The Truth Behind Abbott And Costello's Popular 'Who's On First?' Routine

Stand-up comedy has been an entertainment medium for well over two centuries, according to Penn State University, beginning with minstrel shows in the early 1800s before evolving into the art form it is now during the vaudeville era. Over the decades, a handful of stand-up routines have had lasting impact on popular culture. One of the most famous examples, according to Gunaxin, is George Carlin's famous "Seven Words You Can't Say On TV," which amuses while it serves as a polemic against censorship.

Another stand-up comedy routine came from legendary duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (above). The pair emerged from the burlesque circuit, according to Britannica, before transitioning to radio and, later, films and TV. The routine most associated with the pair, according to the Library of Congress, is "Who's on First?" — a pun-filled bit of patter between the two men involving one failing to understand what the other is talking about, even though it's patently obvious to the audience.

Vaudeville beginnings

"Who's on First?" (which can be seen here via YouTube) relies on the Straight Man, in this case Abbott, feeding information to the Stooge, in this case Costello, who fails to understand what he's being told because the words he's hearing can have two meanings. The audience laughs hysterically while an increasingly frustrated Costello hears "Who is on first?" and thinks he's being asked the same question he just asked, while Abbott is telling him that the first baseman is actually named "Who."

Such bits that rely on misunderstanding based on multiple word meanings had been around well before Abbott and Costello got big. The structural basis for "Who's on First," according to the Library of Congress, may have been a minstrel routine called "Who's the Boss?" in which the boss was named "Who" and the employees were "What" and "Ida Know." Other performers then began adapting the bit to baseball, which was not uncommon in the show business of the era. Abbott and Costello took the basis for those sketches and made it their own, using baseball references instead. The duo first performed "Who's on First?" in 1937, and over the course of their careers, would go on to repeat it hundreds if not thousands of times.