Many of the classic movie comedy teams from Laurel & Hardy to The Three Stooges scampered across the TV screens of our youth, but only one actually appeared in a brand-new, made-for-TV series. That was Abbott and Costello.
Actually, to say the series featured brand new material is a bit misleading. What The Abbott and Costello Show accomplished is something far more significant. It preserved for future generations a portion of American theatrical history that might have been lost to the ages without them.
The Abbott and Costello Show went into production in 1952 when Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s career and working relationship were at low ebb. In fact, things between the boys had reached a point where Lou made himself producer and owner of the series. Abbott was reduced to working strictly on salary.
To make the show as quickly and cheaply as possible, most episodes were built around classic routines from burlesque theater – the place where A&C had gotten their start. In so doing, A&C preserved classic comedy routines from live theater that might have been lost forever.
Burlesque was a lower rent version of vaudeville, filled mainly with strippers and baggy pants comics. As performers often would come and go from theater to theater quickly, a repertoire of sketches common to all “burly-q” houses developed. That way, any newly arriving comic or showgirl could be quickly integrated into set routines with which every performer on the circuit was familiar.
Both Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges had worked a few of these classic routines into their films. But The Abbott and Costello Show helped to preserve dozens more of them in their purest form. These sketches included names like “Crazy House,” “The Susquehanna Hat Company,” and, of course, “Niagara Falls, Slowly I Turn.” (Truth be told, even A&C’s signature bit “Who’s on First” was not originated by the team. It was a classic burlesque routine they simply perfected.)
In each episode of the show, there was never a lot of character development. The cast was small. Bud and Lou were two guys, usually out of work, living in an apartment building owned by fellow burlesque veteran Sid Fields (who also helped write the scripts). Hillary Brooke played their neighbor and occasional girlfriend for Lou. Gordon Jones was Mike the Cop, Joe Kirk (Lou’s brother-in-law) appeared as Mr. Bacciagalupe. And Joe Besser, who went on to become a member of the Stooges, dressed in a Lord Fauntleroy suit as a neighborhood kid named Stinky. Obviously, they never expected us to buy this middle age man as a child. That was one of the jokes.
The shows had just enough plot to get the cast into a classic burlesque routine. We never cared about plot anyway. The whole point was to laugh at Abbott & Costello. And we did!
The team shot a total of 52 episodes over 2 years. That’s not a lot by TV standards, but like “the Classic 39” episodes of The Honeymooners, the quality was so good, the show kept running in syndication for decades, earning Abbott and Costello new generations of fans. Like Jerry Seinfeld, who said he patterned his popular sitcom after A&C, focusing strictly on getting laughs, not teaching people lessons.
The Abbott and Costello Show never had a first run on network television. It was produced (like Superman) purely for local syndication. Reruns did pop up on CBS for one season as part of that network's Saturday morning line-up. But its enduring popularity earned the series a place on Time Magazine’s list of “The 100 Best TV Shows of All Time.”
All 52 episodes are currently available on home video. Should you ever really want to know, “Who’s on first?” The answer is Bud Abbott and Lou Costello!