Monday, May 25, 2015

The Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon 2015: The Abbott and Costello Show

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon (May 25-28) hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association.  Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

The release in 1948 of what many fans consider to be their finest and funniest motion picture—Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein—signaled a return of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to the yearly top ten tally of box office film stars.  The duo didn’t stay there for long, however; by 1952 they would be replaced by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as the country’s most successful movie comedy team—and in hindsight, it was probably not too disappointing for the verbal slapstick duo.  For despite their incredible film success, which really began with their second film, 1941’s Buck Privates, the two men didn’t have a great deal of either affection or patience for the moviemaking process.  Stories are legend about their boredom at how time consuming working on a set could be, and they often passed the time with epic poker games and prank-pulling.  “’When do we come and what do we wear?’” reminisced the immortal Buster Keaton about the duo’s approach to movies during his days as an MGM gag writer (in a clip from the documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow).  “Then the day they started shooting they find out what the script’s about.”

It would be the new medium of television that would bear responsibility for the comedy team’s renewed vitality in their performances, particularly when Abbott & Costello became part of the permanent rotating group of weekly hosts on The Colgate Comedy Hour.  Performing on live television reminded Bud & Lou of their glory days on the burlesque stage, and most comedians will no doubt agree that hearing the appreciative laughter of a live audience is far more stimulating than doing the same routines in front of a jaded movie crew who’ve probably stopped laughing after the third take.  Surviving kinescopes from that era show both men having the time of their lives (to use one of the titles from their classic film oeuvre), and their success on the small screen would lead to one of the most popular syndicated series in the history of the boob tube: The Abbott and Costello Show.

The premise of The Abbott and Costello Show was disarmingly simple: Bud and Lou played themselves, a pair of unemployed actors who lived in a rooming house run by the apoplectic Sidney Fields, also playing himself.  Fields was a crony of the duo from their radio days; he often performed on the program (in addition to supplying much of the writing, since his background was in burlesque as well) as various characters with the surname of “Melonhead,” which he continued occasionally on their TV show as well.  A hallmark of Fields’ radio interactions with Costello would be a routine in which Sid easily takes offense at Lou’s innocent suggestions, and no matter how much the comedian tries to be diplomatic his comments he’s unable to appease the angry Fields (below is a similar snippet from the TV episode “The Birthday Party”):

LOU: Mr. Fields…you are invited to my party…
FIELDS: You’re finally inviting me…you want me to bring a present, huh?
LOU: Look, Mr. Fields—a lot of people are bringing presents…you don’t have to bring me no present…
FIELDS: I see…everybody brings a present…you want me to come empty-handed…people should look at me and say, “Sidney Fields is a cheapskate”…huh?  “Sidney Fields is nothing but a broken-down, dirty tramp”—is that it?
LOU: Look, Mr. Fields—you don’t look like no tramp…you look nice…
FIELDS: I don’t, huh…my feet are coming through my shoes…my elbows are coming through my sleeves…
LOU: Yeah…and your head is coming through your hair

In the first season of the show, Fields not only played his landlord self but other relatives in the Fields family—who turned up from time to time whenever Abbott & Costello were in search of work.  (Fields made no attempt to disguise his dual roles, simply slapping on a moustache or cheap toupee to maintain the “deception.”)  Much of the show’s comedy revolved around Bud and Lou’s tenuous housing situation: the two men were constantly in arrears as far as their room rent was concerned, with Fields threatening to evict the duo at every turn.  Fields was also the series’ most prolific scripter; he’s credited with twenty-five of the total fifty-two episodes telecast, demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of burlesque comedy.

Also among the supporting cast was actress Hillary Brooke…playing Hillary Brooke.  (The Abbott and Costello Show did not set any records for casting originality.)  Hillary was essentially Lou’s love interest, and though her regal bearing and accent suggested that she was a Britisher by birth, Brooke actually hailed from Astoria, NY (she cultivated a British accent in her early show business years to set herself apart from her blonde competitors).  She first worked with Bud and Lou in their 1949 comedy Africa Screams, and would later reteam with them in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952).  Because the first season of the TV show was filmed at the legendary “Lot of Fun” (the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, CA), it was no doubt a nice working arrangement for Hillary since she was also appearing semi-regularly on the Gale Storm sitcom My Little Margie, on which she played the high-class Roberta Townsend—frequent girlfriend of Vern Albright (Charles Farrell).  Brooke appeared on Bud and Lou’s program only in its first season, though she does have a cameo in a second-season episode, “In Society,” in which she helps Mike the Cop out of a pair of handcuffs.

