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Who's on First?

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 ("Who is the name of the first baseman.").

History

"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.

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.

The sketch

The names given in the routine for the players at each position are:

The name of the shortstop is not given until the very end of the routine, and the right fielder is never identified, though an interpretation of the routine could give his name as "Naturally". At a point in the routine, Costello thinks that Naturally is the first baseman (because naturally, Who would get the ball if was thrown to first base). However, in the board game, the right fielder's name is "Nobody. The skit serves as a climax for an Abbott and Costello radio broadcast which begins with Costello receiving a telegram from Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio explains that he is recovering from an operation on his foot and asks Costello to take over for him. One could infer that Costello is the unmentioned right fielder, and that the unnamed team is the New York Yankees.

Abbott's explanations leave Costello hopelessly confused and infuriated, until the end of the routine when he finally appears to catch on. "You got a couple of days on your team?" He never quite figures out that the first baseman's name literally is "Who". But after all this he announces, "I don't give a darn!" ("Oh, that's our shortstop.") That is the most commonly heard ending, which varied depending on the perceived sensibilities of the audience. The even milder "I Don't Care" was used in the version seen in the film The Naughty Nineties. A recording of the obvious "I Don't Give a Damn" has also turned up on occasion.

Writing credit

Numerous people over the years have claimed credit for writing the sketch, but such claims typically lack reasonable corroboration.

For example, in a 1993 obituary of writer Michael Musto, it stated that shortly after Abbott and Costello teamed up, they paid Musto $15 to write the script.

Furthermore, in the 1996 obituary of songwriter Irving Gordon, a claim was made that he had written the sketch.

In popular culture

The theme has been reprised many times. Some notable examples include:

  • Abbott and Costello continued to specialize in confused wordplay. In their film Who Done It? when their characters are trying to sort out watts and volts ("What are volts?" "That's right."), Lou cuts it short with, "Soon you'll be telling me What's on second base!" Also, at the beginning of their later film Mexican Hayride, when Costello catches up with Abbott, Costello says, "Who told me there was oil in my backyard? Who got me to sell phoney stock to my friends? Who ran away with the money? Who got Mary mad at me? And if you're tired of hearing 'Who', I got a 'What' for you... on second base!"
  • Late night television host Johnny Carson gave a memorable rendition showing President Ronald Reagan being briefed by an aide. Puns were made with the names of Chinese leader Hu Yaobang (who?), of Yasser Arafat (yes, sir) and of Interior Secretary James Watt (what?). In 2003, an updated version of the routine circulated on the Internet featuring George W. Bush, replacing Watt with Kofi Annan (coffee?), identifying the aide as Condoleezza Rice (with eggroll?), Yasser Arafat ("Yes, sir." "Yassir?") and replacing Hu Yaobang with Hu Jintao.
  • On the 1949 radio detective drama Richard Diamond, Private Detective actors Dick Powell and Ed Begley Sr. playing Richard Diamond and Lt. Levinson respectively, get into a brief give-and-take over "Who's dead?" which Diamond ends with "Oh, he's on third, don't you know?". It became a running gag on the show with several attempts on the theme. In a later episode the routine is repeated, but this time prematurely interrupted by Levinson with "I know who's dead! He's on third!" Another time Levinson starts with "Who's dead?" again, but this time Diamond cuts him short with "Oh no, this is my routine. You're not cut out for it."
  • The 1960s comedy group The Credibility Gap recorded a variant in which a rock concert promoter (Harry Shearer) attempts to advertise a concert, headlined by The Who, The Guess Who, and Yes in the Los Angeles Times. When the advertising manager David L. Lander asks him why he does not simply write the ad copy down, Shearer closes the routine by saying, "If I could write, I wouldn't have had to steal this bit!"

* Eugene Levy and Tony Rosato performed a variation on this theme on the TV series SCTV, with the rock groups The Band, The Who, and Yes. The final punchline changed to "This is for the birds (Byrds)!" "Oh, they split up years ago!"

* Similarly, in an episode of Animaniacs, Slappy and Skippy Squirrel attend the first Woodstock Festival, where they pay homage to the routine by confusing the names of the bands The Who, The Band, and Yes.

* Dick Van Patten also performed a similar version with one of his television sons, Adam Rich, on the sitcom Eight is Enough during the late seventies.

