Friday, December 4, 2015

7 into 28 is 13: The politics of joke thievery

Bud Abbott screws his landlord out of the rent money with mathematical trickery.

How do jokes get started? Hell if I know, but back in the days of vaudeville, certain successful comedic routines got passed around a lot between different acts, with very little thought given as to attribution. I guess there was a lot of borrowing or just outright stealing in those days. Maybe there were turf wars over the "ownership" of certain bits. These were live performances, of course, and no one was recording them, so what was the harm ultimately? But then a strange thing happened to the entertainment biz. Two strange things, actually: film and television. Suddenly, performances were being immortalized and shown to audiences from coast to coast. And yet, those same hand-me-down vaudeville routines kept popping up on screens both big and small well into the 1950s and beyond. Hey, the material has to come from somewhere. There's a famous quote sometimes attributed to Larry Gelbart and sometimes to Bob Hope: "When vaudeville died, television was the box they put it in." Many decades later, a variation on that line wound up in a Family Guy episode: "Vaudeville's dead, and TV's the box they're gonna bury it in." So even the quote about vaudeville has some miles on it.

There is one routine in particular that shows up with remarkable persistence in old movies and TV shows, performed by a variety of comedians with very little variation in the basic premise or structure. Simply put, one character tries to convince another character that 28 divided by 7 is 13. The first character will "prove" this assertion in three ways: long division, multiplication, and addition. Always in that order. I guess the bit is most closely associated with Abbott and Costello, who went from vaudeville to film to television over the course of their long career. They certainly did this math routine a lot of times. Like this, for instance:

And this:

Not to mention this and this.

So Bud and Lou sure performed the hell out out of the "28" bit. But the routine was not their exclusive property by any stretch. Ron Ormond's 1951 film, Yes Sir, Mr. Bones is meant as a tribute to minstrel shows, which were already on their way out by then (for good reason). This is the movie from which Ed Wood's producers plundered the Cotton Watts and Chick routine he used in Jail Bait in 1954. Two of the other performers in the original Ormond film are Emmett Miller and Ches Davis, doing their version of the old "28" routine, though they don't get around to it until about two minutes into this clip.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main were doing this same routine in one of their low-budget Ma and Pa Kettle films at Universal. The only difference is that they use 25 and 14 instead of 28 and 13. But the joke is exactly the same, as is the order: division, then multiplication, then addition.

Remember all this before you ever accuse anyone of stealing a joke. Joke-stealing is a proud show business tradition. Comedy could barely exist without it. I mean, who came up with this mathematics routine? Abbott and Costello? Davis and Miller? Ma and Pa Kettle? Probably none of them!