[4 May 2010]
For those of us who live in colder climates, those of us who’ve been waiting months to go outside without wearing a coat, it’s hard to think of anything that could keep us indoors for hours and hours on end now that spring has sprung. Alas, the nogoodniks at E1 Entertainment have come up with just the trick. In releasing The Abbott and Costello Show: The Complete Series - Collector’s Edition, they’ve kept some us up cooped up for days more.
Anybody with an appreciation for the history of television or the evolution of American comedy (or British comedy—Ricky Gervais owes something to Lou Costello) will be all over this set. The show’s tone, along with it’s nameless city and cast of peculiar characters like girl-next-door Hillary, Mike the Cop, Stinky the kid, and Sid the landlord, perfectly captures and lampoons the ideals of white mainstream America in the middle of the 20th Century.
The show is in many ways obsessed with money, and most of the episodes, beginning with the very first one, confront the need of an ordinary person to make a living. In nearly every sketch, Lou either takes on a job (drug store soda jerk, vacuum cleaner salesman, pots-and-pans salesman, soldier, exterminator, baker, barber, and on and on and on) or deals with some troublesome professional (Melonhead the lawyer, the incompetent dentist, Dr. Mildew the psychiatrist). In other episodes, like “In Society”, Lou and Bud, sons of New Jersey, are contrasted with moneyed and sophisticated people, and in many, many other episodes, Lou and Bud are poised to inherit a large sum of cash or gold through some absurd means or another.
To take the show only as a study of small town economics and middle class American life in the ‘50s, though, is to miss out on all of the considerable fun it offers. There are plenty of valid complaints about the humor in the program. Much of the jokes are dated and feel corny, yes. The chemistry of the duo isn’t as hypnotic as that of Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott’s straight man doesn’t often get appropriate time to react to Costello’s shenanigans. The era’s sexism and ethnic stereotypes (especially against Italian-Americans and Native Americans) come through in some episodes. The series leans a little heavily on its stars’ vaudeville and film work; whole lines from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are repeated verbatim. Its writers were certainly not afraid to sacrifice plot for the sake of even the weakest gag.
Still, The Abbott and Costello Show is a hilarious treat for anybody willing to go along with it. Lou and Bud were masters of incongruity and confusion jokes. “Who’s on first?” one of the most famous sketches in history, included in the episode “The Actor’s Home”, is representative of the wordplay and misunderstanding that was the comedians’ bread-and-butter.
In “The Western Story”, Lou complains about an ‘Indian’ having shot an arrow at him. Bud asks if it was “Sioux the tribe.” “Now the guy wants me to go around suing a whole tribe of Indians,” says Lou. It’s predictable, it’s sort of lame, and on paper it’s not particularly funny to anybody born after 1940. Yet it’s nearly impossible not to laugh when the line comes out of Lou’s mouth. There’s something so unbelievably charming and funny in his every facial expression that he gets chuckles even when you’ve already decided to roll your eyes at what he’s about to say.
The makers of the show allowed Lou’s face and sliding vocal range to take over, probably aware, even in 1952, that the puns and one-liners wouldn’t age particularly well. In “Pots and Pans”, Bud tells Lou to prepare a duck for dinner. “You know how to dress a duck, don’t you?” Bud asks. Lou considers for a second and nods. Again, the payoff doesn’t exactly sneak up on you, but it still gets you.
Lou is at his most winning when he puts on his sweet and naïve persona and then gets coy. In the episode, “The Army Story”, he’s especially irresistible. First, he’s saying goodbye to Hillary, and he’s all pouts and puppy eyes. He asks her for a kiss. She kisses him, and a few minutes later he gets her to ask, “Luis, may I give you a real kiss?” He sighs and reluctantly agrees. “You may.”
Later on, at the army barracks, Bud is pleased to learn that Lou has never played craps before. His childlike nature shining through, he acts like a perfect sucker, repeating the rules back to Bud as he supposedly learns them. Lou rolls well, and Bud is annoyed by his beginner’s luck. Then, Lou suddenly breaks into craps lingo like a veteran roller. “Hey! Little Joe!” he calls out after one toss of the dice. If Costello doesn’t win you over in that scene, the show’s probably a bit too, well, Abbott-and-Costello for your taste.
The nine-disc set is beautifully packaged, and it comes with a set of four commemorative postcards and a bizarre little card promoting Abbott and Costello ringtones. A thick booklet with bios of the principals and information on every episode is also included. The guide lists which episodes classical sketches like the Susquehanna Hat Company, Niagara Falls, 7x13=28, and Three Bananas can be found in—an especially useful resource considering that these great bits rarely have anything to do with the title or storyline of the episode.
Loaded with bonus features like the hour-long special “Hey, Abbott!” hosted by Milton Berle, and including Steve Allen, Phil Silvers, and Joe Besser, the set lives up to the “Collector’s Edition” tag in a way very few discs do. It also has a short documentary about Costello’s philanthropic work, a series of interviews with his daughters, and 14 home movies of the Costello family. Everything E1 reasonably would have included in this release is there.