“Mike the Cop” was Officer Mike Kelly, and played by one-time movie Green Hornet (and occasional Roy Rogers sidekick) Gordon Jones.  Jones had played a bad guy in Bud & Lou’s underrated The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), and on their TV show acted as the boys’ nemesis: a lunk-headed cop who was always threatening to run Costello in on some charge, though Mike may have been the only policeman on the force dumber than Lou.  Mike was easily excitable, which made him the perfect foil, and Jones was fortunate to continue on in Season Two after several of the series’ regulars got their pink slip.

Two of those regulars were Joe Besser and Joe Kirk (a couple of Joes).  Besser played “Stinky Davis,” a malevolent brat clad in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit (it was intimated that Stinky really was a child, though he didn’t fool much of the audience) who was the bane of Lou’s existence (“I’ll harm you!”).  Besser had also worked with the duo in Africa Screams, stealing that movie with a scene in which he runs back and forth with a glass of water as Bud and Lou are engaged in discussion; when asked why he keeps interrupting, Besser replies in that memorable whine of his: “Oooh, my tent is on fire!”  (They recreated this gag in one of the first season episodes, incidentally.)   The other Joe was actually Costello’s brother-in-law; Joe Kirk (who also had appeared on the team’s radio show) played Mr. Bacciagalupe, an Italian vendor whose line of business would change according to the demands of the episode—in some installments he was a greengrocer, in others a baker.  Kirk divorced Lou’s sister in 1953, which might explain why he didn’t stick around for the second and last season.

Also discharged from Season One was Bingo the Chimp, first introduced in “The Politician”…and whose subsequent surge in popularity resulted in more episodes being based around the Simian-American, who functioned as Costello’s pet (he even wore an outfit similar to Lou’s).  The scuttlebutt has it that Lou didn’t particularly care for Bingo, and the animal may have sensed the animosity because he up and bit his co-star on the set one day…oblivious to the fact that it may not have been in the best interest of an ambitious chimpanzee to antagonize the actor who owned a large piece of the show.  Like Hillary, Bingo also made a cameo appearance in a second-season episode once he had been dismissed: he does a brief roller-skating turn in “Cheapskates.”

Other performers who appeared on The Abbott and Costello Show’s first season included several of the duo’s close cronies: Milt Bronson, Joan Shawlee, Murray Leonard and Bobby Barber, to name a few.  (Barber was a longtime member of the A&C payroll; his official title was “court jester,” supplying the pies-to-be-thrown and other prankish items used on their film sets to keep the hi-jinks at a suitable level so that Bud and Lou could perform.)  The show’s first season also featured a number of thespians who had previously appeared on the team’s radio program: Elvia Allman and Iris Adrian, for starters. 

Fans of The Abbott and Costello Show generally consider the series’ first season to be the strongest.  It wasn’t much more than a peg to hang their classic burlesque routines on, to be honest: “Jail” features the “Slowly I Turn” bit (also known as “Pokomoko” or “Niagara Falls”); “The Army Story” cribs a lot of material from Buck Privates; the highlight of “The Charity Bazaar” is the “Lemon Bit,” which the team also performed on occasion on The Colgate Comedy Hour.  In “The Haunted House,” Bud, Lou and Hillary have to spend a night in the titular dwelling according to the details of a will…and wouldn’t you know, here’s the “Moving Candle” routine from Hold That Ghost (1941).  “Peace and Quiet” gives the boys all the room they need to perform “Crazy House” (though in this instance it’s more like “Crazy Hospital”).  And before you ask, they get around to their most famous piece of material—“Who’s on First?”—in “The Actors’ Home.”

But there was an endearingly loopy insanity about the program’s first season that attracts fans even today—Bud and Lou inhabited a world in which crooks and sharpies lie in wait around every corner, and women would walk right up to Lou for no reason and slap his face (“How dare you look like someone I hate!”).  The show made no attempt to ground itself in reality; the team would often emphasize the theatricality of the program by appearing in front of a theater curtain and commenting on the events that had transpired in “breaking-the-fourth-wall” fashion.  There was even a running gag involving an unidentified “card girl,” who would come out with a large card listing the other performers who would be appearing in the episode…and concealing Lou’s face in the process, much to his annoyance.

