Posts Tagged ‘Who’s on First?’

Baseball, New Jersey, and “The Sopranos”

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Lou Costello appeared in two episodes of HBO’s The Sopranos.  Sort of.

New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano of the DiMeo crime family used Paterson’s statue of the comedian as a meeting spot in two episodes; Paterson is Costello’s home town.  In “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Tony saw the recent import of Furio from Italy as an ignition to rearrange his familial paradigm.  Costello’s statue, a New Jersey landmark, offered symbolism to a confab between Tony and Paul, a mobster who once worked for Tony’s father.

In his 2002 book The Sopranos on the Couch:  The Ultimate Guide, Maurice Yacowar explained, “Furio’s arrival creates some possible problems for Tony.  He coaxes Artie into providing a job front for Furio’s immigration, as master cheesemaker.  Only later, meeting outside The Lou Costello Memorial, does Tony inform Paul.  The site suggests the comical sidekick that Paulie fears he is becoming.  Lou’s statue stands parallel behind Paulie in one shot, and looms over him, hat befouled, in another.  But that is rather Pussy’s fate, as Tony promotes Paulie and Silvio and leaves Pussy to report to them.”

Tony met with rival boss Phil Leotardo at the Costello statue in “Cold Stones” to discuss the storm surrounding Vito Spatafore’s homosexuality.  While this presented a problem for Tony and his old school associates, the issue went deeper for Phil—Vito is a cousin, hence, a betrayer of bloodline.  Ultimately, two underlings beat Vito to death while Phil watches.

Costello’s statue portrays the rotund funnyman—one half of the comedy team Abbott & Costello, the duo responsible for “Who’s on First,” perhaps the greatest comedy routine ever—bearing a grin, wearing a derby, and casually resting a bat on his left shoulder.  “Who’s on First” contains Costello feverishly trying to deduce the names of the players on a ball club, with Abbott trying to explain that Who’s on first, What’s on second, etc.

Another baseball reference appeared in the episode “Down Neck” during a flashback scene set in 1967, when Tony discovered that his uncle and his father—Corrado “Junior” Soprano and John “Johnny Boy” Soprano—operate in a criminal sphere of society.  As Junior picks up Johnny Boy to begin their daily duties, he lauds a certain Yankee to his nephew:  “Hey! Did ya hear the game last night?  Joey Pepitone!  Three RBI’s!”

In addition to the Paterson site, New Jersey filming locations for The Sopranos included the Pulaski Skyway, the Asbury Park boardwalk, and Newark Penn Station.

The Sopranos burst onto television screens on January 10, 1999 with James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano, a Garden State mafia don prone to panic attacks.  In Variety, Phil Gallo wrote, “Gandolfini does a lot with body language, and his mood is nicely limned in virtually every scene; it can be summed up as a midlife crisis, yet it feels like so much more; life will never be the same.  Eventually, Tony Soprano’s only comfortable with a handful of friends and his psychiatrist.”

Upon HBO’s rerunning the first season in the summer of 1999, Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, “‘The Sopranos,’ more than any American television in memory, looks, feels and sounds like real life.  Watch any episode and you’re likely to come away with the queasy feeling of having consumed a greasy slice of late-90’s America with its surreal mature of prosperity and brutishness.  Tony, a northern New Jersey mob boss in his early 40’s, isn’t an exotic evil king holed up in a fortified stone castle.  He is a middle-class family man who, except for his occupation, is pretty much like the rest of us.”

The Sopranos finished its run in 2007.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 20, 2016.

Lou Costello: Behind the Laughter

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

Who’s on First? is a comedy bit that is ageless, knowing no boundaries of laughter.  Little Leaguers, octogenarians, scholars, and every other demographic have an instinctive response to this legendary piece of humor performed by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.  It’s a part of American culture, indeed.

Costello, painfully, tries to discern the names of the players on a baseball team while Abbott calmly recites them along with their positions:

  • First Base:  Who
  • Second Base:  What
  • Third Base:  I Don’t Know
  • Left Field:  Why
  • Center Field:  Because
  • Pitcher:  Today
  • Catcher:  Tomorrow
  • Shortstop:  I Don’t Care

The more frustrated Costello gets at not understanding that Abbott is telling the actual names of the players, the funnier it gets.

Abbott and Costello refined the comedy in the piece, its foundation of confusion having appeared in previous sketches of other performers, for example, on involving towns named Ware and Wye.  Although they conquered stage, films, television, and radio, Abbott and Costello spotlighted Who’s on First?, performing it innumerable times throughout their partnership, which began in in the mid-1930s and lasted for 20 years.  National success came when Kate Smith gave them a platform for Who’s on First? and other comedy bits on her radio show, starting in 1938.

Consequently, the team’s fame catapulted into orbit.

But comedy has a dark side, sometimes.  Abbott abused alcohol to escape his suffering caused by epilepsy.  Costello stayed in bed for a year because of rheumatic fever.  And on November 4, 1943, he symbolized the ultimate show business adage—The Show Must Go On—in the face of a tragedy that is every parent’s nightmare.

That night, Costello was scheduled to perform for the first time since being bedridden.  The Abbott & Costello Show was a radio hit, undoubtedly set to draw a huge audience for Costello’s return to performing.  He wanted his infant son—Lou Costello, Jr.—to listen to him and Abbott on the radio.  Tragically, it was not to be.  The baby escaped his playpen, crawled to the swimming pool, and drowned two days shy of his first birthday.  Stories vary concerning when Costello learned about it during the day.

Costello performed that night, hoping that his son, nicknamed Butch, wherever God took him, would recognize his voice.  The studio audience had no idea, not even an inkling, of the tragedy until Abbott explained it after the show.  In his 1977 book Bud & Lou: The Abbott and Costello Story, Bob Thomas recounted the chilling event in Abbott’s words: “Just a short time before our broadcast started, Lou Costello was told that his baby—one year old in two days—had died.  In the face of the greatest tragedy which can come to any man [sic], Lou Costello went on tonight so that you, the radio audience, would not be disappointed.  There is nothing more that I can say except that I know all join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to a great trouper.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 17, 2015.

“Who’s On First?”

Friday, June 1st, 2012

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is America’s trunk of baseball memorabilia. A really massive trunk.

For baseball history buffs, the Hall of Fame library houses invaluable artifacts, including the minutes of the first meeting of the National League clubs in 1876, Lou Gehrig’s famous scrapbook, and a file on every major league baseball player.

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