Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Seinfeld on Why ‘Who’s on First?’ Worked

                                                                         Jon Soohoo/WireImage
Jerry Seinfeld, a Mets fan [at Dodger Stadium recently], said he started
watching Abbott & Costello reruns in the 1960s. They continue to inspire him.
By Richard Sandomir
New York Times
July 9, 2012

Jerry Seinfeld watches "Who's on First?" and sees the craft behind Abbott and Costello's routine: the rhythm he calls "musical math," the byplay between Bud Abbott's straight-man calm and Lou Costello's childlike exasperation, and the repetition that sustains Costello's confusion about the players' names.

"Any great comedy is how far can you take this silly idea," Seinfeld says in "Costas & Seinfeld: Who's on First?" a 30-minute special which has its premier Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern on the MLB Network and allows the comedian to deconstruct the comic magic of one of the most famous bits of all time. "I mean the initial idea is just a first baseman named Who. And then you get the What, then the I Don't Know, and it keeps going."

He adds, "You think it's out of gas, and it's not. That's what makes this great."

"Who's on First?" plays, of course, on a series of misunderstandings that is carried by rat-a-tat wordplay. Costello cannot grasp why Abbott's roster includes Who at first base, What at second, I Don't Know at third, a pitcher named Tomorrow and a catcher named Today.

Costello is as addled as Abbott is certain.

What makes it funny, Seinfeld says, is that neither man is listening to the other — and that each man is totally convinced of his perspective.

Costello: "You know the guys' names on the baseball team?"

Abbott: "Yes."

Costello: "Well, go ahead. Who's on first?"

Abbott: "Yes."

Costello: "I mean the guy's name."

Abbott: "Who."

Costello: "The guy playing first base."

Abbott: "Who."

Costello: "The guy on first base."

Abbott: "Who is on first."

They performed the routine hundreds, maybe thousand of times in vaudeville theaters and on the set of the 1945 film "The Naughty Nineties."

Seinfeld said by telephone Monday: "You think about how they worked. They did eight shows a day in vaudeville, five, six days a week."

As a stand-up comic, he said that he could not fathom being part of a two-man team, let alone one that worked together for decades. "I think it's pretty well acknowledged that it's way tougher than marriage," he said. From the 1930s on, they honed "Who's on First?" so deftly and so often, Seinfeld said, that all the air was sucked out of it, leaving a sketch with near-perfect timing. The less air, the funnier it gets, he said.

"When the laugh happens," he said, "you want that next line right up against it, and again, right up against it. It creates a compression that makes your mind work faster, which makes you laugh."

Seinfeld's fascination with Abbott and Costello began in the 1960s when he started to watch reruns of the comedy team's syndicated TV series. He plucked some of what he admired for his own series: a short routine to open each episode; playing the Abbott-like straight man to the other characters, and emphasizing the physical differences between Kramer's lean physique and Newman's porcine one.

And George Costanza's middle name, Louis, paid homage to Costello.

Seinfeld said he experienced a "Who's on First?" moment in an episode, "The Package," in which Kramer says the Postal Service will take a write-off if Jerry files a fraudulent claim that his stereo was damaged during delivery.

Jerry: "You don't even know what a write-off is."

Kramer: "Do you?"

Jerry: "No, I don't."

Kramer: "But they do, and they are the ones writing it off."

"It was," Seinfeld said by telephone, "like being in heaven."

The "Who's on First?" version in Thursday's program was performed in 1953 by Abbott and Costello for their TV series. When irritated, Costello pounded a bat on the stage.

"See how close they are," Seinfeld tells Costas. "The words are tight. They're physically tight. Energy is high. It's banging off each other like pool balls." Separate them a few inches and the energy dissipates.

Costello: "Look, when you pay off the first baseman every month, you get a receipt from the guy?"

Abbott: "Sure."

Costello: "How's he sign his name?"

Abbott: "Who."

Costello: "The guy you gave the money to."

Abbott: "Who."

Costello: "The guy you gave the money to."

Abbott: "Well, that's how he signs it."

Costello: "That's how who signs it?"

Abbott: "Yes.

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