Since the first season had pretty much chewed up most of Bud and Lou’s repertoire, the second season (which abandoned the jaunty opening titles, featuring scenes from such A&C movies as Keep ‘Em Flying [1941] and In Society [1944]) reconditioned itself into a more traditional sitcom, and saw veteran scribe Clyde Bruckman hired to pen many of the episodes.  Bruckman is a most enigmatic figure in the world of comedy; he worked alongside such greats as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields…though the jury is out on how much Clyde actually contributed to their films, since those comedians already had clearly defined screen personas.  Bruckman was considered radioactive where employment was concerned; two of the studios who availed themselves of his services, Columbia and Universal, were on the receiving end of lawsuits from Lloyd because Clyde had a habit of reusing old material from Harold’s films…and many others as well.  (Let me just state that if recycling classic gags was a crime—our comedy prisons would be filled to capacity.)

So while not as popular as the inaugural season, Year Two of The Abbott and Costello Show is of interest to comedy fans because Bruckman’s contributions are so easily recognizable from previous laughter excursions.  An installment like “Killer’s Wife” is basically a refashioned Hugh Herbert two-reeler—any of them, to be honest.  The same can be said for “Private Eye,” which appropriates many elements of Columbia’s “scare” comedies.  “Car Trouble” reworks the Buster Keaton short Nothing But Pleasure (1940), while “South of Dixie” borrows heavily from The Three Stooges’ Uncivil War Birds (1946).  The premise of “Honeymoon House” is that Lou has put together a pre-fab cottage (with help from Bud and Mr. Fields) for his fiancée (Karen Sharpe), unaware that his rival (Danny Morton) has sabotaged the project by painting over the actual numbers.  (Any resemblance to the classic Keaton two-reeler One Week [1920] is purely coincidental.)  Veteran comedy writer Jack Townley also contributed to the second season output; he was responsible for one of my favorite episodes, “Amnesia,” in which Bud manages to convince Lou that he’s been married to a woman for three months to keep him from actually walking down the aisle with an unknown correspondent from the Lonely Hearts Club.  The actress who plays Lou’s “wife” is Adele Jergens, who “de-glams” from her usual attractive persona to play a rolling-pin-wielding harridan.  (Hey—I like Adele.  So sue me.)

All fifty-two episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show were directed by Jean Yarborough, a journeyman who worked with Bud and Lou at Universal in the 1940s (Here Come the Co-Eds, The Naughty Nineties) and the 1950s (Jack and the Beanstalk, Lost in Alaska)—so he was familiar with the team, and even had the foresight to insist that a camera be focused on Lou at all times in the event the comic came up with an inventive bit of business.  Yarborough also produced the series (taking over from Alex Gottlieb), though the title of “executive producer” went to Costello’s brother Pat in one of those Hollywood nepotism stories we’ve come to know and love.

Critics were not kind to The Abbott and Costello Show…but then again, Bud and Lou were never really held close to any critic’s bosom throughout their long show business career.  Sure, the series was crammed with lowbrow humor and jokes old enough to be collecting pensions…but as I have long pointed out here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, sometimes the jokes with the longest whiskers got the biggest laughs.  Costello bet director Charles Barton on the set of A&C Meet Frankenstein that one gag—“My date had so much bridgework every time I kissed her I had to pay a toll”—would get a boffo response from the theater audience, more so than some of the other scripted material…and a chagrined Barton was forced to pay up when it did just that.  (And yes, Bud and Lou recycle that old chestnut in one of the show’s episodes as well.)  The Abbott and Costello Show would spend years and years in The Old Syndication Home; the show was at one time a mainstay of WGN’s programming, who no doubt used the series as an appetizer before they’d unspool one of the team’s classic movies.  It’s currently a staple at MeTV, where it airs Sunday mornings at 7am EDT—an hour-long block of classic comedy.

And while The Abbott and Costello Show might not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, it’s an important television artifact because—along with Bud and Lou’s movies—it’s a virtual encyclopedia of burlesque routines: the popular variety show theatrical form is but a distant memory in the past, so it’s nice that someone took the time to make sure it was recorded for generations to follow.  Jerry Seinfeld even acknowledged the influence The Abbott and Costello Show had on his own self-titled sitcom, Seinfeld; the main antagonist in the episode “The Old Man” is named “Sidney Fields,” and the Chinese puzzle intricacies of many of Seinfeld’s episodes (miscommunication and emphasis on plot complications rather than character development) can be directly traced back to its source in Bud and Lou.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)


Rick29 said...

