Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ruled American stages and airwaves for more than 20 years, becoming one of the most iconic acts in show business with their rapid-fire delivery and slapstick comedy.
Inspired by Charlie Chaplin, Costello made his way to Tinseltown in 1927 to work as a stuntman, but after an injury he picked up a microphone and quickly became one of the top comedians in New York’s burlesque and vaudeville circuits, despite never working onstage.
The comics came together by chance in the early 1930s, before officially teaming up in 1936.
During the next few years, the duo perfected routines each had done countless times with other onstage partners, including the baseball sketch “Who’s on First?,” which made the duo famous.
This should ring a bell—
Costello: Well then who’s on first?
Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
Costello: The guy on first.
Costello: The first baseman.
Costello: The guy playing…
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.
Abbott: That’s the man’s name.
Costello: That’s who’s name?
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, they “acquired a national following when singer Kate Smith booked them on her radio show in 1938; the next year they appeared in the Broadway revue Streets of Paris with one of their idols, comic Bobby Clark. In 1940 Abbott and Costello appeared in supporting roles in their first movie for Universal Studios, One Night in the Tropics, and the following year they starred in the first film tailored for their talents, the army comedy Buck Privates. The film was a huge success and led to a series of starring vehicles for the team that lasted until 1956. Their more notable comedies included Hold That Ghost (1941), In the Navy (1941), Pardon My Sarong (1942), Lost in a Harem (1944), and The Naughty Nineties (1945). Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)—in which they battled the famous Universal characters of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Wolfman—is generally regarded as their best film.”
When Abbott and Costello’s box office earnings began to slip during the early 1950s, they found renewed popularity on TV, both as recurring hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950–55) and as stars of The Abbott and Costello Show (1952–54). After their final film, Dance with Me, Henry (1956), Abbott and Costello went their separate ways. The breakup was overdue, as the pair had spent a decade feuding and trading barbs in the press.
In 1959, Costello suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 52 in Beverly Hills.
Abbott died 15 years later of cancer at age 76 on April 24, 1974, at his home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles.
Despite breaking up more than 60 years ago, the Who’s on First routine is still widely known and just as funny as ever.