Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Not Exactly Physical Comedy: Kinetic Typography

[post 022]

So here I go again, launching yet another blog feature that I think will repeat on a regular basis. This is reserved for stuff that's technically not what I would call physical comedy (and I have a pretty broad definition), but that I think would be of interest to the readers of this blog for one reason or another.

Let's launch it with an unusual version of (most of) Abbott & Costello's Who's on First, named the best comedy routine of the 20th-century by those well known comedy experts, the editors of Time magazine. There are no performers in this one, so you can't say it's physical, but the text sure do bust some nice moves.

If you like this style of typographic animation (and I do), try a YouTube search under kinetic typography.

If somehow you've never seen the original, there are several versions available on YouTube. What may be the best version, from their movie The Naughty Nineties, can be seen here.

Small world (two degrees of separation) department: Abbott & Costello first did Who's on First? for a national audience on the Kate Smith radio show in 1938. I performed on at least one TV show with Kate Smith about twenty years later. All I remember was she was quite big and was always singing "God Bless America."

Oh, now who's being naive?
You know how I hate to disillusion you (heh heh), but if you've always marveled at the originality of Abbott & Costello, then you've missed the lesson of On the Shoulders of Giants. "Who's on First?" is stolen from "Who Dyed?" a burlesque comedy routine which, as Ralph Allen points out in Best Burlesque Sketches, goes back to at least 1905; Abbott and Costello first performed together in 1935 at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater on 42nd Street in New York.

Here's the evidence:

2ND COMIC You've got a job? That's a surprise. Where are you working?
1ST COMIC At the Market Street Cleaners and Dyers.
2ND COMIC What do you do there?
1ST COMIC I dye.
2ND COMIC You what?
1ST COMIC I dye for a living. If I don't dye, I can't live.
2ND COMIC Are you sick?
1ST COMIC No. You don't have to be sick to dye.
2ND COMIC You don't?
1ST COMIC In fact, if you're sick, you can't dye.
2ND COMIC How long have you been dying?
1ST COMIC About two years. My father dyed ten years before I was born.
2ND COMIC Well, if you're dying, what are you doing here?
1ST COMIC I took a day off. You can't dye every day, you know. It wears you out.
2ND COMIC So, you didn't feel like dying today?
1ST COMIC No. You see, I'm not dyeing for myself.
2ND COMIC You're dying for another fellow?
1ST COMIC Uh huh.
2ND COMIC Why doesn't the other fellow die himself?
1ST COMIC He doesn't have to. He's the boss. Others dye for him.
2ND COMIC What's the name of the man you work for?
2ND COMIC The man you work for?
2ND COMIC The man you work for?
2ND COMIC Your boss. Look, you get paid, don't you?
1ST COMIC Of course. Don't you think I'm worth it?
2ND COMIC Who gives you the money?
1ST COMIC Naturally.
2ND COMIC Naturally?
1ST COMIC Naturally.
2ND COMIC So you get the money from Naturally?
2ND COMIC Then who gives it to you?
1ST COMIC Naturally.
2ND COMIC Naturally. That's what I said.
1ST COMIC No, you didn't! No, you didn't!
2ND COMIC You get the money from Naturally.
1ST COMIC But I don't!
2ND COMIC Then, you get the money from who?
1ST COMIC Naturally.
2ND COMIC What is the name of the man you get the money from?
1ST COMIC No. What's the bookkeeper.
2ND COMIC I don't know.

1ST COMIC She's the secretary.

Not surprisingly, there have been a lot of amusing adaptations of the routine in recent years —based for example on ballplayers and political leaders named Hu or on the rock bands The Who, The Band, and Yes. Here's an SCTV version from their "Midnight Express" episode:

Incidentally, one of the writing credits on this is Bernard Sahlins, one of the founders of Second City and translator of Tristan Rémy's Entrées Clownesques into English, published here as Clown Scenes.

And here are the Animaniacs at Woodstock, playing with the same rock band premise.

And to close, my favorite Abbott & Costello story: As Lou Costello got more popular, he wanted more money. One time, he threatened not to show up on set unless his demands were met. When advised in no uncertain terms that staying home would put him in violation of his contract and cost him a pretty penny, he replied, "Okay, I'll be there, but I can't guarantee you how funny I'll be."


Hank Smith said...

I like the "dye" routine. So, performers really stole each others material in vaudeville...I'm shocked!
I like the typographic "Who's On First". Gonna look for more of that kind of stuff on YouTube.

"Slowly I turned, step by step.....

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