Pardon my Sarong

September 7, 2009


My comedy partner, Trev, very kindly bought me a boxed set of Abbot and Costello movies for my birthday. There’s 24 of them. As it says on the box, “over 32 hours of viewing”. I say kindly…

When we first attempted to be a double-act, back in the early 80’s, we were keen observers, almost students, of other double-acts. And for some reason we were drawn to the nastier ones. There were double-acts out there who seemed to take pleasure in not liking each other, in being downright abusive to each other; modern ones like 20th Century Coyote (Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson), then the more old school acts like Cannon and Ball, and further back, Abbot and Costello.

There were better double-acts; Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise, where the love for each other conveyed so convincingly through their acts was reciprocated in their real life long-term friendships. But when we were young and angry and foolish we just wanted to see double acts rip each other apart. Or we’d enjoy the dichotomy of an act that seemed to present some sort of a friendship, but when touring chose to stay in separate hotels, or refused to share a 50/50 split of the takings. Double-acts where behind the scenes there was bullying and mutual hatred.

Abbot and Costello were the kings of the dysfunctional double-act. Indeed, when Costello died, Abbot was in the process of suing him for $220,000. To be fair to the two, they’d always had ups and downs with money. In the early years the split was 60/40 in favour of straight-man Bud Abbott; a practice not as outrageous as it might sound. Straight-men were highly regarded and valued within double-acts. And in later years Costello insisted that this split should be reversed; and so it was for their film years. Fair, sort of, but still, the silly old fools.  50/50 is fine. Heck, yes, it’s business, but it’s also comedy; two idiots getting through life, hard enough as it is, should give each other a break. It wasn’t just money they’d argue over. Who’s on first was a big issue, with Costello demanding a name change, Abbot and Costello to Costello and Abbott.

And so, with all that mad aggression seething beneath our sarongs (I wore one for the viewing) I settled down for a good laugh.

The film’s nonsense. As was often the case when double-acts and comedians ventured into movies, someone came up with some daft old story which serves as a way of holding together a number of theatre-tested routines. In this film the boys (trademarked name to be used whenever referring to double-acts) are bus drivers taking a yachtsman to a race in Hawaii. They get chased by the police, end up with the bus floating on a raft, they befriend a seal, they kidnap a woman trying to sabotage the boat race, they end up in a storm, they get washed up on some remote island, the natives mistake Costello for a hero, send him off into a volcano to appease the gods, wearing a sacred special powers jewel, some robbers await to steal the jewel blah blah blah. And everything works out fine. But forget the plot, here’s the best bits, paraphrased and partially remembered (apologies to the screenwriters, True Boardman, Nat Perrin and John Grant):

Costello: Look, a sea-lion.

Abbott: That’s a seal. They use them to make fur coats.

Costello: How do they teach them?

Well, it made me laugh.

My favourite moments, and indeed my favourite aspect of Abbot and Costello’s comedy, comes when the two bicker for what seems like an eternity over some small misunderstanding. The obvious example is their most famous routine, Who’s on First? There are many versions of this, ranging from just a few minutes to almost ten minutes. If you don’t know it, or if you do but would like to see it presented in a new way, have a look at this typographical version.

In Pardon My Sarong they argue over driving the bus, with Abbot constantly saying to Costello “Will ya go ahead and back up.” You can guess how this goes. It’s a funny line, some may say. Once. Well try it again and again with Costello not getting it. And then again. And again. Funny, funny, funny, not so funny, not funny. Then back to funny. I like that.

Another scene sees Costello take on one of the chiefs of the tribe. The film is maybe as dodgy as hell, but I’ll let you decide by seeing a picture of the said chief.

pardonsarong b+w

This may well be racist, but I wouldn’t have a clue who against. Has anyone heard of Claire’s Accessories Island?

So, Costello and this guy get into a bit of an argument and Costello calls him a “stinker”. He, understandably, takes offence, but Abbott steps in to calm things down. He points out that where they are from “stinker” is a form of praise; all the most impressive men are “stinkers”.A set-up for an onslaught of “I’m a bigger stinker than you/ I’m the biggest stinker” etc. Lines that yet again go on and on. A film with a good few minutes of people calling each other “stinker” is ok with me.

As for true nastiness; when Costello has to go through the volcano Abbot doesn’t offer to help. He instead offers Costello a gun. Not to defend himself with, but to kill himself with. Double-act assisted suicide.

It’s possibly wrong to say, knowing that Trev may well read this, but my favourite part of the film didn’t even feature the stars. It’s a musical scene with the Ink Spots and Tip, Tap and Toe. A fantastic routine with moonwalking decades before Wacko Jacko thought of doing it. See it here.


2 Responses to “Pardon my Sarong”

  1. Trevor Neal said

    Next year I’ll buy you The Ink Spots with Tip Tap and Toe DVD box set – 173 hours of close harmony and slippy table dance routines. By the way thanks for not embarrassing me and revealing the true 70/30 split I’ve always demanded.

  2. professoryard said

    I used to hate Abbot & Costello as a kid, partly because there was something too real when they were mean to each other. are you going to watch the rest?

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