Excellent and comprehensive post about an underrated TV series that's still being show 63 years after its original broadcast. I saw all of A&C's Universal movies as a kid and can remember the day I discovered their TV series being shown a Saturday morning. Wouldn't you know it was the episode with "Who's on First?" I agree that the first season was the best, in part because of Hilary Brooke (who was a worthy Moriarty crony in THE WOMAN IN GREEN). I had forgotten that Joe Besser was on the show. I always thought he was one of the better Curly replacements in THE THREE STOOGES. I really like your point about THE A&C SHOW being a "virtual encyclopedia of burlesque routines." Well done.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Rick mentioned:

in part because of Hilary Brooke (who was a worthy Moriarty crony in THE WOMAN IN GREEN)

One of my Mom's favorite pasttimes is watching the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, and the last time we watched The Woman in Green she remarked: "It's hard to believe that's the same woman who stooged on The Abbott and Costello Show..."

Hal said...

Terrific and comprehensive writeup. 52 episodes and yet still so fresh (the first season especially) 60 years later. Some renditions, like 13 x 7 = 28, for example. work much better here than in the movie versions.

Always happy to see Joan Shawlee show up. :)

Daniel B? said...

Excellent article. Thank you.

This won't be the most insightful comment here but: The A&C Show was simply funny. Full stop. If you want to laugh out loud, watch it. I first saw the show a long time ago in a block with Burns & Allen. My mom, who never used to laugh that much, always laughed with me during that hour. Great stuff, great write-up.

David Hofstede said...

Remember these shows fondly from WGN when I lived in Chicago. Great piece!

hobbyfan said...

Bruckman was a writer and/or producer for the 3 Stooges as well, which would explain recycling material from one of the Stooges' shorts.

Also, A & C were a NYC institution for years. A 2 hour Sunday block, starting with an episode of the series, followed by a movie. Often times, the A & C Show would be relieved by another 2 year wonder--F-Troop.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Hal put in his two cents:

Some renditions, like 13 x 7 = 28, for example. work much better here than in the movie versions.

If I had to pick a favorite A&C routine, that would probably be it. I forget which TV episode it turns up in, but it does appear...with Sidney Fields taking the part of the straight man.

David cleared his throat:

Remember these shows fondly from WGN when I lived in Chicago.

Yes, I don't mean to slight hobbyfan's beloved WOR but WGN programming was a part of my childhood...and I didn't even live in Chicago.

Speaking of hobbyfan:

Bruckman was a writer and/or producer for the 3 Stooges as well, which would explain recycling material from one of the Stooges' shorts.

I think the only two major comedy talents Bruckman didn't work for were Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. Here's a link to a very well-written article about Clyde, which I'll confess gave me a new sense of perspective on the man:

Lisa said...

Great post! I'm a fan of classic comedy yet have never -- yet-- warmed to Abbott & Costello. Don't sure why but it's definitely time I reassess and dive into the show. Your post is a perfect intro! I can't wait to fall in love with them! Thanks again for a terrific article!

Amanda By Night said...

I remember loving this show as a kid. So funny. And, I actually didn't know it was running on MeTV. Thank you for reminding me why my childhood was filled with so much laughter!

Jeff Flugel said...

Great overview of A & C's TV show, Ivan! This will cause you to recoil in shock and horror, but, as big a fan as I am of their movies, having seen many from a tender age, I have yet to see a single episode of their much-lauded TV show. I intend to correct this oversight forthwith. I see on Amazon that Entertainment One is re-releasing the complete series set next month...consider it added to the wishlist.

Joanna said...

Excellent review. I love that you connect A&C to Seinfeld. And, am I the only one wondering about visitors hours at "comedy prison?" Classic TV Blog Association FIELD TRIP!!

ClassicBecky said...

Thank heaven for Me-TV! I'm a big fan of the old burlesque stuff -- what kind of cowardly lion would The Wizard of Oz have had without it! As you said, The A&C show is an important treasure trove of that wonderful comedy of the past. By the way, Ivan, I got my grandkids to sit down with me and watch A&C Meet Frankenstein, undoubtedly one of the best movies ever! They loved it! I had already had them see "Who's On First" and they are big fans! Loved your article and all the interesting background info.