As a rule I don't seek out TV comedy but around the turn of the year I needed something to lighten my mood and I was feeling nostalgic. As it happened, MeTV had just put Abbott & Costello on their daily schedule at the DVR-bait time slot of 5:00 a.m. I remembered the show fondly from my youth and I'm happy to report that it mostly lived up to my memories. At its best it's extraordinary, an almost Kafkaesque burlesque of American life and one of the last yawps of an especially irreverent comedy tradition. But then there was the second season.
Abbott and Costello, which is to say Lou Costello, had creative control of the TV show, which means that the show gives us the comedy team in something close to its purest form, freed from the too-frequent cinematic obligation to help boring young lovers or fill the time between songs. An anarchic burlesque sensibility comes through that arguably was typical of radio comedy. In television George Burns gets a lot of credit for "breaking down the fourth wall" by addressing the audience during The Burns & Allen Show, but for much of radio comedy there never was a fourth wall -- the comics often went out before a live audience with scripts in hand, after all -- and a certain self-consciousness prevailed that enhanced the burlesque elements of those shows. On TV Burns was perhaps less an innovator than a holdout, doing his thing while a fourth wall was being built to suit a sitcom paradigm. For Abbott and Costello the fourth wall went up between the first and second seasons. The first time around, the comics would come out from behind a curtain, address the audience, and set up the situation for the episode -- and a card girl invariably came out and put a card listing that week's guest stars in front of Lou's face. Between the acts and before the end credits, they'd take the stage again to comment on the story in progress. It was a zone of unreality, in story terms, or reality, in real terms, but comics could occupy both at the same time, confident that no matter what happened, nothing would really change. And that meant nearly anything could happen.
The show takes place in a slightly surreal quasi-world in which Abbott and Costello are down-on-their-luck personalities constantly scrambling to make the rent, though we're occasionally reminded that they are entertainers, if not famous entertainers. They're well-known enough that the audience at an actors'-home benefit show can demand the "Baseball" sketch (i.e. "Who's on First?") of them, but much of the time they may as well be nobodies. There's a difference between Nobodies and Everymen, and the comics definitely aren't the latter. Bud Abbott is an often repulsive figure, a parasite on Lou although he seems more competent at nearly everything than his partner and roommate. He' can be wicked toward other people -- having arrived at a bank after a robbery, he occupies a teller's window and is ready to confiscate Hilary Brooke's deposit until Lou stops him -- but he has a special relationship with Costello. Their routines nearly always involve some kind of psychological torture, not to mention physical abuse, of Lou by Bud. On the most innocuous level, Bud will torment Lou by forcing him into theoretical situations. For instance, let's say, as Bud would say, that Lou is at the train station. Where's he buying a ticket for? "I dunno," says Lou. "Then what are you doing at the station?" Bud demands with disgust. Bud's life work is the psychological manipulation of Lou, the better to make a minion or meal ticket of him. But Bud's abuse is only the beginning of Lou's victimization.
Lou Costello's first season is nothing short of a nightmare. His ordeal isn't merely the typical struggle of an amiable incompetent, as it would seem more often in the second season. When he leaves the safety zone of the stage he enters a world in which everything and everyone is actively against him. Something is wrong with this world. If you want to understand the difference between the first and second seasons, the first is the one with Joe Besser, the future Stooge, as Stinky, the apparently overgrown child who always picks fights with Lou. As a kid, I couldn't figure out what Stinky was supposed to be, but it's clear now that for the show's purposes he's not a madman or a retard acting like a child but a literal child in old-time short pants played by a fortysomething fat man. He's like an imp from hell -- or in hell -- assigned to torment Lou and get away with it, since bystanders almost invariably take the poor boy's side against the older bully -- though we should note how often Lou himself is referred to as a "boy" in these shows. If Stinky is the most obviously surreal element of the show, there's also Mr. Bacciagalupe (Joe Kirk), who seems to hold a different job in every episode, and the extended family of Sidney Fields (playing himself and all the family members), to whom Lou is always applying for jobs or other forms of assistance.
