Who’s on First?
Sometimes we get stuck in patterns. Sometimes those patterns can be sad, sometimes they are hilarious. Sometimes its good to laugh at ourselves and have a sense of humor about the mess we find ourselves in. During such a time I was reminded of one of the greatest vaudevillian comedy routines of all time – Abbott and Costello’s ”Who’s on First.”
It starts innocently enough. Fat and short Lou Costello, the admitted goof with the hat and the bat, is swinging like he is already on the field of play. Tall and skinny Bud Abbott plays the perfect straight man – desperately trying to share with his friend the funny names that the ballplayers have on the team he manages.
In fact, at 1:30 into the bit, Abbott explains the entire joke for Costello and the audience, but Costello can’t pick up on it right away. Abbott starts naming all of the players, even pointing to their positions on the imaginary field in front of him.
It takes a full two minutes later for Costello to get that there is a pattern to the names of the players. At 3:19 you hear him say the famous line, “I don’t know, he’s third base.” But Costello is still oblivious to why.
We’ve all be here – stuck in a pattern that we know is ongoing but we can’t seem to sneak out of out it. We know that when A happens, B will follow. Its frustrating! Its even maddening sometimes. We want to get out of it, but here we go again, right back trying to figure out who is on first.
Costello’s frustration comes out in true vaudevillian form. He is punching his plump face, repeating himself over and over, slamming the baseball bat on the ground, and raising his voice. His madness crescendos with a threat of violence at 6:07 – “I’ll break your arm if you say WHO’S ON FIRST!” Does this sound familiar?
Costello continues trying the same problem-solving method that hasn’t gotten him anywhere closer to the truth – going through position by position with Abbott. One is funnier than the next, and Costello is nowhere nearer the truth. After six minutes of this we are begging for a shift in strategy before this comedy turns into a tragedy. A minute later, both men are still yelling at each other trying to explain the other’s point of view – “same as you!”
But ready to get off the merry-go-round, Costello thinks he has a bead on the pattern – he is trying a new tact! We rejoice in more laughter because at least he is trying something new, and are hopeful the epiphany is in sight. Unfortunately, thinking that the first baseman’s name is “Naturally” is just not the right answer.
Similarly, I think we are all hopeful when trying a new pattern. We aren’t sure that it is going to work out. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, which is why this shift is so funny. We know what it is like to be so sure of a solution only to see it immediately crumble.
The reason this comedy routine works is that we all fear the audience is also laughing at us – not being able to find the right answer to the problem. We feel ashamed. We feel angry. We feel annoyed. Fortunately, the routine ends mercifully with Costello figuring out the funny names of the ballplayers.
This isn’t always the case for us, and sometimes a guide is needed. Someone to walk with Costello patiently as he discovers the pattern – someone who won’t explain this joke only to leave Costello repeating the pattern when he encounters a similar challenge. Counseling can also help folks like Abbott. Genuine in their approach in communicating (“every dollar”), while being impossible to their audience (“I’LL BREAK YOUR ARM!”).
Therapy can be a lot like “Who’s on First,” and if you are really trying hard, you can switch between each of the characters on stage and even look at your problems like the audience does – with a lot of knowing laughter.
FUN FACT: Abbott and Costello didn’t actually write Who’s on First. This was an old standard in the Burlesque circuit and everyone performed it – they just became famous for perfecting it. I find this comforting to know that audiences and performers found this humor about us repeating patterns so universal.