Synopsis by Bruce Eder
The Abbott & Costello Show marked the last major commercial success for the comic team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The duo, who had started out in burlesque in the 1930's (and each had long experience in entertainment and performing before they met), had been a veritable fixure on radio since 1938, when they'd appeared on The Kate Smith Hour, which led to work on Broadway and more radio work in 1940, initially on a summer replacement show for Fred Allen, and later with their own shows on NBC and, subsequently, on ABC. It was on the radio show that they assembled the core cast of performers, regulars and bit players, who would later work in their movies and the subsequent television series -- first and foremost among these was Sidney Fields, who would contribute to some of their early movies as a writer and bit-player, but the other important names were Iris Adrian and Elvia Allman, both of whom would later turn up on their television show. Their radio show continued into the start of the 1950's, and overlap with their film career, which began in 1941 -- up thru 1950, the films were immensely popular and profitable. But their film audience had begun to decline with the start of the new decade, and during this same period it became clear that radio had seen its day as the dominant broadcast entertainment medium. The duo began looking at television as the next stop for their careers, and made the jump to the small-screen in 1951, initially as guests on The Colgate Comedy Hour, which was successful enough so that a regular television series seemed a real possibility. That became a reality in 1952 with the first season of The Abbott & Costello Show, which went on the air on CBS in December of that year. Produced by Costello's brother Pat Costello, the rotund little comic had an ownership interest in the program, whereas Bud Abbott, unsure of the future of television, chose instead to take a larger straight salary, with no longterm interest or ownership stake in the show. The show was shot and produced at Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles, using the same sets that were used (at the very same time period) for the Amos 'n Andy Show. The first season of The Abbott & Costello Show was formatted very loosely, and opened like a stage revue, with the two comic stepping out on stage and addressing the viewing audience, and doing some schtick, which might range anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes -- in the very first show, "The Drug Store", Costello tries to tell a fish-story to the audience in spite of Abbott's constant, brilliantly timed interruptions, which culminate with the little comic stalking off-stage, thwarted and dejected; in the very next scene, in the "story" proper, Costello is walking down a street when a woman approaches him, says, "How dare you remind me of somebody I hate!" and hits him on the head with an umbrella . . . and so it went, in 26 programs done that season in which the barest plot elements often gave way to screamingly funny digressions, leaving any semblance of story arc in the dust. Often scenes and plots were merely set-ups and excuses for the duo to do one of their classic burlesque, vaudeville, or radio routines, of which the most famous was "Who's On First," in which Abbott tries to tell an increasingly frustrated Costello the names of the member of a baseball team ("Who's on first, What's on second, and I Don't Know's on third . . . . ") -- others were "Niagara Falls" (aka "Slowly I Turned"), "Mustard," "Hertz U Drive," "Susquehanna Hat Company" (aka "Bagle Street," aka "Floogle Street," a sketch that veteran comic Joey Faye claimed authorship of), and "Jonah and the Whale." There were literally dozens of such routines, and they were all used liberally in that first season. Indeed, one episode, "Getting A Job", seems to have been assembled from random pieces of footage, without any continuing plot at all and none of the pieces of footage really relating in anyway to those around them -- and it is still immensely funny, mostly because that's the episode that has the "Susquehanna Hat Company" sketch in it. The basic premise of the first season presented Bud Abbott and Lou Costello -- using their own names -- as denizens of a Los Angeles rooming house owned by Sidney Fields (using his own name for his character), who also played other roles in various episodes, including innumerable Fields brothers and cousins, and lawyer Claude Melonhead, among others, and also wrote many of the shows -- the bald-headed Fields was excitable and blustery, and the perfect foil for both comedians. Gordon Jones, an athlete-turned-actor and veteran action film star, played Mike The Cop (aka Mike Kelly), a resident of the same rooming house and the constant nemesis of the two heroes, especially Costello. Joe Kirk, Costello's brother-in-law, played Mr. Bacciagalupe, who always seemed to be in businesses that were relevant to whatever the story-line or sketch required, as well as occasional other characters. And Hillary Brooke, a tall, glamorous, classically-trained actress who'd graced motion pictures for the previous decade, played a character of the same name, who also lived in the rooming house (though in the first episode, her character didn't have a name and didn't know Abbott or Costello) -- one running joke was Costello's crush on Hillary, and his occasional inept efforts to tell her how he felt, which frequently ended up with him stepping on her foot, covering her with water, soot, or some other unpleasant substance, or otherwise offending her. Another regular was Joe Besser, still a few years from joining the Three Stooges, who played Stinky, another resident of the rooming house -- he was surreal, a fat 40-year-old bald man in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, acting like a bad-tempered seven-year-old and always fighting with Costello. And the duo's own resident comic "stooge" and de facto court jester, Bobby Barber, a bald-headed man with huge, expressive eyes and limbs seemingly made of rubber, played a multitude of roles (sometimes as many as three in the same episode!), usually in some slapstick interaction with Costello. The other bit players were Milt Bronson who, in addition to being an on-screen nemesis to Costello, also served as dialogue director for the show; veteran film actress Iris Adrian as a variety of excitable women; Robin Raymond in the same sorts of parts; Minerva Urecal, a veteran stage and screen actress, who was kind of this duo's answer to the Marx Brothers' Margaret Dumont; and Joan Shawlee (who could also play as many as three roles in the same show) as a frequent sharp-tongued female antagonist for Costello (most memorably as an uncooperative telephone operator who drives Costello to distraction as the latter tries to call the number ALexander 4444). And most surreal of all was the presence of Bingo the Chimp, a chimpanzee who was usually seen wearing a miniature version of Lou Costello's familiar checked jacket and derby hat. Jean Yarbrough, who'd made numerous low-budget films at Universal, directed the show. The first season was hugely successful, but following it up proved a problem. The sponsors wanted a more conventional comedy series, and the decision to go in that direction was probably a necessity in any case, as the team had used up most of their best routines in those first 26 shows. For the second season, the concept was changed significantly -- Abbott and Costello still lived at the Fields apartment house, Sidney Fields was still their landlord, and Gordon Jones's Mike the Cop was still there for some shows, but gone were Joe Kirk, Hillary Brooke, Joe Besser, and Bingo. Additionally, the shows were no longer structured to allow the easy inclusion of vaudeville routines, and there was no longer any opening and closing "set up" in which the two would address the audience -- plots were followed from beginning to end, and an extremely annoying laugh-track was utilized (the first season also had a laugh-track, but a much more realistic one -- the second season was filled with grotesque shrieking laughs, often in the wrong spots). For scripts, the second season also fell back on a lot of recycled humor in scripts that seem to have mostly been written by Clyde Bruckman, a gagman from the silent era, who shamelessly repeated bits he'd written for Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton and, more recently, the Three Stooges et al, so closely that scenes were sometimes interchangeable between A&C and the Stooges. It was still a funny show, but not as consistently so by a longshot. It also marked the beginning of the end of the duo's popular culture impact; their new movies were sinking fast in quality and audience, and the reissue of their classic old films, plus the release of the movies they were making and the television series -- which ran to 52 shows -- led to the duo's being seriously over-exposed at the time. By 1955, the year after the series ended production, they were at the tail-end of their careers. The series continued to be popular, however, and actually found a larger audience in syndication -- it proved especially popular in late-afternoon time-slots, where young viewers who'd never seen the duo's earlier movies could discover them for the first time, much as they would do with the Three Stooges when their short films were licensed for broadcast. Costello's family, which inherited his ownership interest in the show following his death in 1959, reaped the benefits from those decades of syndicated telecasts or video and DVD sales.