The Famous Comedy Routine by Abbott and Costello
Who’s on First? is a comedy routine made famous by Abbott and Costello. The premise of the routine is that Abbott is identifying the players on a baseball team to Costello, but their names and nicknames can be interpreted as non-responsive answers to Costello’s questions. In this context, the first baseman is named “Who”; thus, the utterance “Who’s on first?” is ambiguous between the question (“which person is the first baseman?”) and the answer (“Mr. Who is the name of the first baseman.”)
“Who’s on First?” is descended from turn-of-the-century burlesque sketches like “The Baker Scene” (the shop is located on Watt Street) and “Who Dyed” (the owner is named Who). In the 1930 movie “Cracked Nuts”, comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey examine a map of a mythical kingdom with dialogue like this: “What is next to Which.” “What is the name of the town next to Which?” “Yes.” In English variety halls (Britain’s equivalent of vaudeville theatres), comedian Will Hay performed a routine in the early 1930s (and possibly earlier) as a schoolmaster interviewing a schoolboy named Howe who came from Ware but now lives in Wye. By the early 1930s, a “Baseball Routine” had become a standard bit for burlesque comics across the United States of America.
After they formally teamed up in burlesque in 1936, Abbott and Costello continued to hone the sketch. It was a big hit in 1937 when they performed the routine in a touring vaudeville revue called “Hollywood Bandwagon.”
In February 1938, Abbott and Costello joined the cast of the The Kate Smith Hour radio program, and the sketch was first performed for a national radio audience that March. The routine may have been further polished before this broadcast by burlesque producer John Grant, who became the team’s writer, and Will Glickman, a staff writer on the radio show. Glickman may have added the nicknames of then-contemporary baseball players like Dizzy and Daffy Dean to set up the routine’s premise. This version, with extensive wordplay based on the fact that most of a fictional baseball team’s players had “strange nicknames” that seemed to be questions, became known as “Who’s on First?” By 1944, Abbott and Costello had the routine copyrighted. An example of another Abbott and Costello routine would be Bud and Lou’s Loafing.
Abbott and Costello performed “Who’s on First?” numerous times in their careers, rarely performing it the same way twice. Once, they did the routine at President Roosevelt’s request. The routine was featured in the team’s 1940 film debut, One Night in the Tropics. The duo reprised the bit in their 1945 film The Naughty Nineties, and it is that version which is considered their finest recorded rendition. They also performed the routine numerous times on radio and television (notably in the Abbott and Costello Show episode “The Actor’s Home”).
In 1956 a gold record of “Who’s on First?” was placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, New York. A video (taken from The Naughty Nineties) now plays continuously on screens at the Hall.
In the 1970s, Selchow and Righter published a Who’s on First? board game.
In 1999, Time magazine named the routine Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th Century.
An early radio recording was placed in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2003.
In 2005, the line “Who’s on First?” was included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 memorable movie quotes. (Wikipedia credit)