The Who, What and Why of late night television

Nice to see Late Night with Jimmy Fallon pay tribute to a classic. Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s On First?” routine gets a new shine here, with “Who” and “What” getting in on the gag.
While the basic “Baseball Sketch” predates Abbott & Costello, the famous comedy team performed the routine for years before fully committing it to film in 1945’s The Naughty Nineties (they did part of it earlier in their first feature, One Night in the Tropics). There was no audience, only the camera crew present when they shot that film, and it is a bit weird to see it today and not hear an audience respond. Here’s a tip: if you have The Naughty Nineties on DVD or catch it on TCM, sit close and turn up the sound. You can actually hear the cameramen laughing.
Fallon’s show faithfully recreated the burlesque stage proscenium and baseball field backdrop as well as the “St. Louis Wolves” uniforms used in The Naughty Nineties. They get bonus points for doing it all in glorious black and white.
Interesting to see Fallon’s announcer Steve Higgins step so effectively into the Lou Costello role (right down to the bowler hat and plaid shirt).
I’ve performed this routine countless times way back in the day with Pat Bullock and it is all about timing. We wore out a few needles listening to a recording on a record player until we had it down cold.
Cleveland, Ohio, TV critic Mark Dawidziak, who also runs a touring theatre company, has performed both sides of this routine over the years and guided me through a few press tour renditions. He pointed out at the time that it is the rare comedy routine where the straight man–Bud Abbott–sets the table and moves everything forward.
Higgins nails his end of it by ramping up the frustration. Baseball fan Crystal looks so at home a) in a vaudeville setting b) in a baseball sketch c) in black and white. Jerry Seinfeld–a huge A&C fan (he’s acknowledged that the duo’s early ’50s TV series was a big influence on Seinfeld)–has a small role. Tipping his baseball cap to Fallon’s studio audience after prolonged applause was a nice touch. The other guy (“What”) is A.D. Miles, head writer of Fallon.
Most recent stabs at “Who’s On First?” only take half swings at this classic sketch, so hat’s off to Fallon and company for taking this one over the fence.

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