Throughout Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s 20-year run onstage, on the radio, in the movies, and on television, the duo waited patiently through tortured plot machinations and countless musical numbers in order to get to the store of old vaudeville routines that they knew how to perform better than almost anybody else on the circuit. By the time The Abbott And Costello Show debuted in 1952, the team had been a top draw in motion pictures for more than a decade, but were just about out of gas, as partners and as celebrities. They broke up in 1957 after losing a big chunk of their fortune to the IRS, and Costello died two years later. But The Abbott And Costello Show played on. Its two 26-episode seasons—both included on the new complete-series DVD box set—became a staple of UHF syndication packages over the next three decades, and did as much to preserve and popularize classic sketches like “Who’s On First?” and “Niagara Falls” as any of Abbott and Costello’s prior work—or any of the comedians who did those bits in their acts.
The demands of television chewed through most of Abbott and Costello’s A-material by the end of the show’s first season, and as a result, the second season plays more like a standard sitcom, with slapstick sight gags (many crafted by legendary joke-stealer Clyde Bruckman) replacing the verbal patter that was the team’s specialty. The second season was also more pitched to children, as evidenced by the actual kids’ laughter that appears on the soundtrack during some of the more physical shtick. But The Abbott And Costello Show’s first season is a classic of its kind, thanks to its eclectic cast of veteran vaudevillians (including the inimitable Joe Besser, with his rounded body, squeaky voice, and moppet costume) and its bare-bones premise.
The first 26 Abbott And Costello episodes follow a readily replicable formula: The boys address the audience in front of a curtain, do a little back-and-forth, then dissolve to that week’s story, which invariably involves the destitute pals failing to earn enough money to pay their overdue rent. Abbott plays the sharpie, working angles, while Costello comes at jobs more straightforwardly—at least until he’s sidetracked by a procession of confoundingly single-minded wackos. Said wackos invariably prompt a revival of one of the routines Abbott and Costello had been doing in their act for years, paced snappily, with space for little improvisatory fillips. Costello in particular was a master reactor, especially when he knew he was about to get swindled or smacked. He’d be the audience surrogate, hesitating slightly and heaving a “here we go again” sigh before saying the lines he knew would leave him broke, bruised, and ready for the next sketch.
Key features: A 70-minute 1978 TV retrospective hosted by Milton Berle, plus interviews with Costello’s kids, home movies, and an option to skip the plots and head straight to the funniest routines.