus bellows, "Help! Nobody's killing me! Nobody's killing me!" None of the other Cyclopes bother to come to his aid. (Similarly, in 12th century Welsh folklore, King Arthur slayed the three sisters of the giant Cribwr by introducing himself as "Hot Soup" to the first sister; "Warm Porridge" to the second; and "Piece of Bread" to the third. When the first sister cried out for help against "Hot Soup," Cribwr answered, "Silly girl, let it cool." When his second sister sought help against "Warm Porridge," Cribwr answered the same way. And, when the third sister cried out that "Piece of Bread" was choking her, Cribwr answered, "Silly girl, take a smaller piece.")

Ferris

THAT'S WHAT I'M ASKIN' YA!!

notjosh

Quote from: boinks on May 13, 2022, 12:46:55 PMThis more basic but still enjoyable scene from The Monkees tv show (Peter interviewed by a computer) reminds me of it too:

Shades of Harry Speakup in that.

Ballad of Ballard Berkley

Abbott & Costello's films were on TV a lot in the '80s and early '90s. They were regulars in BBC Two's 6pm classic comedy slot (alongside the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Jerry Lewis, Norman Wisdom and Will Hay). Also, Channel 4 aired The Abbott & Costello Show in a similar early evening slot. The Paramount Comedy Channel showed it in the mid-'90s too, albeit in a late-night slot (which made it feel more special). Thanks to those broadcasts, I built up quite a collection of their stuff on VHS!

As for Who's On First, that early '50s version shared by Neil above is phenomenal. The way they play off the studio audience's growing hysteria is just so joyous to behold. Two comedy maestros in their absolute element.

Ferris

#27
Quote from: Ignatius_S on May 13, 2022, 12:43:13 PMIt's a fascinating routine, both for the construction and its cultural impact; I got so interested that I did a lot of research into it.

In a nutshell, in American burlesque, there were a number of standard comedy routines that lots of performers did. People did the same sketches, but the difference is how they did them - i.e. know you tell the joke - different comedians would add their own touches. When Phil Silvers made his name as one of the top comedians in burlesque (and David Everitt's excellent biography of Nat Hiken has a lot of information about this), he always had a straight man but that straight man would change in every city. Essentially, Silvers would go to another city, pick up another comedian who would work as a straight man. They would do stock sketches, but the art was how Silvers come up with such great lines and ad-libbed material - no need to rehearse, just let Silvers do his thing. On USO tours, Silvers did a routine with Sinatra where he was giving the tips on how to be a good singer and one can easily imagine how Silvers would just make up new things or deliver them slightly different each time.  However, Silvers' deserved reputation for my an incredibly creative comedian who could just improvise and ad-lib did go against him as writers in some shows he was in, just wrote things like 'Phil to fill in ten minutes' for his funny spots.

There were lots of variation on the theme in Who's on First? and by the 1930s, there was what was considered 'the baseball scene' being performed - who actually wrote it, nobody knows. However, it's best to see the routine, like so much in burlesque, as a framework that comedians worked to, rather than a fixed script. (Burlesque didn't do scripts.) When Abbott & Costello performed their version on The Kate Smith Variety Show (although this was hugely popular and long-running, only a few episodes are in existence) to get acclaim. It made their names as national stars, but to a lot in the comedy industry, that name was mud - it was an incredibly unpopular move.

One issue was that it meant that comedians could no longer do the baseball routine because sp many people already knew it - and knew it as Abbott & Costello's sketch. Another issue was that, to all intents and purposes, the basic sketch like so much in burlesque, was in the public domain but A&C was symbolically claiming ownership by the performing it on radio and then claiming it legally by obtaining copyright. From various things I've read, this really make a lot of people in the business view the pair incredibly negative.

This is a decent and pretty comprehensive look at the A&C's routine and the history of the routine together with the nature of comedy in American burlesque: https://www.abbottandcostellofanclub.com/whos-on-first/

I didn't know there was such a communal pool of material (and the scourge of someone doing the shared gags on telly and removing them from the pool for everyone else) - reminds me of '70s club comics who would all pick gags out of a hat before they went on (with the headliner getting first choice).

Edit: just watched the audeince version posted by Barry and I'd sort of forgotten the physical comedy. It's quite hard to bonk yourself on the head with a baseball bat in a way that is funny, and genuine-seeming, but also not fairly painful. This is experience talking.

Kelvin

I'm unable to find a copy online, but bizarrely my introduction to this bit was in a comic at the back of the Turok: Dinosaur Hunter videogame manual for N64. In it, Turok is forced to fight for his life in a Gladiator pit, and for reasons I can't remember he manages to win his freedom by bamboozling the tyrant chief by reciting the Whose on First routine. Always stuck with me, and I still associate it first and foremost with the game for that reason. 

Ballad of Ballard Berkley

Quote from: Ignatius_S on May 13, 2022, 12:43:13 PMWhen Phil Silvers made his name as one of the top comedians in burlesque (and David Everitt's excellent biography of Nat Hiken has a lot of information about this), he always had a straight man but that straight man would change in every city. Essentially, Silvers would go to another city, pick up another comedian who would work as a straight man. They would do stock sketches, but the art was how Silvers come up with such great lines and ad-libbed material - no need to rehearse, just let Silvers do his thing. On USO tours, Silvers did a routine with Sinatra where he was giving the tips on how to be a good singer and one can easily imagine how Silvers would just make up new things or deliver them slightly different each time.  However, Silvers' deserved reputation for my an incredibly creative comedian who could just improvise and ad-lib did go against him as writers in some shows he was in, just wrote things like 'Phil to fill in ten minutes' for his funny spots.

Fascinating stuff as always, Ignatius. I love finding out more about this particular era of comedy.