My two favorite comedians were the famous Abbott and Costello. Their work is still around today on video and audio cassette. One Christmas, a staff member gave me a script from the 1950s TV show. I love to watch Bud and Lou.
Today I am a member of the Abbott and Costello Fan Club. I own numerous videos of ‘the boys’ and even have a set of statues of them in my study. They weren’t great theologians, but they were funny (which I can’t say for most preachers I know who take themselves far too seriously).
‘The boys’ made millions of people laugh in the 40s and 50s. They never won an Oscar, but their 36 films made folks forget their troubles during the war years. Their routine “Who’s On First?” was played and replayed dozens of times, but they never memorized it. Abbott and Costello played off each other and fine-tuned it through the years. Their routines were impeccably timed, flawlessly delivered and impressively improvisational.
Lou Costello was an incredibly physical comedian, the ultimate class clown. Bud Abbott was the definitive straight man. On March 24, 1938, they appeared on “The Kate Smith Hour,” and their careers took off. In less than twenty years, they would become successful in radio, movies and television. During the 1940s, their income averaged $1.75 million each year.
Their sense of timing and comic rhythm made common routines hilarious. The little nuances and facial expression would bring the house down. Their war time films made millions at home laugh and entertained servicemen all around the world. Their star status was recognized in December of 1941 when they imprinted the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Behind the laughs, pratfalls and skits, there was a lot of hurt. However, their show never dropped from the top fifteen from 1942 to 1946. Every Thursday night they would gather around a microphone at NBC radio. It is estimated that over twenty million homes were tuned in each week.
When it was time to end the program on November 2, 1943, Bud returned to the microphone and spoke the following words: “Now that our program is over and we have done our best to entertain you, I would like to pay tribute to my best friend and a man who has more courage than I have ever seen displayed in this theater. The old expression ‘the show must go on’ was brought home to all of us. Just before our broadcast, Lou Costello was told that his baby had died. In the face of the greatest tragedy which can come to any man, Lou Costello went on tonight so that you, the radio audience, would not be disappointed. There is nothing more I can say except that I know you all join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to a great trooper. Good night.”
This happened on the heels of Lou’s nine month battle with rheumatic fever. Those who knew Lou said, “The baby’s death zapped him. It stripped him of all meaning.” Meanwhile, Bud Abbott was suffering with epilepsy. On occasion, he would have a seizure on state, and Lou would have to carry him off. Few people ever knew how badly ‘the boys’ were hurting in their personal lives.
To top it off in 1953, they were visited by the IRS. They were accused of defrauding the government and each had to pay $375,000 in taxes. Although they owed it, it does seem ironic, since the boys once raised $89 million in three days on a bond tour.
Lou Costello died on February 26, 1959. Bob Thomas wrote an obituary that closed with, “Few realized Lou was…a sick man, still playing the clown because he had to.” Bud Abbott was broke in the mid 60s when he was admitted to the hospital following a mild stroke. He was admitted to the Motion Picture House and Hospital. Bud was asked, “How much did you make in your career?” He replied, “Ten or twenty.” His niece asked, “Ten or twenty what?” Bud said, “Million.” Bud Abbott died of cancer in 1974.
So, you ask, “What’s the point? Why should we care about two long gone comedians who fell on tough times?” Because we are taught and encouraged to hide our feelings and ignore our hurts. We’re told to put on a happy face, smile no matter how you hurt and pretend everything is okay. Sadly, one of the places you learn this best is in church. The church is supposed to be a hospital for sinners. Maybe it’s time for preachers who hide behind the “Everything is great…Praise the Lord” mask to rip it off and replace it with reality.
Until believers get honest with God and one another, they will continue to hide behind facades that will ultimately crumble. If you are hurting, lonely or heartbroken, ask your Sunday School class to pray for you. If your marriage is in trouble, your kids are rebelling, seek out those who love you most, your church family, to intercede on your behalf. Stop the “still playing the clown because he had to” game. If you can’t be honest, you can’t get help! If you’re about to collapse, quit hiding behind clown faces and the “never let them see you sweat” attitude.
© Michael Catt, 2006.
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.