Saturday, January 3, 2004

”Heeeeeeyyyyyy Abbott!!!!”

Nowadays, we remember the team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello primarily for their entertaining movie comedies made between 1940 and 1956, but they were also mainstays on the airwaves for nearly a decade during Radio’s Golden Age. They were regulars on The Kate Smith Hour for two years beginning February 3, 1938, starred in a summer replacement series for The Fred Allen Show in 1940, and were featured performers on The Charlie McCarthy Show during the 1941-42 season before finally settling into a weekly radio gig for Camel cigarettes (“C-A-M-E-L-S”) Thursday nights over NBC beginning October 8, 1942.

The Abbott and Costello Show was a hodgepodge of skits and routines that played to the comic duo’s strengths of clever wordplay and verbal slapstick. Lou was the child-like innocent who played patsy to Bud’s whip-smart con man. Sophisticated the show wasn’t; many of the program’s jokes and gags made the lowbrow material of Judy Canova and Red Skelton look as if it had graduated from finishing school. The show adhered to a simple formula of raucous corn, but it caught on quickly with the radio audience, particularly the younger set.

Bud and Lou were aided and abetted by a solid cast of second bananas: Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson, Sid Fields (who later played their landlord on TV), Iris Adrian, Verna Felton, and Artie Auerbach (who played Mr. Kitzel on this show prior to relocating to The Jack Benny Program). Their longtime announcer Ken Niles also played a large part in the comedy proceedings, as did character actress Elvia Allman, who played Mrs. Niles—a shrewish battleaxe often engaged in verbal fisticuffs with Costello. Skinnay Ennis and his orchestra provided the show’s music throughout most of its run, and several wonderful female vocalists were also prominently featured, including Connie Haines and Marilyn Maxwell.

On the DVD box set Looney Tunes: Golden Collection are printed some of the familiar one-liners that were frequently heard in these classic cartoons, and I chuckled when I read “I’m only three-and-a-half years old.” That phrase certainly got a workout in many Warners shorts, but it originated on Abbott & Costello, being a pet expression of Lou’s nephew Sebastian (played by Costello himself). Others include “I’m a baaaaaad boy” and “Come over here and kiss your poor old father,” uttered in a quavering voice by Lou when in the presence of a pretty girl.

In March 1943, Lou Costello was laid low by a bout of rheumatic fever and forced into a brief vacation from the show. (In the interim, Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore were thrown together as a last-minute replacement for Lou and Bud; the two worked so well together that they continued to headline their own CBS comedy series from 1943-47.) No sooner had Costello returned to the fold in the fall when another tragedy befell the man known to many as “Hard Luck Lou”; he was notified during dress rehearsal of the death of his year-old son, who had accidentally fell into the family swimming pool while unattended. Lou insisted on going on with the evening’s broadcast, and it was not until the program signed off and Lou broke down crying that Bud informed the stunned studio audience as to what had happened.

Though I’m personally more a fan of their film work than their radio series, I do have a handful of their shows in my collection, and I decide to take a brief respite from the Suspense project to listen to a broadcast from April 17, 1947. Costello has been asked to substitute for an ailing Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees:

LOU: DiMaggio probably heard about my playing with the Cucamonga Wildcats last year…
BUD: You a ballplayer? I don’t believe it, Costello…you know nothing about baseball…
LOU: Oh no? I eat baseball…I live baseball…all night when I’m asleep I dream about baseball…
BUD: Well…don’t you ever dream about girls?
LOU: What, and miss my turn at bat?
BUD: Oh…that’s ridiculous…what’s the matter with you?
LOU: Yes…and another thing, Abbott….(ad-libs) What page are you on?
BUD: Never mind what page I’m on…
LOU: …and another thing, Abbott…not only that, in Paterson, New Jersey—I worked out with a baseball team…I used to stay out till four o’clock in the morning…
BUD: Why did you stay out until four o’clock in the morning?
LOU: This was a girls’ baseball team…
BUD: Costello, if you’re going to play with the New York Yankees…you really have to know something about big-league baseball, Lou…
LOU: I know all about baseball…
BUD: All right…suppose there’s a left-handed pitcher pitching…what do you do?
LOU: I’d put in a right-handed batter…
BUD: Now, suppose there’s a right-handed pitcher pitching…
LOU: I’d put in a left-handed batter…
BUD: But now, I trick you…I take out the right-handed pitcher and put in a left-handed pitcher…
LOU: Then I double-cross you…I take out my left-handed batter and put in a right-handed batter…
BUD: Now wait a minute…where are you getting all these right-handed batters?
LOU: The same place where you’re getting all those left-handed pitchers!

