Classic Scene: “Who’s on First?”

“Who’s on first?”

The Naughty Nineties (1945)

Directed by Jean Yarbrough

The Scene: Dexter and Sebastian, played by the incomparable comedy duo Abbott and Costello, both work on a showboat in the 1890’s which travels up and downnaught90 the Mississippi River stopping at each city to deliver entertainment to the citizens. During a stop in St. Louis the two find themselves on stage, the actor Dexter (Bud Abbott) has to work with the excitable dimwitted Sebastian (Lou Costello) who proclaims that when they arrive in St. Louis he wants to know  all the players on the local baseball team so he can know who to cheer. Dexter explains they all have strange names nowadays; I Don’t Care is shortstop, Today is catching, Tomorrow is pitching, Because is at center field, Why in left field, I Don’t Know at third base, What at second base, and most importantly Who is on first base. Sebastian wants to know who is playing first base, and is informed that Who is on first base. Confused he asks once more who is on first, and is told once again Who. The two become more more frustrated with each other going through the entire line-up of confusingly named players and the entire bit descends into lunacy. At the end of it all, Dexter declares “I don’t care!” who he is then told is shortstop.

Deconstruction: Before taking Hollywood by storm as one of the most bankable comedy duos around, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had made their presence known in every other form of media. From the vaudeville stage to the radio the team of Abbott and Costello won over audiences. One bit in particular which originated on an appearance on the Kate Smith Hour radio show. They put their own spin on a classic burlesque routine where Abbott and Costello discuss a baseball game where the infielders all have peculiar names, most notably Who, who is playing first base. The sketch “Who’s on First?” became a staple of the duo and they would continue to perform it for the rest of their careers. In 1940, the two performed a shortened version of “Who’s on First?” for the first time onscreen in One Night in the Tropics. But by the time they became dependable box office stars in 1945 they were allowed to perform the famed bit in full for the Naught Nineties. Just like the pro’s they are, they deliver this entire routine perfectly. This is the version of “Who’s on First?” which has become the definitive take in pop culture. The Baseball Hall of Fame has canonized this scene by playing it on continuous loop in their museum. The line “Who’s on First?” has been named by the American Film Institutes as one of filmdom’s greatest quotes. This sketch is familiar even to those who have never even heard of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello much less seen the Naughty Nineties.