The Abbott and Costello Show ran for two full seasons in the early ’50s yet their humor transcends its black-and-white small-screen origins. The complete series of 52 episodes, including prime bonus material that features a 1978 Milton Berle-hosted television special on the duo as well as 1940s-era home movies that Costello made with sound no less, is available in a 9-DVD box set.
The action of each show in the first season is bookended with respective lean and rotund Bud Abbott and Lou Costello talking about the show in front of a theatrical curtain, while A&C’s premise revolves around their comic routines. Any plot usually involves hanging on the front steps of their apartment or running into reoccurring characters. One such whacked out character is Stinky (Joe Besser) a 40 year-old man who dresses like a child in Buster Brown get up. The comedy often mines surreal levels of humor even though the presentation is stage bound. Joan Shawlee as twins serving Abbott and Costello leads to confusion with Shawlee alternating behind the kitchen’s swinging door, one moment flirting with Lou and offering free cake the next calling him fatso and charging him for desert.
According to booklet notes the monkey, Bingo the Chimp, only lasted a couple of eps because he kept biting Lou. Nonetheless the chimp reaction shots comment on the human activity in a sardonic manner. Even better is an ep with a duck that does the same thing, watching Lou as he attempts to cook a chicken. Obviously because of its age the humor seems dated at times. Yet their best routines bristle with brilliance, like “Who’s On First.”
A&C’s extras never outshine the series. Not something that can be said for other recent television releases like the Dominick Dunne cable series. Those eps are hard to thread but the extras include home movies shot at his Malibu manse in the mid-60s with a who’s who of then stars cavorting in swimwear. Or the special Lucy Calls the President (Carter was the Prez then), which barely offers glimpses of the humor Lucille Ball was capable of but has extras that include one appearance on the Tonight Show (early in Carson’s run since it’s in black-and-white) and recordings of interviews from Ball’s 60s radio show. Ditto the Jackie Gleason starring The Honeymooners’ Second Wedding and Valentine Special (from the late-70s) DVDs include comedy sketches from other shows where other actors lampoon Ralph Kramden.
Closer to home here are a couple of movies that went straight to DVD yet offer better entertainment than typical mainstream fare at the theaters. Cloud 9 is the American title of a German film (Wolke Neun) that puts a senior couple having an affair in the kind of light one always sees portrayed by younger actors. California Dreamin’ offers a tantalizing bit of Romanian cinema, albeit the first time director Cristian Nemescu died during the film’s post production. Armand Assante toplines as a Marine heading a NATO train through Romania with emergency supplies bound for Serbia. The train’s stopped by some guy over a paper dispute. Meanwhile Assante’s team parties with the locals. The term Five Minutes of Heaven refers to the feeling after committing a murder, yet in the case of Liam Neeson and this BBC produced movie it haunts him years after the deed. Neeson meets James Nesbit, a brother of the victim, a generation later for a television show that attempts to reconcile events. It only leads to an escalation of themes of vengeance.