The Abbott and Costello TV Show: Much Better Than Their Movies


Today is Bud Abbott’s birthday. Those who really know me know I’m a huge fan of Abbott, and, um, less enthusiastic about Costello (see previous post here and my section on them in Chain of Fools). Today it occurred to me that rather than go negative as in the past I would offer up — not a backpeddling but a clarification.

My criticisms of the team are about their movies. When I was a kid, an Abbott and Costello movie was something one watched when it was raining outside and there was nothing better on the other two channels. And then I would do something else while the movie was on, and then wander away from the tv long before it was over. Am I starting off on the wrong foot? It’s okay, this paragraph is over.

“Sure! You’re my pal, aren’t yer?”

Where Abbott and Costello truly excelled — and I use that word with no hedging or qualification — was television.  They were terrific on variety shows where they could do the old burlesque routines and improvise and generally cut up. And they (and their writers and cast) were SUPERLATIVE on their sit com, which ran from 1952 through 1954. This show has been on several lists of 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time” — I could sign on for that, absolutely, without reservation.

“Are you going to turn that radio down, or will I have to bash your head in?”

Directed and produced by old silent comedy vet Jean Yarbrough, shot at the old Hal Roach studios, the show had a kind of magic to it, as the team juggled very simple plots about trying to pay the rent on their shabby apartment, with classic burlesque routines. The universe stretched from old time vaudeville stereotypes like Mr. Bacciagalupe (Joe Kirk)…to the bizarre spectacle of middle aged Joe Besser playing an obnoxious child named “Stinky”… to fancy lady Hillary Brooke…to the hilarious Sidney Fields as their grumpy landlord and foil…to a chimp named Bingo who was dressed just like Costello. Writing for the show was one of the last jobs of comedy veteran Clyde Bruckman.

Kibbitzing on the stoop with “Stinky” — ya know, like ya do.

The show’s half hour format made for a lean mean comedy machine, equivalent to an old time comedy short, a format much more appropriate to the team’s broad comedy…no padding with romantic subplots and musical numbers, or dreary scenes with scheming villains. If only their movies could have been more like this!

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including Aboott and Costello, 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 etc etc etc

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