If anyone other than Lou Costello is the auteur of the first season it's Fields, who has a "story by" credit for the entire season and wrote the majority of episodes. Compared to the second season, when he's mostly reduced to a mere actor and tones down his personality accordingly, First Season Fields (or Melonhead) is a more eccentric and flamboyant figure with an almost soothing voice that belies his potential for violence. In one episode Bud and Lou are trying to entrap Fields by goading him into physically assaulting Lou. With every fresh insult from Lou Fields goes berserk, mauling Lou mercilessly while Bud, inevitably distracted, looks away. But it's not just the regulars. This is a show where random strangers seem to attack Lou out of nowhere, or where his pathetic attempts to sell products or simply strike up acquaintances expose him to explosions of psychotic rage (from "Niagra Falls! Slowwwwly, I turned..." to "Susquehanna Hat Company!").
Looming over the whole neighborhood, perhaps less amusing now than then, is Mike Kelly (Gordon Jones), better known as Mike the Cop. Mike is proof, since he lives in Sidney Fields' building as Bud and Lou do, that community policing is no panacea. Mike may as well be the last of the Keystone Kops. He is just about the last great expression of comedy's irreverence toward police, a great American tradition dating back to a time when cops were mostly political placeholders answering to few standards of professionalism or competence. Mike is a bully and an idiot; his interventions are almost always misguided and always make things worse. You'd hardly believe that this show was contemporary with Dragnet. Even though Bud and Lou appear to apologize in one onstage epilogue for the "fun" they've had with the police -- the episode had Lou and Mike wreaking havoc at a police firing range -- and appeal to the kids in their audience to treat the local police as their pals -- Mike's moronic antagonism was one first-season feature that persisted unapologetically into the second season. When people complain today about growing disrespect for the police as if Americans have abandoned a great and ancient tradition, Mike the Cop is evidence to the contrary.
There's a relentless quality to the first season that's made bearable by Lou Costello's wide range of defiance. Lou is no sad-sack victim of existence. He rages and dreams of fighting back, and if this world is his personal Hell, his sin is that he might be a bully if he could. Lou's vocal performance seems much influenced by Harry Langdon, though I don't know if the influence was ever acknowledged. Like Lou, Langdon paradoxically embodied adult appetites in a childlike if not infantile form. Lou Costello is a less passive, more uninhibited and turbulent Langdon, flailing at a world he can't master, falling from delusional heights of confidence to crying fits of despair. He's a fighter but the fix is in, but you love him for fighting anyway, especially if you feel the fix is in for you, too.
Something went wrong in the second season. Fields was demoted, maybe because he'd run out of creative gas, and Lou brought two new writers in. You can judge second-season shows pretty simply: if Jack Townley wrote it it has a chance of being good; if Clyde Bruckman wrote it, it stinks. Townley specialized in farcical plots, putting Lou in some form of peril and often having Mike the Cop assume that Lou had committed some crime. Bruckman was a storied figure of silent comedy, credited by Buster Keaton as co-director of The General, who was boozed up and washed up. His scripts for Abbott and Costello play out like Three Stooges shorts and often steal gags from them. They often degenerate into slapstick brawls that played to neither comic's strengths. Finally he stole gags from his onetime collaborator Harold Lloyd, who considered his intellectual property something to sue over. Lloyd sued Bruckman several times over two decades and arguably hastened his end, and the end of The Abbott & Costello Show. Bruckman killed himself in 1955, a year after the show folded. There were only 52 episodes, little more than half the traditional minimum for syndication, but like The Honeymooners' "Classic 39" the show stayed on the air for decades. It lost its staying power a while ago, despite Jerry Seinfeld crediting it as an inspiration for his own TV phenomenon. It was probably no reflection on the show, although today's sitcom fans might barely recognize it as a show, but a business decision that downtime airtime was better filled by infomercials than the old stuff that sustained stations for generations. You used to see this show all the time, but its reappearance on MeTV is like the unearthing of a buried treasure from a vanished time.