Bingeable Abbott & Costello

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, known for such feature-length comedy classics as Buck Privates, Ride ‘Em Cowboy and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, enjoyed a second act on the small screen.

The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-1954) ran for 52 episodes over two seasons in syndication. The series is most worthy of a binging renaissance, so kudos to Tubi, Vudu and The Roku Channel for streaming it free. Amazon Prime subscribers can also stream it without ads, and over-the-air viewers can view it Tuesday through Saturday mornings at 3:30 am ET on Decades.

A Little Background

Abbott and Costello became a team in 1935. Working in burlesque theaters, they honed and re-honed a trunk-load of sure-fire routines that they would recycle throughout their film, TV and radio appearances.

Abbott (1895-1974) was the quintessential comic foil  A would be dapper-don, Abbott possessed razor-sharp timing and delivery. Groucho Marx, and later Jerry Seinfeld, considered Bud the best straight man in the business.

Costello (1906-1959) was the baby-faced comedic genius. Short, pudgy and lovable, Costello almost always fell for Abbott’s cons. He could also take a pratfall with the best of them.

The Abbott and Costello Show is available free on Tubi and YouTube
(Image source: YouTube video)

The team’s films enjoyed spectacular success in the 1940s. Then along came Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, among other developments, and their careers momentarily faded.

Their fortunes revived, however, with the advent of television. The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55) often featured them as weekly guest hosts, allowing them to revisit their best bits and reclaim the affections of their audience.

The time was ripe for their own half-hour TV series.

Season 1

Filmed at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City (previously home to another beloved comedy team, Laurel and Hardy), The Abbott and Costello Show began in December 1952, finishing its final, second season, in May 1954.

Each filmed episode was pure Abbott and Costello. Gone were the romantic subplots and musical production numbers that the big studios saddled them with in many of their 29 feature-length films. 

What remained was just enough storyline to stitch together a series of surreal and zany jokes, including their now-famous wordplay routines.

The racetrack bit in episode 22, for example, was borrowed from the team’s film The Noose Hangs High (1948):

Lou: What do you feed a horse anyway?
Bud: Well, a horse eats his fodder.
Lou: He eats his father?
Bud: Certainly.
Lou: That’s fine. Then what does his father eat?
Bud: He eats his fodder.
Lou: Well, whaddayaknow! Then what does the horse’s mother eat?
Bud: She eats her fodder.
Lou: What are they – cannibals!!?

This absurdist banter was the duo’s calling card. 

They are, of course, best known for their “Who’s on First?” routine:

(From Season 1, Episode 24, ‘Actor’s Home’)

The first season boasted an eccentric cast of characters living in Sidney Field’s rooming house.

Sidney Fields (the show’s chief writer) playsed Costello’s abusive landlord and other comedic characters who all shared the last name Fields.

The lovely and statuesque Hillary Brooke (Hillary) served as Lou’s unrequited love interest.

Joe Kirk (Italian emigree Mr. Bacciagalupe) ran a fruit stand, or bakeshop, or restaurant, or any other storefront that filled each week’s bill.  

Gordon Jones played Mike the Cop, a Costello foil and fall guy in his own right. 

Middle-aged actor Joe Besser appeared frequently as Stinky, a sissified, eight-year-old, replete with retro Buster Brown clothing. His interactions with Costello were side-splitting:

Season 2

The show seemed to change. There were revamped opening and closing titles, different theme music and even a laugh track heavily weighted with children’s voices.

Inexplicably Hillary, Stinky and Mr. Bacciagalupe disappeared.

The show morphed from freewheeling absurdity to sitcom, thanks to the addition of writer Jack Townley, with veteran gag-writer Clyde Bruckman writing 15 of the 26 episodes.  

Focusing on slapstick and visual comedy, Bruckman was a notorious self-plagiarist, liberally reusing gags from his earlier work with silent greats Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, and of course, earlier Abbott and Costello productions. Bruckman was such a renowned gag-grifter that Lloyd sued him repeatedly.

For the undiscerning, late-generation baby boomer, the second season may have seemed like a Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges alternative.

But Jerry Seinfeld loved it!

(Top image source: YouTube video)

About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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