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‘The Annotated Abbott and Costello: A Complete Viewer’s Guide to the Comedy Team and Their 38 Films’ (review)

Written by Matthew Coniam and Nick Santa Maria
Foreword by John Landis
Published by McFarland Publishing

 

Long before I ever actually saw even a photo of Abbott and Costello, my dad introduced me to them by teaching me the parts he could remember of “Who’s on First?” He’d do both roles and have my mother and I cracking up. He told me he’d seen them perform in Burlesque back in the day and that they had made a lot of movies, but I was glued to the television much of the time and I never saw any movies they were in.

When I was nine-years-old, though, we got a new UHF channel in our area that specialized in reruns of old TV series I had grown up with like Batman and My Favorite Martian, cartoons I had never heard of like Prince Planet and Captain Fathom, and old movie series like Charlie Chan, The Bowery Boys, and, eventually, Abbott and Costello.

Actually, the first A&C I got to watch, with my dad, was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which ran during the channel’s Saturday night horror show hosted by the Cool Ghoul. It was not only my introduction to Bud and Lou but also my introduction to Bela Lugosi! Needless to say, I loved it.

Not so much my second exposure to the fellas—Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion. Thus did I learn that all they touched was not gold, a point made well enough in the new, long-overdue book, The Annotated Abbott and Costello by Matthew Coniam and my Facebook pal, Nick Santa Maria. Both of these men are well-known as classic comedy experts in multiple venues as well as Abbott and Costello fans of the first order, which makes them eminently qualified for a book of this type.

It’s long been said, of course, that if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny. Luckily, the book at hand doesn’t really explain any of the jokes or routines per se, but rather gives them context and background—where did they originate, how often were they recycled, etc.

Not being an actual biography of the two men, what we have is more a career overview, although with enough of their histories to give us the parallel stories of the triumphs and tragedies happening in their personal lives at the same time their careers were soaring. And as with every success story, there actually is plenty of backstage angst.

Egos and angst aside, however, the authors do an excellent balancing act which allows them to continually concentrate on their films, emphasizing where each occurs in the bigger picture of their whole rise and fall.

Unlike a lot of collaborations, the line of “who wrote what?” is clearly delineated here, with each co-author trading off solo bylines on individual chapters or post-chapter comments. Each man offers a well-thought out and often amusing in its own right appraisal of the team and each film. Neither are any of their reviews sugarcoated. When it’s bad, they call it as such—although the other man might beg to differ in comments at the end.

Although equally prolific on radio throughout the 1940s and television throughout the 1950s, the authors, already pushing 500 pages, have chosen to center on just the film career, covering all of the duo’s screen appearances as well as Lou’s one solo film and even the 1960s compilation clipfest.

Toward the end of the book, there are some fun sections, including a number of well-known fans, film historians, authors, bloggers, etc. offering their own personal takes on favorite A&C comedies. (Nick, you had my contact info. I feel left out!).

Also among these learned personages is Chris Costello, Lou’s daughter. When my own son, David, was five years old, he could already read. I adapted a pre-school version of “Who’s on First?” that the two of us would perform at the Cincinnati Old-Time Radio Convention one year. While there is no recording of that, a few years ago I did find a cassette I had made of our rehearsals the night before. I sent it to Chris Costello who wrote back saying how much her dad loved kids and how much he would have loved hearing that recording. Remembering how much my dad had loved Abbott and Costello, as I read The Annotated Abbott and Costello, I just kept thinking how much MY dad would have absolutely loved this book.

Booksteve recommends.

 

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