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Who’s on first?


140818 Batter

Before there was the internet, and before there was television, there was radio. And one of the biggest acts on radio was Abbot and Costello. Bud Abbot was the smooth talker. Lou Costello was the well-intended bumbler. Their most famous sketch is the immortal “Who’s on first?” If you haven’t heard it before (or, even if you have), go here.

Pity Lou Costello. He goes around in circles, mouthing the words but never quite getting it. At one point he blurts out “So I throw the ball to who?” Abbot compliments him: “That’s the first thing you’ve said right!,” and Costello fires back “I don’t even know what I’m talking about!” Poor Costello. He means well, he occasionally says the right thing by accident (“Same as you!” he yells at Abbot), but it’s clear he doesn’t have a clue. As many times as we listen to this sketch (and I’ve listened to it a dozen times working on this post), it never loses its humor. In fact, it becomes funnier each time we listen, because we know what’s coming. We wait with gleeful anticipation for Costello to slip on the linguistic banana peel, and when he does, we laugh.

Why do we laugh at this skit? It’s because we know something that Costello doesn’t. Actually, we also know something that Abbot doesn’t, i.e. we understand the flaw in Costello’s thinking. Abbot’s frustration is just as palpable as Costello’s. It’s the repartee between the two of them – each blind to the other person’s thinking – that we find endlessly entertaining.

Now think of Abbot as Neurotypical, and Costello as someone with high functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger Syndrome (AS) – someone who is “Indistinguishable from normal.” Costello can’t fathom Abbot’s thinking or see the big picture – in clinical terms, Costello lacks theory of mind and central coherence. He is a man in a darkened room, groping for the door knob to let himself out, but he never quite finds it. We laugh, not because we are cruel, but because we know it’s make believe. And yet, the parallel to high functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome is there. If I had HFA or AS, I would probably identify with Costello, and I might not find it so funny. I might see it more as a technical challenge in interpersonal communication.

Communication is a central problem for people with HFA. Learning how to say the right words is one thing; learning how to read the signals is something else. Judy Endow blogs about the “hidden curriculum,” and what she does to “pass” as normal. Her strategy: “Lie to them” (i.e., pay false compliments to people who are neurotypical), because “It seems important to neuro-majority people to pretend they are an ideal version of themselves than they really are in everyday life”. This strategy may “work” for some people with ASD in the sense that it avoids conflict, but it is mutually unsatisfying for both the person with ASD and his/her neurotypical partner. Like Abbot and Costello, the two parties talk past one another, instead of engaging in a shared social interaction.

Here’s a clever “sequel” to the original routine. Near the end of the skit, Jerry Seinfeld explains the misunderstanding to the person recreating Costello’s character:

Look. It’s very simple. This fellow’s actual name is ‘Who’ – W-H-O….”

Costello’s character declares: “Well, that clears it up! Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

If only going from “Indistinguishable from normal” to “Normal” were as simple.

More next time.




Dr Coplan signing books at Barnes and Noble




James Coplan, MD is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speaker in the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders. Stay connected, join Dr. Coplan on Facebook and Twitter.





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