Abbott & Othello
I honestly don’t remember when I got the idea for “Abbott & Othello” but it happened. I certainly had done a ton of pop-culture mash-ups before (and since). And, weirdly, Abbott & Costello were in the zeitgeist in the 1980s; SNL, SCTV and others did A&O inspired bits. I remember one a joke; Elvis Costello and the group ABBA were going on tour as ABBA & Costello. Maybe all of this triggered the idea.
I showed that skit everywhere I could. It got me into a workshop. It was included in any packet of material I sent out. It got me involved with a comedy troupe. The reaction to it was always strong and positive. Soon, it became a bit of a cottage industry to me, all because of the sketch’s tag; this wasn’t the only early work we found, we had found and would present other plays, “The Three Stooges of Verona,” “The Nutty Merchant of Venice,” and “Abbott & Othello Meet Frankenstein.” This gag, that all of young Shakespeare’s early drafts just happen to cross-pollinate with classic comedians and comedies, was now a jumping off point.
The skit itself finally got on its legs with the comedy troupe “Style Without Substance.” In fact, it became one of their go-to bits; performed in many incarnations of the show.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to submit material to the radio show “Prairie Home Companion.” Naturally, one of the bits included was “Abbott & Othello.” Guess what? They produced it!
During a brief relationship with some comedy folk, my oft-time co-writer, John Rawlins, and I turned this slight sketch into an epic video bit. It started the same, then would cut away to the invading Normans; all named Norman! Get it? The Normans were highly efficient even though they were all named Norman, but Abbott and Othello couldn’t get any of their troop’s names straight. There was side-trip to Abbott & Othello Meet Frankenstein, and an ending that mimicked the ending of the old Abbott & Costello TV show, where Lou declares he’s “a bard boy.” It’s awesome.
I once wrote a TV pilot for a sitcom about a group of people in a writer’s workshop and I needed a sketch to top off the show, to show that the lead was a sharp writer, so I stuck “Abbott & Othello” in there.
Later, I wanted to utilize the characters I created for something else. It would be a horror film on a college campus during a Shakespeare festival. I managed to work the sketch into there as well.
Backing up a bit to my Style Without Substance days, the beauty of belonging to an ace comedy troupe that likes and respects your writing is that you can get stuff on its legs pretty quickly. See, the thing was, some of those parody Shakespeare titles I had worked up and premises I gave them still rattled around my noggin. They started to sound like viable skit ideas. And after the success of Style Without Substance’s production of “Abbott & Othello,” I took one of the titles and turned that into a sketch: “The Three Stooges of Verona.” Again (says I) it really worked, mashing up two seemingly opposite styles. The group did an amazing job with it.
Side note: When the group director, Tom, asked me who should play Moe, I didn’t realize he was fishing for himself. I said Donna Coney Island should play the part. He did that. She was great.
So, remember, never throw anything out. Years later I submitted the Stooges to a small theater group, Intellectual Property, for a festival they were running:
Back to A&O; years after my “Style” gig, a comedy group on Staten Island was forming and they were looking for material. Guess what I sent them?
By this time I was labeling the sketch "audience-proof" because it just always worked. On the nostalgia level, on the comedy level, on the acting level.
In time I would write two more entries into my “Lost Shakespeare” collection, “The Nutty Merchant of Venice” which is an ok mix of Martin & Lewis and Shylock. The other was my opus, the musical comedy “The Road to Hamlet.” It may be the weakest title of the group, but it really clicked as a sketch. Alas, the two of these never made it to the floorboards. In the back of my mind, the sketch “Another Fine Tempest” floats around, still, after all these years. I’ve never actually put quill to parchment on that one, however.
“Abbott & Othello” turned out to be a remarkable piece of material, the skit that keeps on giving. And someday it’ll get the treatment it fully deserves.