Two guys enter the stage from opposite sides. One of them is carrying a suitcase.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m taking my case to court!”
Later, the same two guys again enter the stage, again from opposite ends. The guy who was carrying the suitcase is now carrying a ladder.
“Where are you going now?”
“I’m taking my case to a higher court!”
I was reminded of this old routine when I read the other day that the heirs of Abbott and Costello have filed a lawsuit against the producers of a Broadway play because it includes part of Bud and Lou’s most famous routine, Who’s on First? The play, “Hand to God,” was nominated for five Tonys.
I like Abbott and Costello in short doses. If I do sit through one of their features, I mainly bide my time until I come to the parts where they do a classic routine. (If you look at most of their Universal features, you’ll usually find John Grant's name among the writing credits; he had an encyclopedic memory for burlesque and vaudeville routines, and it was his job to work them into the scripts.)
Bud and Lou deserve a lot of credit for preserving these old routines, both in their movies but especially in their TV show – The Lemon Table, Pack and Unpack, The Mustard Routine, Niagara Falls and, last but certainly not least, Flugel Street – in addition to Who’s on First?
Thing is, from what I’ve read and heard over the years, these routines didn’t begin with Bud and Lou. The two of them reportedly weren’t even the first to do “Who’s on First?”
“The lawsuit is baseless; the material in question is in the public domain, and the show’s producer carefully vetted” it with the show’s lawyers, a spokesman for the production told The New York Times.
I’m no lawyer, let alone a copyright lawyer, but I do know that it’s possible for material that was in the public domain to be copyrighted again – I’m particularly thinking of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which for years was out of copyright and mainly available in crappy VHS and DVD versions that had been duped so often that when you watched them on TV you could almost see right through them to the back of your TV, your living-room wall and the house next door.
So I suppose it’s possible that the heirs could have had “Who’s on First?” copyrighted.
And I don’t mean to seem unsympathetic to the Abbott and Costello estates. I’ve often thought that when Abbott, in his later years, ran into serious tax troubles, the government should have given him a break, considering that during World War II, Bud and Lou raised millions (as much as $85 million, some sources say) for the war effort.
But as far as the current lawsuit is concerned, I can’t help thinking that their descendants may well be out of luck.
Or as Chief Brody from “Jaws” might tell them:
“You’re gonna need a bigger ladder!”