Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Revisiting "Who's On First?"

[post 370]

I've already written about Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First" in this post, which is chock full of interesting stuff, but now I have three more takes on it to share with you.

TAKE 1 is "a little Patter and Dance by Norman & Arnold — Australia's Gentlemen Wags." It's from the Pathé vaults by way of Eccentric Dance expert Betsy Baytos. No explanations, just watch!


For the record, that was from 1931 and Abbott & Costello first performed together in 1935, but then again similar routines date back to at least 1905.

TAKE 2. All of the variations on "Who's on First?" that I've ever seen had two characters, until Jimmy Fallon came along and tried it with five, including Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. And it works, even if Fallon as Abbott and whoever that is as Costello are no more than serviceable imitations of the originals.

TAKE 3 is not a variation, but rather a fresh way of looking at the routine. While it is a highly verbal piece and can be enjoyed in an audio-only format, what really sells it for me are Costello's increasingly physical displays of his own frustration.

Which brings me to Steve Kaplan's book The Hidden Tools of Comedy (which I reviewed here) and his workshop, which I take every three decades, most recently this December. In the workshop, one thing we did was to each write down one question about comedy. Mine, not surprisingly, was "what is the role of physicality in comedy?" Steve was very clear in his response, saying that it's absolutely essential because the comic character has to find an external expression of their internal feeling. Steve is not fond of comedy where each line tries to top the previous one, as in many mediocre tv sitcoms, preferring instead to see characters lost in situations where the comedy comes from their reaction to their predicament. Sounds a lot like clowning, no?

But it goes further than that. Instead of analyzing status or straightman-comic dichotomies, Steve looks at comic partnerships in terms of what he calls Straight Line / Wavy Line:

The dynamic of Straight Line  / Wavy Line is the idea that comedy isn't us watching somebody doing something funny, but rather us watching someone watching someone do something funny. Straight Line  / Wavy Line is:
• The one who does not see and the one who does
• The one blind to or creating the problem, and the one struggling with the problem
• The essential dynamic of comic focus, not character

And guess what his first example is. Yep, "Who's on First?" And in this case, Bud Abbott has the information, he "sees" the names of the players, but he does not see that he is confusing Costello. Costello struggles mightily, but it is because he actually sees there's a problem, and he eventually solves it: "Third base!"

As Costello gets more and more frustrated, he also becomes more and more animated, emitting odd noises, flailing about, at one point seemingly screwing himself into the ground while steam practically vents from the top of his head.... The Wavy Line, the human being in the scene, has the obligation to express his internal reality. All those comic noises are the external expression of an internal truth. If you could put a sound and a movement to frustration, that's what it would look like.

There's lots more, so read the book!


Steve Kaplan said...

Great blog, even the two thirds not about me!

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