(snip)

BUD: Well, Costello…if you want to be a big-league ballplayer, you’ve got to get yourself in shape…now, from 8 am to 9 am you lift weights…from 9 to 10, deep knee bends…10 to 11, skip rope…11 to 12, run five miles…
LOU: 12 to 1 I’ll never make it…
BUD: Aw hey, look…you idiot, you’ll never be a ballplayer…staying up late and going to nightclubs…eating rich foods, running around with beautiful girls…do you know what can happen to you?
LOU: Yes…I can become manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers…
BUD: Costello…I don’t even know why DiMaggio picked you…you don’t even know how to swing a bat…
LOU: I know all about swinging bats…when I was a kid, my father used to hit me with a baseball bat…my brother used to hit me with a baseball bat…my Uncle Artie Stebbins used to hit me with a baseball hat…and my mother used to hit me with a tennis racket…
BUD: With a tennis racket?
LOU: Yes…she didn’t like baseball…

(snip)

BUD: ...now you’ve got to get ready for the opening game…
LOU: Yeah, I think we’re going to play the
Cleveland Indians…
BUD: Cleveland Indians, eh…?
LOU: Uh-huh…
BUD: Feller pitching?
LOU: Certainly there’s a feller pitching…what do you think they’d use, a girl?
BUD: Oh, I…I know they don’t use a girl…I said, “Feller pitching…”
LOU: What feller?
BUD: Feller, with the
Cleveland Indians…
LOU: Look, Abbott…there’s nine guys on the
Cleveland team…which feller are you talking about?
BUD: Feller that pitches…there is only one Feller with Cleveland…
LOU: You mean nine Yankees are going to play against one feller?
BUD: That’s right.
LOU: You mean there’s no fellers in the outfield?
BUD: No!
LOU: And there’s no fellers in the infield?
BUD: No…
Cleveland only has one Feller…
LOU: Well, this feller must be pretty good if he don’t need any other players but himself…
BUD: Look, all the players will be out there helping him…
LOU: You just said that there was only one feller on the team…
BUD: That’s right!
LOU: Then where did all those other fellers come from?
BUD: Why, you idiot…when I say there’s only one Feller on the team, I mean that there is only one Feller that pitches…
LOU: Well, Abbott…when the manager of the team wants this pitcher, what does he call him?
BUD: Feller!
LOU: You mean he just hollers “HEY FELLER!” and this guy knows that they mean him?
BUD: That’s right.
LOU: Hoo hoo…
BUD: His name is Feller! Feller! Bob Feller! And when I say that there is only one Feller on the team that pitches, that’s it…and the feller that pitches is Feller…there’s other fellers on the team, but there’s only one Feller…
LOU: Boy, are you mixed up…oh, you mean the feller that pitches is Feller…and there’s other fellers on the team but they aren’t fellers?
BUD: Now you grasp it…
LOU: Yes…I grasp it…but it keeps slippin’ out of my hands!

Naturally (is he pitching today?), it wouldn’t be a true comedy baseball broadcast if Bud and Lou didn’t perform “Who’s on First?” which they do with absolute relish. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, since I’m certain we’re all familiar with that one. (This classic routine plays on an endless loop at the Baseball Hall of Fame for anyone in the Cooperstown, NY area.)

The fall of 1947 saw Abbott and Costello switch networks to ABC—Arthur Frank Wilheim mentions briefly in Radio Comedy that ABC’s leniency regarding transcribed programs is probably what lured the comedy duo away from NBC. In addition to their prime-time show, they also broadcast on Saturday mornings The Abbott & Costello Children’s Program, a show geared towards their younger fans. Both shows left ABC in 1949, and they soon conquered television with appearances on NBC’s big-name The Colgate Comedy Hour and their own filmed TV series from 1952-54 that is often cited by comedian Jerry Seinfeld as an influence on his self-titled TV sitcom. While the radio comedy of Bud and Lou could certainly be subject to shucking large husks of its corn, they perform with such vitality that it’s easy to get carried away along with the audience laughter which was loud and appreciative in the Golden Age of Radio.

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