Abbott and Costello were a comedy double act composed of William "Bud" Abbott and Lou Costello, whose work on radio and in film and television made them the most popular comedy team of the 1940s and early 1950s. Their patter routine "Who's on First?" is one of the best-known comedy routines of all time, and set the framework for many of their best-known comedy bits.
Abbott (left) and Costello (right) circa 1940s.
Born New Jersey, United States Medium Stand-up, television, film, vaudeville, radio Nationality American Genres Word play, slapstick, deadpan
Bud Abbott (1897–1974) was a veteran burlesque entertainer from a show business family. He started in burlesque box offices as a treasurer around 1918, and eventually managed and produced touring burlesque companies before becoming a performer. He worked as a straight man with his wife Betty, then with veteran burlesque comedians such as Harry Steppe and Harry Evanson.
Lou Costello (1906–1959) became a burlesque comic in 1928 after failing to break into movie acting and working as a stunt double and film extra. He appears briefly in the 1927 Laurel and Hardy silent two-reeler, The Battle of the Century, seated at ringside during Stan Laurel's ill-fated boxing match. (As a teenager, Costello had been an amateur boxer in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey.) Costello's first appearance in burlesque was in St. Joseph, Missouri. He joined the Mutual Burlesque wheel in 1929, and Minsky's in 1932.
While they crossed paths a few times, the two comedians first worked together in 1935 at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater on 42nd Street—now the lobby of the AMC Empire movie complex in New York City. This performance came about when Costello's regular partner became ill. When AMC moved the old theater 168 ft (51 m) further west on 42nd Street to its current location, giant balloons of Abbott and Costello were rigged to appear to pull it.
Other performers in the show, including Abbott's wife Betty, advised a permanent pairing. The duo built an act by refining and reworking numerous burlesque sketches with Abbott as the devious straight man and Costello as the dimwitted comic.
Movies and fame
The team's first known radio appearance was on The Kate Smith Hour in February 1938. The similarities between their voices made it difficult for radio listeners (as opposed to stage audiences) to tell them apart during their rapid-fire repartee. As a result, Costello began affecting a high-pitched, childish voice. "Who's on First?" was first performed for a national radio audience the following month. They performed on the program as regulars for two years, while also landing roles in a Broadway revue, The Streets of Paris, in 1939.
Caricature of the pair from NBC-TV's Colgate Comedy Hour.