Possibly due to the unanticipated popularity of Universal's Abbott and Costello boxed sets of feature films, four-episode volumes of the comedy team's TV show are now being reissued as well. The DVD this reviewer watched was bare bones and looked like it had been transferred at the dawn of the format (in other words, it looks okay but not great). But the show itself still holds up, even though episodes recycled the same routines they had already used multiple times before, in their Universal films and on radio. Nonetheless, it's hard to tire of sure-fire standards as "Who's On First?" and the TV series had a tone that set it apart from their movies in interesting ways.
By 1952, when The Abbott and Costello Show first premiered, the team had been making movies for more than a decade, and they had pretty much lost all enthusiasm. They complained Universal gave their pictures lousy scripts and inferior production values, so they occasionally made their own films independently, with lousy scripts and inferior production values. They also suffered from a serious case of over-exposure: around this time they were making movies, appearing on several TV shows simultaneously, on radio, all while their older movies were in constant re-release.
But TV was a new medium and the freshness they had exhibited in the earliest films a decade before they show once more in their early TV work. Though Abbott and Costello are remembered today almost exclusively for their movies, in the 1950s their TV appearances, especially on The Colgate Comedy Hour, represented their best recorded performances, just as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis played far better in front of a live audience than they ever did in the movies.
Even on the first season of their filmed TV show (without a live audience), they exhibit a renewed enthusiasm lacking in concurrently-made films like Lost in Alaska (1951) and Comin' Round the Mountain (1952). Partly this seems due to the fact, in its first season anyway, the episodes had only the flimsiest of storylines. Basically they were extended burlesque sketches milked for 26 minutes. Lou ad-libs constantly and generally is allowed to run amuck, far more than in the movies, where continuity issues, subplot matters and whatnot, could not permit such anarchy.
The shows have Abbott & Costello playing basically unsuccessful versions of themselves, forever behind in their rent to landlord Sidney Fields (Sidney Fields, who also scripted the first season shows), running afoul of Mike the Cop (Gordon Jones), trying to impresses beautiful neighbor Hillary Brooke (Hillary Brooke), and so forth. Joe Besser, before he became one of the Three Stooges, plays the child-man Stinky, while Joe Kirk plays greengrocer Mr. Bacciagalupe, who talk-a wit a tic Italiana accenta like-a the Chico Marx. A chimpanzee, utterly extraneous, appeared in some first season shows.
Duck Dinner. This show has Lou demonstrating the quality of pots and pans he's trying to sell by cooking a duck dinner for landlord Mr. Fields and the rest of the cast, which mostly gives Lou an excuse to wreak havoc in the kitchen and exchange painful one-liners with Bud. When Bud asks Lou to save the duck's feathers, adding, "You get down off a duck's back," Lou responds, "He's weary now!" This must be a cheap apartment building, as the cast is forced to use Fields's hideaway bed for a dinner table. Lou's ad-libbing even catches veteran Fields off-guard, as he begins to break up when Lou knocks a gob of grated cheese (actually grated soap, but that's another story) off Fields's bald head.
Hillary's Birthday. This show features a variation of "Go Ahead and Sing," a routine Abbott and Costello used in their first starring film, Buck Privates (1941). In this case, Landlord Fields has ordered Lou not to play a radio and a party he and Bud are throwing for Hillary. Another sign Bud and Lou are living in a cheap, rundown apartment building: During this show, Lou smashes into a wall, and nearly brings down the entire flat.
Million Dollar Refund, also known as The Tax Return, finds the IRS mistakenly sending Lou a tax refund for $1,000,000.13, a concept especially improbable for Abbott and Costello, who were hounded by tax men throughout the 1950s. This episode finds Bud unusually unscrupulous, making Bing Crosby's characters in the "Road" movies seem like Dr. Schweitzer. This is a second season show and oddly-subdued; Bud and Lou practically whisper their lines compared to the other three shows. This episode also features different titles; the other three episodes open with a collage of clips from their Universal movies.
The Actors' Home. This show, with Lou working as an ice cream vendor, is the best of the four. It features a funny bit from Besser, who was always quite funny on this show, plus Bud and Lou perform their signature routine, "Who's On First." The routine is filmed in front of a small, on-camera audience, something denied them when they filmed it for The Naughty Nineties (1945). This version is longer and better-timed in some ways.
Video & Audio
With only 100-odd minutes of programming on this disc, the show doesn't look as clean digitally as it might. The film elements seem okay (except for a big jump cut around 1:24), but the mastering is unimpressive. The disc promises Dolby Digital Stereo, but that seems pretty absurd for a 53-year-old TV show. It certainly sounded mono to this reviewer, and rather tinny on "Million Dollar Refund." The menu is extremely basic, there are no subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
Though not particularly well-packaged, The Abbott and Costello Show, Volume 1 has some good laughs, an energetic Bud and Lou, and fans who can't get enough of the Universal films will want to check these episodes out.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.