Time magazine named it the greatest comedy sketch of the 20th century. At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, a continuous loop runs to the delight of fans. In 2005, the line “Who’s on first?” was included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movie quotes of all time.
When I was about 8 years old, I first heard it performed on the Abbott and Costello TV show, and I remember thinking, “Wow, baseball AND funny. What could be better than that?”
The origins of this timeless piece of comedy are a bit sketchy, but even Abbott and Costello conceded that the premise of confusing names with other parts of speech had a long history in vaudeville.
My love of “Who’s on first?” was revitalized in 1972 when two of my high school students aspired to a career in stand-up comedy, and I convinced them that in order to hone their delivery skills, they needed to master the iconic baseball skit. The comedy duo of Pete and Brian made a late-night appearance at Catch a Rising Star in New York, one of the premier comedy clubs in the country.
I lost touch with the team after they graduated, but I knew that both had, independently, followed careers in theater and acting. Flash forward to just a few months ago when I learned that Peter, who had made a name for himself as a character actor in movies and doing voiceovers, was coming to Indy to be a guest celebrity at the recent PopCon event. I was planning to do a TV remote shoot from the convention, so I invited my former student on the show.
During dinner the night before, we reminisced about Pete and Brian’s premiere show in New York, and it was then that it hit me: ”Let’s do the skit on TV tomorrow morning,” I said, regretting the idea as soon it escaped my mouth.
“Absolutely,” said Pete. “When can we rehearse?”
“How about now?”
And so we did. Right there in the crowded restaurant. My wife was a bit uncomfortable, concerned that the folks at the table next to us were not as enamored of the classics as Pete and I were.
Our struggle to master the routine was a reminder of how brilliant Bud and Lou were in their timing and cadence. Lou was the frustrated little boy, and Bud was restrained and patient, setting himself apart from his partner, the essence of most great comedy teams.
The routine differed slightly each time, because the script was conceptualized, not memorized. Any variation, intentional or not, could be adjusted by either partner.
“Tell me the guy’s name on first”
“The guy on first.”
“What’s the guy’s name on first?”
“What’s on second!”
On YouTube there are dozens of archived examples of this routine that range from three to 10 minutes. Bud and Lou could make it fit any time slot. No matter the length, it makes me laugh every time.
On WISH-TV, Peter Spellos and I did a brief version of “Who’s on first?” during my live morning segment. Were we any good? I don’t know.
“I don’t know!” Oh, that’s our third baseman.
Television personality Dick Wolfsie writes this weekly column for the Daily Reporter. Send comments to email@example.com.