On March 24, 1938, Americans tuned in to THE KATE SMITH HOUR collectively convulsed with laughter as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello introduced “Who’s On First?” to a national radio audience. The hilarious routine, with baseball manager Bud trying to explain the names of his team to an escalatingly exasperated Lou, soon became an American comedy classic, one I can never get tired of no matter how many times a watch a clip of A&C performing their signature bit – they slay me every time!
The routine had its roots squarely in burlesque long before Bud and Lou first made that historic broadcast. Puns and word play were the coin of the realm among burlesque comics, and variations on this confusing theme abounded in the early 20th Century. Early talking pictures feature a notable pair of examples: The Marx Brothers 1929 COCOANUTS has Groucho and Chico bantering over “Why A Duck?”, while 1930’s CRACKED NUTS featured Wheeler & Woolsey doing some doubletalk concerning the towns of “Which” and “What”.
A baseball version had been used on the burlesque curcuit, but it was Abbott & Costello who honed it to perfection, with an assist from their long-time gag writer John Grant. Bud and Lou never did the routine the same way twice, changing things to try and trip the other up, riffing like a couple of jazz musicians improvising on a familiar theme, keeping the bit (and themselves) sharp. Their Kate Smith performance earned them a contract with Universal, and the duo did an abridged version in their film debut, 1940’s ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS. They would revive the routine in 1945’s THE NAUGHTY NINETIES, and time and again on their own radio program. When the team produced their 1952-54 TV show, they did “Who’s On First” in the episode “The Actor’s Home”, which many aficionados consider the definitive version:
“Who’s On First?” was enshrined in Cooperstown, NY’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, where it still endlessly greets new arrivals to the venerable baseball shrine. In 2007, Dodgers rookie shortstop Chin-Lung Hu got his first hit, a single, causing veteran announcer Vin Scully to quip, “I can finally say, ‘Hu is on first'”!