It's hard to think of a more iconic comedy routine than Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First." Indeed, in 1999, Time magazine named it "The Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th Century." Take that, Cheech & Chong! "Who's on first?" has become a catch-phrase for any confusing situation, and linguists have used the exchange as an example of all sorts of concepts, like "dialogue act disambiguation" and "use-mention indicators." It's so deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness that it's easy to take for granted, or perhaps not even bother actually listening to. But download this classic — it's still really funny, a marvel of timing, teamwork and wordplay.
The origins of the piece are actually really controversial, with several credible versions of the story, but suffice it to say, similar bits had been kicking around the burlesque circuit for ages, and Abbott & Costello debuted theirs on Kate Smith's popular radio show in 1938, picking up on baseball's longstanding tradition of nicknames, like "Pepper," "Preacher" and "Flash," and coming up with maddening monikers like "Who," "What" and "I Don't Know." The show's producers allegedly didn't think the bit would translate to an audio-only medium, but it was an instant hit; for a time, they made Abbott & Costello reprise it once a month.
The duo wound up performing "Who's on First" hundreds, probably thousands, of times in their career, including two film appearances (One Night in the Tropics and The Naughty Nineties — a clip from the latter plays on infinite loop at the Baseball Hall of Fame). But this has got to be one of the duo's best recorded performances — it's utterly rapid-fire, like a Bob Feller fastball. (The skit had all kinds of set-ups, but the reference to the "Lou Costello Youth Foundation" means the recording was made some time around 1944, when Costello founded the organization after his infant son drowned in a swimming pool.) It's interesting — Costello gets the laughs, but he can screw up and the conversation still stays on a roll — it's straight-man Abbott who has to get everything exactly right, and get it right extremely quickly.
There's something universal about "Who's on First" — Abbott & Costello even performed a special soccer version at the London Palladium, and it still worked. As long as people continue to misunderstand each other this routine will hit home — in other words, it's immortal.
For me, there's only one mystery: who plays right field?