He's on first

« previous post | next post »

The most recent SMBC presents an updated chemical version of the classic "Who's on first" skit. I think that Zach Weiner does a better job of setting the joke up than Abbott and Costello did:

I had forgotten how lame Abbott and Costello's intro was. Zach cashes in pretty well, too — my favorite bit is

And so on. But it's hard to beat

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

… and the rest of it.

A substantive linguistic point illustrated by Abbott and Costello: there's no systematic prosodic difference between wh-questions and statements, at least in English.


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    The comic gets funnier as it goes along, like "Who's on First", but how did the author pass up "Can you tell me the abbreviation for Nobelium?"

  2. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    The great thing is that the SMBC comic only works in a visual medium. Performed as a skit, it would flop.

  3. Faldone said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    It fails for me from the start. The spoken abbreviation for nobelium isn't /noʊ/, it's /ɛn oʊ/.

  4. mollymooly said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    @Faldone: see @Spell Me Jeff.

  5. Faldone said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    @mollymooly: Still doesn't work for me since it is depicting a conversation and would only work if it depicted the conversation truly.

  6. Nathan said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    Faldone's a lot of fun at parties.

  7. John Lawler said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    @Faldone – I'd'a thought /ɛn oʊ/ would be Nitric Oxide.

  8. Brett said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    Actually, the comic seems to want it both ways. In some parts, the jokes only seem to work in written form, but other places it's entirely phonetic.

  9. Peter said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

    My favourite execution of the concept, by a long chalk, is the Bush II era “Hu is the new leader of China?” sketch:


    The timing is perfect throughout; it still cracks me up every time.

  10. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 10:51 pm

    Or this cartoon version: here.

  11. Peter G. Howland said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 2:05 am

    @Peter – What does "by a long chalk" mean/have reference to?

  12. Peter G. Howland said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 5:30 am

    Embarrassed, By a Long Chalk.
    Er, never mind my impatient, ignorant question…I finally found out what this phrase is about (hours later after getting through all the LL stuff I’d missed the last couple of days) on Michael Quinion’s “World Wide Words”. Dang me, who woulda thunkit! Sorry, Peter, myl, and others, for cluttering up the phlogistonisphere with my idiomatic curiosity side trip.

  13. J said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    Another riff on the theme, for the Trekkies among us.

  14. Robert Furber said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 9:52 am


    My preferred version of that pun is the story about Sidney Morgenbesser discussing the categorical imperative in a police station. The version on his wikipedia entry does too much to explain the joke, however.

    Part of what makes the Abbott and Costello routine so good is their apparently genuine antipathy for each other, which most double acts try to stifle.

  15. blahedo said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    I wanted to add that I liked the title of the post, but shouldn't it be "He's on second"?

    [(myl) First period, 18th group. Atomic number 2, but that's cardinal rather than ordinal.]

  16. SharonZ said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    English speakers learning Hebrew always enjoy variations of this Who's-on-first conversation (http://boulders2bits.com/archives/2009/09/29/its-time-again-abbott-costello-teach-hebrew/), based on the Hebrew words for basic pronouns and interrogatives. The bracketed words in these pairs are the Hebrew pronunciations, spelled as English words (although the pronunciation of the word for "fish" is more "dahg" than "dawg," it's always the punch line): he [who], who [me], she [he], what [ma], fish [dog]

  17. Eric P Smith said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

    Truth is stranger than the fiction of the “Who’s on first” sketch. Aston Villa’s team of 11 players in the (soccer) English Premier League yesterday included players who were /ˈdʌn/, /ˈhɝd/, /ˈgɪvən/ and /ˈbɛnt/.

  18. James Parkin said,

    August 28, 2011 @ 7:33 pm


    Actually, the very first one works allright for me, as long as I hear it in my head as an very emphatic "no"; a drawn-out syllable with a heavily glottalized "n". Try it, you might agree.

  19. Rohan F said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 8:08 am

    @J, speaking of Trekkies, several years ago a version was done in Klingon called "who is the gunner?", adapted to various crew members of a starship rather than baseball positions. Unfortunately it's virtually impossible to get hold of a recording of it but the comedy translates very well.

  20. Mark Dunan said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 8:02 am

    I'm still waiting for Chin-Lung Hu (胡金龍) to get into a game at a position other than second base or shortstop!

  21. Just another Peter said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 1:46 am

    One time my mother was listening to the radio news and there was a bit about the World Health Organisation. I totally got her when I asked "WHO?"

  22. Bob Lieblich said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    Far too late, perhaps, but I couldn't help remembering a routine in which the announcer told us all which group would lead off the concert: "The Who's on first."

RSS feed for comments on this post