Bud Abbott and Lou Costello began their career completely by accident. Bud Abbott had tried his hand at doing the straight man bit with limited success. One night in 1931 he was working as a cashier for a vaudeville company when Lou Costello’s partner came down with an illness. The performer needed a stand-in, and Bud Abbott filled in for the night. It was a temporary gig, to be sure. A temporary gig that happened to last 25 years. The two continued to work together on stage. While the team certainly reused a ton of the classic routines of the era, there was something unique and clever about the duo. The natural way in which they fell into each other’s lines was a rare sight, indeed. They eventually stood out for their ingenious word play, culminating in one of the most famous comic routines in history, Who’s On First.
The pair next took their act to the airwaves — radio airwaves, that is. They became a staple in the medium and eventually the highest paid performers in that industry. Films weren’t really much of an option at first. They were still mostly silent, and while comedy thrived in that era, Abbott and Costello’s brand of humor just would not have worked. But when sound became more economical and standard, the boys were thrown into the pictures. In 1940 they would star in a film called One Night In The Tropics. They would continue to make films for the next 14 years at an incredible pace. They made several films a year and were soon financing Universal studios with their output and box office income. Perhaps their most famous films were the monsters movies where Universal teamed their new moneymaker with the one before. In Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. would both reprise their famous Dracula and Wolf Man characters to the delight of fans of both franchises. Boris Karloff considered himself too old to don the heavy boots of the titular monster, which was played by Glenn Strange, who had performed the role in both House films. So he was still a legitimate part of the horror film cycle. The boys would get their chance to face Karloff later, not once, but twice.
Lesser known of the boys’ ventures was The Abbott And Costello Show. It was one of the first series to be created strictly for syndication. It only lasted two seasons, but it now remains a greatest hits collection of sorts for the fans of the duo’s comedy. Pretty much all of the big film and stage routines can be found in this endearing series. The show would also go on to inspire one of this generation’s great comics.
Jerry Seinfeld has made no secret of the fact that he considered these guys to be the funniest comedians he’s ever heard. His own routines are often very obviously inspired by their work. Even his record-breaking television series owes more than a small debt to this series. The idea of creating a series “about nothing” is a direct result of this show. There were no carryover story arcs or specific circumstances surrounding The Abbott And Costello Show. It was really just a series of sometimes related, sometimes unrelated routines. They boys also used to come on stage in the first season at the beginning, middle, and coda to their show, at least in the first season, just like Jerry would do thirty years later in his own series. If you’ve never seen this series, but you’re a Seinfeld fan, you simply will not believe the influence until you watch them yourselves.
The show featured the boys as themselves (just as Seinfeld did). They were a little down on their luck and lived in a room at Mr. Fields’ boarding house. They were always behind on their rent and were looking for some scheme to get caught up. Fields always threatened to put them out but never did. Lou was in love with neighbor Hillary Brook. She was about the only character on the show who treated Lou in a kindly manner. Not to say she wasn’t above using him when she needed to. A constant nemesis to the boys was Mike The Cop (Jones). He was hoping to someday be able to lock the boys in jail. Some of the recurring characters included the final third Stooge, Joe Besser, as Stinky. Stinky dressed in a “Buster Brown” outfit and acted like a little child, often chiding Lou for not playing with him enough. Joe Kirk often played the Italian immigrant Mr. Bacciagalupe. He had a variety of jobs and businesses most often involving food. Sid Fields, the landlord, often played other characters in the show, usually passed off as one of the landlord’s many relatives.
There was a marked change between the first and second seasons. By season two, gone were the stage appearances. The episodes were more often more fully developed stories relying less on the vaudeville style routines. Much of this is due to the fact that Sid Fields no longer wrote as he did most of the first season. Joe Besser and Joe Kirk were gone. Likely Kirk left when he divorced Costello’s sister that year. Besser left when his wife became critically ill. The show really didn’t have the same charm in the second year. This was also getting to be the end of the Abbott and Costello team. The duo broke up pretty much in the wake of the series in 1957. It would not end up robbing us of very much of their work, because Lou died just two years later. Unfortunately, both of them were in IRS trouble and had almost nothing left by the time they split up.
After all of those years, it all still works. There wasn’t much for production values here, but this was the gold that made the golden age of television just that. If you know the show and the material, you already know why you’re going to buy this set. If you’ve never heard of the show, or God forbid, Abbott and Costello, take just one look and you will know why you bought it.
Each episode is presented in its original full frame format. Of course, the show is also black and white. The contrast is a bit impressive for footage this old. There’s plenty of grain and quite a few print specs. Black levels are unfortunately almost nonexistent at times. Still, the restoration effort is obvious and appreciated.
Each episode sports an adequate Dolby Digital Mono track that is basically the original mono. Remember that these episodes are very old, and you might not mind the ever-present hiss and crackle. The music is often ruined with plenty of high-end distortion. Dialog is clear enough, and perhaps that’s all that matters.
There’s a Bonus Disc just loaded with fine treasures for you to discover.
42 Page Commemorative Booklet: This very nice booklet features a synopsis for every episode. You get bios on the supporting players. Plus there’s tons of information on the boys. Top it off with plenty of fine photographs.
Lobby/Postcards: There are four with scenes from the show.
Hey Abbott: (1:10:48) This documentary was made for television in 1978 at the time when the show was repackaged for syndication. You’ll notice that copyright date on the episodes themselves. Milton Berle hosts the comprehensive look back on the career of the classic team.
10,000 Kids And A Cop: (20:26) This is a look at Lou Costello’s pet charity project, The Lou Costello, Jr. Youth Foundation which was set up in honor of Lou’s son who died tragically at a young age. It is an organization that takes on projects to help kids.
Interviews With Chris And Paddy Costello: (33:06) The two daughters of Lou Costello share some wonderful memories of the man. The piece offers plenty of home stills and footage so you get to see something of the private man.
Home Movies: (1:01:17) This might be the best part of the collection. The daughters of Lou Costello present tons of footage from family holidays and events. The picture quality is actually pretty good for such old home movies. Costello apparently owned some state-of-the-art equipment for the time. This is the most intimate look at Lou Costello anyone outside of his family and friends could ever hope to get. It’s amazing how much like his stage persona he was.
This was a special time for television and entertainment in general. There was a simplicity that often appeared so very complicated. The boys almost never resorted to crudeness or toilet humor. There was physical comedy, to be sure. Abbott always slapped poor Costello around, but it was never to the extent that the Three Stooges were doing at the time. There’s little you can say, except they were naturals in every sense of the word. There had never been anything like them before or since. There never will be again. To have this collection all together in one place is worth far more than the asking price for this release. Combine the collection of episodes with some truly remarkable extras, and the answer to the question of whether you should buy this release is a simple one. “Naturally.”