Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's on First?" routine still stands as one of the greatest comedy sketches of all time. It was a feat of rapid-fire dialogue, flawless comedic timing and devastating wit.
But could you do it without saying a word?
The answer appears to be yes. After Jerry Seinfeld broke down the classic skit on the MLB Network recently, NPR's Mike Pesca wound up with a peculiar email in his inbox.
It was a link to an American Sign Language (ASL) version of the skit, sent by a friend. It was amazing, Pesca says.
"There are parts where you don't really understand what's going on, but if you know the routine, you can pretty much tell what they're talking about," Pesca tells Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Linda Wertheimer.
"Then there are certain instances where you know exactly what they're saying [and] it gets huge laughs from the audience," he says.
The fact that the routine survives without spoken words is a testament to its brilliance, Pesca says. "It's math. It really is musical, and it works really well."
Chris Benderev is a producer for Weekend Edition Sunday.
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
NPR's Mike Pesca is here to talk sports, as usual. Now, the topic of the death penalty, Mike - that is, the death penalty as it is understood in collegiate athletics - has been swirling about in the media, in connection with Penn State and the abuse scandal there. Quickly, could you just tell us: What is the death penalty?
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: When people use the phrase, they usually mean the elimination of a program of sport from a certain school; eliminating all play for a year, and it could be longer. The thing is, it's not really the death penalty. I mean, SMU - Southern Methodist - supposedly was subject to the death penalty. But SMU plays today. Other schools that have been subject to the death penalty, have been resurrected. So I guess the Methodists can explain that in one instance, but not with sports.
So it's not really a death penalty. And the other thing is, people - when people talk about it, the history of it, they go back to about 1985, when the NCAA passed a rule by a 427-6 vote. And they say that's when the death penalty started. But way before then, schools were stripped of the ability to play for a year. One of the Kentucky basketball programs in the early '50s, happened to them - Southern Louisiana. So the NCAA has always had the ability to say to a school: You will not be playing next year because of what you've done.
WERTHEIMER: Now, one of the arguments that I've heard in discussions about the death penalty and Penn State, is that it would have a big, big impact because so much depends upon the funds brought to the university, and to the community, by the football program. So does that maybe explain why the death penalty has been used more often on little schools, and situations we haven't really heard about?
PESCA: Right. Well, when people talk about the death penalty, they're almost always these days talking about Southern Methodist University; where players were paid in cash, and Eric Dickerson drove a Trans Am around campus. But since then, the NCAA has been really reluctant to use it, except in a couple situations - like you say, smaller schools. One of them was kind of interesting because it was the Division II men's soccer program at Morehouse College.
PESCA: Yeah. Morehouse College, Martin Luther King's alma mater. What happened there was at the turn of the century - the last century - a history professor at Morehouse - guy by the name of Augustine Konneh - started the soccer team. A lot of people at Morehouse didn't even know he started the soccer team. And he hired some players - or paid for the scholarship of some players who were former professionals, which isn't allowed. But it does seem he was motivated not by winning soccer games, but almost philanthropic reasons. He had brought a lot of Liberian refugees over to the United States. Konneh's Liberian himself. And I think using a scholarship to play soccer was a way to get some of these individuals into the United States, and into a better life.
Konneh himself never really answered questions about what was going on with the soccer program. And today, he lives in Liberia and works for Ellen Sirleaf's government. He is actually the director of the school of foreign service there. He's a government minister.
WERTHEIMER: Huh. So Mike, what is this week's curveball?
PESCA: Yeah, this is a real curveball from what we've been talking about. Jerry Seinfeld went on the MLB Network, and dissected the classic Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on First?" And in it, Seinfeld talked about "Who's on First?" as a form of math, or almost a form of music. And based on that, someone sent to me the most amazing video. We're going to post it online, but I can't really play an excerpt - when I tell you, you'll understand why. It's a video of an ASL - American Sign Language - version of the "Who's on First?" routine.
And I have to tell you, there are parts where you don't really understand what's going on. But if you know the routine, you can pretty much tell what they're talking about. And then there are certain instances where you know exactly what they're saying. It gets huge laughs from the audience. It's just quite a thing to watch. And it would probably be a good experiment to match it up with the actual Abbott and Costello routine. It's math. It really is musical, and it works really well.
WERTHEIMER: If you want to look at it, we're going to put it up on NPR's website, npr.org. Mike Pesca, thank you.
PESCA: You're welcome.
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WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.