Inviting equal parts empathy, schadenfreude, fondness, and annoyance, Lou Costello’s finely tuned comic persona is one of the most recognizable, and most complex, of the early 20th century. It’s hard to imagine any comedian so shrill and yet so likeable; his signature shrieks of alarm can put you in stitches, but when braved through a hangover they’ll leave your temple throbbing mercilessly. Honed alongside partner Bud Abbott—who had been hailed, in his pre-Costello career, as the best straight man in the business—on the vaudeville and burlesque stage, Costello’s inimitable approach to funny has roots in slapstick and pathos but smartly infuses these stock elements with a galvanizing dose of embarrassed Depression-era fear. Unlike Curly, who nyuck-nyuck’d in the face of adversity, or Stan Laurel, for whom the world seemed a fascinating, accommodating oyster, Costello was a man doomed to fall backward into failure repeatedly while remaining utterly, and excruciatingly, self-aware.
The smug, often antagonistic Abbott must, of course, be partially blamed for the continual hardship; the famous “Jonah and the Whale” routine, perhaps the first and best of the “ruined joke” gags, depicts the very real showbiz threat of comic foil sabotage, while in a sketch like “Order Something” Abbott is simply playing unfairly with Costello’s ignorance of vernacular semiotics (the pressure to buy a meal in a diner is fabricated, for the sake of boyishly impressing a waitress). But Costello’s determination to get it right once and for all is always rendered with an undertone of pessimism; beaten and misunderstood with only his perennial immaturity to blame, Costello wrenches comedy from an intimidating, misleading, and largely self-made hell that, if nothing else, will always be worse than that of his audiences.
The Abbott and Costello Show, collected in its brief entirety on the nine discs comprising The Abbot and Costello Show: The Complete Series DVD set, may not contain the most definitive performances of certain routines (I much prefer the “Who’s on First,” for example, from the earlier baseball film The Naughty Nineties), and the comedians are nowhere near as comfortable within the sitcom format as they were with the feature-length narrative structure of films such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But the program is most likely the nearest simulation of the vaudeville environment in which the two stars would be filmed, where story and structure amount to nil against a go-for-broke, make-’em-laugh ethos; the titular dyad open and close every show, for example, with exchanges against a simple curtain before opening the stage and interacting with characters. And as such, the 22-minute (non-)plot arcs, most involving attempts to procure rent money or food, can get awfully tiresome and redundant in spite of their nostalgic realism (it’s comforting to think that in some way Abbott and Costello’s penuriousness may have helped America to laugh at their former financial troubles). But they’re likely the most undiluted artifacts of the Abbott and Costello élan—or rather, the Costello élan, if we’re being honest—still available.
The program was concocted by Costello and co-writer/co-star Sidney Fields as a modernized burlesque, and a way of recycling a list of favorite bits for television with complete creative control. The selection of routines is impressively exhaustive, with Costello’s paranoia often climbing to side-splitting climaxes; he even reprises the study-in-frustration of “Raw Oyster Stew” despite having to compete against the Three Stooges’s authoritative rendition from a decade earlier (the verdict: Curly was a shaman of physical humor, punctuating hard, buffoonish knocks with subtle ticks and twitches, but Costello’s take succeeds due to our sympathetic desire to see his character well-fed). The emphasis on a finite repertoire of gags doomed the show to a short production lifespan; after running low on shtick in season two the supporting cast was switched out and more coherent situation humor was attempted, with flat results. But The Abbot and Costello Show flourished in syndication, where it was often presented, interestingly enough, as unabashed children’s fare.
It’s doubtful that kids would fully grasp the program’s forays into surreal humor, much of it supplied by the supporting players, though even the show’s subversive logic possesses visceral yucks. Hillary Brooke bonks Costello on the head whenever she sees him for whatever reason she (or the writers) can think of; the most famous example is her exclamation of “How dare you remind me of someone I hate,” a grievance employing a nearly Gertrude Stein caliber of inverted reasoning. And Joe Besser, in an anachronistic display of Dadaist comedy, lends his “50-year-old playing a 10-year-old” routine to the show with disarmingly homoerotic and phobic subtexts. But Costello’s sad-sack eyes and tenuous self-control seem hand-tailored to tickle eight-to-12-aged funny bones, particularly in moments where he woefully refuses to accept his poor luck until it’s no longer unavoidable.
In my personal favorite episode, “Haunted House,” the cast spends an evening full of odd occurrences in a spooky mansion, and at the broadcast’s close, Costello believes he’s outwitted the spirits that reside there. He laughs off the evening with his stalwart partner…before realizing that the body beside him is that of a menacing gorilla. He double-, triple-, quadruple-takes, continues guffawing half-heartedly, and then—in a moment of immaculately-timed comic histrionics—spontaneously breaks down in tears before fainting and crumpling to the floor. Performances like this are a rare mixture of instructive maturity and mollifying babyism: Costello is mankind at his most sympathetic, a crusader of realities too hideous to readily accept. But he’s also a mirror to our most childlike stupidities; when we laugh at him, we’re laughing at the days we just want to give up, crawl back into bed, and be rocked to sleep.
Having watched The Abbott and Costello Show on TV in my wayward, Nick-at-Nite and PBS-laden youth, I was surprised at the level of quality achieved in these digital restorations; there's only a moderate amount of noticeable film grain and audio hiss, even when upconverting to 1080p. The shows don't look or sound great, of course (there are a handful of odd, clunky cuts that suggest some reel deterioration), but they've been lovingly brought back to a state as close to life as possible for posterity. Earlier budget DVDs of the program should be avoided for the sake of the clarity and definition here.
Abbott and Costello historians know full well where the duo's strengths lie, and this entire package has been shrewdly organized around the comic brilliance of their seminal routines. The fantastic booklet, which features in-depth career portraits of not only the two stars but the entire supporting cast and primary crew members as well, offers a brief synopsis of all episodes with each included shtick listed for our convenience. Even better, the last disc of the consistently entertaining first season contains a "routine reel"—a handful of the best bits plucked from their trumped-up plot context and displayed as a delightful "greatest hits" cavalcade. Casual fans of The Abbot and Costello Show might only need this supplement to get their fix, so it arguably renders the set superfluous for anybody but completists and historians, but it's the rare special feature that guarantees repeated viewings. There are also a few shorts, some home movies, and a lengthy 1978 TV special with Milton Berle that's alternately hilarious and pathetic.
Though they're a bit broad by today's standards, Abbott and Costello routines are still required homework for nascent comedians—and for the rest of us, shouting "Abbott!" with Costello's singular inflection is a great way to bug people.