Lou Costello: Behind the Laughter

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.

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