Abbott and Costello: The End of an Era

Today is Bud Abbott’s birthday.  I apologize for spelling his name wrong in “No Applause”.

Abbott and Costello represent the end of life on earth as we know it. They are a plague, a catastrophe, a disaster of Biblical proportions. It is my great pride and pleasure to proclaim that they have nothing to do with vaudeville. However, because they are linked in the public’s mind with “vaudeville” and with “comedy teams” the author feels it incumbent upon him to set the record straight.

Abbott and Costello came out of burlesque in the 1930s, the last place on earth where you could find a two man comedy team wearing derby hats. Burlesque was very different from vaudeville, however. The comedy was highly codified, as in comedia dellarte. There was a finite number of conventional sketches, which all of the acts used in common. Comedy teams did not invent their own material, they adapted material shared by the entire industry. Glimpses on how burlesque comedy worked might be gotten from watching the Phil Silvers movie Top Banana or the 1968 film The Night They Raided Minsky’s with Jason Robards. The “Who’s On First” routine was very, very old when Abbott and Costello appropriated it. The men originated nothing you might put on a page, which is not an aspersion: that is just how it worked in burlesque. One must judge them purely on their performance.

Bud Abbott was the best straight man in burlesque. About the likable, smooth, and impeccably faultless Abbott I have nothing bad to say. Costello, on the other hand, is a car wreck. A fat man with a silly face, his aimless mugging was three times worse than all three Ritz Brothers combined, and paved the way for the public’s acceptance of the headache-inducing indulgences of Jerry Lewis.

Worse, the team and their handlers helped pioneer the idea that a Hollywood comedy could be worthless, disposable, even intolerable, so long as it turned a profit. Their films from 1940-1958 set the boiler plate for the endless, plodding, almost grim film disasters of Martin and Lewis and Elvis Presley. They contributed to the environment in which comedy teams like the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy were no longer given the freedom to be brilliant—indeed, were actually forced to be terrible. It was an atmosphere in which the Keystone Kops couldn’t even get arrested. But Universal studios could make a film like Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops.

Abbott and Costello rang down the curtain on all that we love (i.e., centuries of the development of the physical comedy art form as a disciplined practice in theatre, music hall, and vaudeville). They killed “classic comedy”. Now let the hate mail begin!

Addendum: I ameliorated my position somewhat in a subsequent post. Read it here.

For more on Abbott and Costello and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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