Since I’ve covered sketches that were firmly conceived for television thus far, I thought I’d go a little bit further back for something a little more classic. To many people, the names “Abbot and Costello” are synonymous with “Who’s On First?”, perhaps the most famous bit of American comedy ever produced. It’s justly influential, and as such I’ve decided there’s really no reason to cover it or analyze it further. So instead, let’s look at a different bit from the same duo, one that also showcases their strengths. (Technically, there’s a difference between a skit, a bit, and a sketch, but for my purposes I’m going to count this as a “sketch”. My blog series, my rules.).
In his sci-fi comedy novel The Road to Mars, Eric Idle expounded on the theory of the White Face/Red Nose approach to comedy duos: in circuses, the clown with the white face was the one throwing the pie, and the clown with the red nose was the one getting hit in the face with it. What’s fascinating is how this essential duo shows up all over the world in different comedy settings, from Italian commedia dell’arte to Chinese crosstalk routines. Whether it’s a stern parent and an unruly child, a mean teacher and a motormouthed student, an army colonel and a goofy cadet or whatever other calculus you wish, the roots are often the same.
And speaking of calculus, our sketch today centers around crooked math and the way a shifty trickster character tries to beat the system. You don’t need to know Abbot and Costello’s stage personas to enjoy this bit, since they’re instantly recognizable, but it helps. Abbott is the raspy-voiced crank, Costello is the whining loudmouth with the New York accent, and the crux of the sketch hinges on a challenge from one to the other.
Like many vaudeville bits, this one has many iterations. I’m using this particular version from YouTube because it has a live audience and does, in fact, feature both Bud and Lou, unlike some of the other variations you can find. Nevermind the stuff at the beginning about the passport and the angry landlord: the meat of this sketch comes from nimble delivery and the chemistry between its performers. Abbott and Costello are justly famous for both.
Costello, in his shabby suit and puffed-up hat, has to prove that he paid seven weeks’ worth of rent with just $28 (the actual rent amount he owes is only $91, which in 2018 wouldn’t even pay my January electric bill for a two-bedroom apartment). First he tries division, in a sequence that gets the biggest laughs from me, where he makes a big deal out of the physical size of the numbers on the chalkboard (“That’s a cute little two! I’m not gonna push that big seven into that little two!”). I love the way he seems to revel in pissing off Abbott, who just wants him to get on with it, already. This is actually a genius move because it stokes the Tall Scowly One’s impatience so much that it increases what Costello can get away with. Using the tried and true techniques of asking his mark for permission and varying the pace of his patter, Costello magically gets the right numbers to appear on the board, and that’s all that matters to him. The audience roars with applause (“Don’t encourage him, please!”).
Not to be outdone, Abbott asks him to do it again with multiplication this time. This is a perfect escalation, because the straight man is now so confident that he’s calling the shots that he doesn’t notice Costello switching the game up until it’s too late, adding two of the numbers at the last minute to get 28. Finally, Abbott demands addition and counts the threes himself: there’s no possible way he can screw this up. Just as he’s about to triumphantly prove Costello wrong, Lou swoops in with the punchline, again beating his foil and producing 28. By the time we’ve processed what he’s done he’s streaked across the finish line, leaving chaos in his wake.
American comedy and vaudeville in particular is infatuated with the idea of fast-talking con-men, including Mark Twain’s hustler characters, Bugs Bunny, and even someone like Tony Stark. The Founding Fathers themselves are often portrayed as scrappy heroes pit against the establishment. There’s an undeniable dark side to these kinds of performances, from their links to minstrel shows to the parallels in Trumpism and demogogues, but something about the joy of this specific routine is downright infectious. I believe that everyone who strives to write comedy secretly wants to create something as well-constructed as an old-time back and forth like this.