  • In Ellen Raskin's 1979 novel, The Westing Game, one of the tenants decides to rename a restaurant to "Hoo's on First" with "Hoo" referring to the last name of the owner, however, the restaurant is on the fifth floor and Hoo declines at first because of a rival coffee shop on the first floor. By the end, there are ten restaurants, named Hoo's on Second, Hoo's on Third, et al.
  • In the 1984 movie Purple Rain, the characters Morris and Jerome play on the theme in their "the password is what?" exchange.
  • The 1988 Oscar-winning movie Rain Man also heavily references the sketch. The movie's main character, Raymond (played by Dustin Hoffman), who is autistic, mutters the comedy routine as a defense mechanism when others become upset with him or something does not go his way.
  • A sketch in an episode of the Canadian TV series The Kids in the Hall features an attempt to stage the act, which is foiled by a straight man (Dave Foley) who is at first inattentive, and then outsmarts the joke by explaining, in tedious detail, why the other comedian was confused. ("No no, Watt is on—oh, I see what your problem is! Look, you're confused by their names, because they all sound like questions.")
  • An episode of U.S. Acres featured three dog brothers named "Who", "What" and "Where", with predictable confusion.
  • In The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss episode "Horton Has a Hit!", Mr. Fox and Mr. Knox put on a similar routine regarding the character Cindy Lou Who:
  • :Mr. Knox: Cindy Lou who?
  • :Mr. Fox: That's the girl's name.
  • :Mr. Knox: That's whose name?
  • :Mr. Fox: That's what I've been trying to tell you.
  • Canada's first all-comedy radio channel CFHA, located in Saint John, New Brunswick, chose this routine as the first sketch aired on their station.
  • An episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 features a sketch in which Mike Nelson tells Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot that his favorite form of Japanese theater is Noh theater in a way that is similar to the routine.
  • :Mike: No, no, wait a minute. Noh theater started in Japan.
  • :Servo: Oh, so now you tell us Japan doesn't have any theater whatsoever!
  • :Mike: They have lots of theater, including Noh theater.
  • :Crow: So they have lots of theater, and they have no theater?
  • On The Simpsons, in the 1999 episode "Marge Simpson in: 'Screaming Yellow Honkers'", Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner try their hand at being Abbott and Costello, but Skinner botches the routine six seconds into the act (with delivery of the line, "Not the pronoun but a player with the unlikely name of Who, is on first"), frustrating Chalmers, and bringing the act to a quick end.
  • The January 13, 2001 episode of Saturday Night Live included a "Who's On First" parody with Charlie Sheen and Rachel Dratch.
  • MAD magazine printed a modernized version of the sketch in which the duo attempt to organize MTV's music video library, which proves to be difficult because Costello takes Abbott's stating the song titles and band names literally. The original sketch's refrain of "I don't know/Third base!" was replaced by "You oughta know/Alanis Morissette!
  • The routine is referred to in the Veggie Tales episode "Duke and the Great Pie War", released in 2005.
  • A late-night show in Cleveland called Big Chuck and Little John re-did the "Who's on First" sketch.
  • Referenced in 2006 on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in the episode "The Wrap Party" by Aaron Sorkin, when Tom Jeter explains the sketch to his father and describes it as the best comedy sketch ever. Tom gives a copy of the recording to his father and tells him that he will laugh as much the fiftieth time he listens to it as he will the first.
  • Shel Silverstein's "The Meehoo with an Exactlywatt" in A Light In The Attic.
  • The Jerky Boys released a CD called Stop Staring at Me! which included a prank phone call titled "Nam Hu?" Character Frank Rizzo calls a man named Nam Hu and does a similar routine to the "Who's On First?" sketch.
  • An episode of the television show South Park entitled "Terrance and Phillip: Behind the Blow" featured a skit in the beginning with the characters Terrance and Phillip doing a spoof of the routine, but instead of baseball, it was regarding flatulence. "Who's the guy that farted?" "Who's the guy's name!" etc.
  • In an episode of Grounded for Life, Walt Finnerty is shown in a flashback performing the routine.
  • The puzzle-solving adventure game Inherit the Earth has a similar gag where Rif the Fox sneaks past a rat guard while his companions claim to be "Yassir Iyam" (yes, sir, I am) and "Hwour Yu" (Who are you). The routine is still continuing when you return, suggesting the companions kept the rat confused infinitely by the routine.
  • On Between the Lions, a cartoon featured a camp with animals who have pronouns for names (i.e him, her, you). During roll-call, they get into a "Who's on First" routine with the counselor.
  • The routine was imitated in the 2007 movie Rush Hour 3 where Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan are talking with a martial arts sensei and Chris Tucker is constantly asking "Who's Yu?" while the sensei is trying to answer with a continuation of the joke. A similar gag had already been included in the 2001 predecessor Rush Hour 2.
  • In the revised pilot for Father of the Pride, "Stage Fright", when Larry doesn't come on stage during the show, Siegfried and Roy stall by putting on a comedy routine:
  • :Siegfried: Roy, who's on first?
  • :Roy: I am.
  • :Siegfried: How is it over there?
  • :Roy: Nice.
  • An episode of Robot Chicken features the Fourth incarnation of Doctor Who standing on first base. He asks, "Do you get it?!"
  • In a 2000 episode of The PJs, Thurgood Stubbs and Smokey do this routine only based around theme of drug addiction (Crack).
  • In the 1991 episode of Seinfeld, called "The Tape," when George is trying to explain to Jerry how he became attracted to Elaine, and the conversation circles around, Jerry responds "What is this, an Abbot and Costello routine?"
  • In 1996, the World Wrestling Federation introduced the masked wrestler Who, which gave the promotion's television commentators an excuse to make riffs resembling the routine. He was played by Jim Niedhart.
  • The platform adventure game, Arcade America, the Director wants Joey to bring his monsters over to Woodstock. During the call, the director lists off all the people that couldn't come:

Director: The band couldn't make it, the yes said no, the whos said what, I don't know.

Joey: Second base.

Director: Whatever.

In Real Life

References

External links

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