Dexter Broadhurst (Bud Abbott) and Sebastian Dinwiddle (Lou Costello) work aboard a Mississippi riverboat in the eighteen-nineties, and the craft has just docked at the latest town on their journey to entertain the locals with songs and sketches. What they don't have is gambling, as the Captain Sam (Henry Travers) refuses to have such dealings on his vessel, so the operation is strictly on the level, or at least it is until three ne'erdowells show up. They are in the process of being thrown out of town by the Sheriff, but when they see the riverboat they decide to stick around for a little longer, sensing an opportunity. So it is as the musicians parade, with Sebastian taking an unconventional route through the place as he plays the big bass drum and cannot see where he is going, this terrible trio make their move...
Thus far Abbott and Costello had made their blockbusting comedies set in modern times, as they seemed very contemporary to the nineteen-forties audiences who lapped up their material, but The Naughty Nineties was a little different as it took it upon itself to place the boys in a different era. The result was one of their most popular works, and endures today for as the film basically took the form of a series of their routines, it was one routine in particular that stood out: Who's On First. This ridiculously complicated question and answer business became what the duo would grow to be best known for as it summed up how their antagonistic personas were best served by it, and you got to hear the skit in full as they appeared to relate in in two long takes, a feat of memory that was surely benefited by the fact they had performed it so often on the stage.
Probably penned by one of their regular gag writers John Grant, this crosstalk was so quickfire that it might take a couple of listens before you begin to fully catch every twist and turn in the nutty conversation where Bud explains the baseball players have crazy names these days, and Who's on first, What's on second and I Don't Know is on third, affording them many chances to get Lou well and truly befuddled as Bud tries to make clear what will never be clear. Even if you don't think it's too funny, the skill that went into the delivery was something to behold, and if it did make you laugh then that was a tribute to the comedians' dedication and hard work, honing their craft to precision. Indeed, so famed has Who's On First become, that it is tended to be forgotten there's about an hour and ten minutes of the rest of the movie around it, and though it ran out of steam for a runaround finale, much of this was pretty funny too.
Take the absurd routine, based as with many of Abbott and Costello conceits on misunderstandings, where Lou thinks that the meal being served up for him and Bud has been made with the meat of the cats he has just seen slipping into the kitchens. Yes, it was very silly, but if you went along with it then you would likely find yourself chuckling at the situation and the invention that went into sustaining it. That was the case with much of this, as there may have been bits where Sebastian and Dexter try to disrupt Captain Sam being fleeced of the rights to the riverboat at the casino by introducing a live bear to the place (actually a man in a bear suit), which involved more elaborate set-ups, quite often it was the simplest ideas that succeeded the best. Take the routine where Sebastian is catching fish and keeps throwing successively bigger fish back to catch even larger ones: it leads up to him staring in the villains' cabin porthole and pretending to be a mirror as one of them shaves, not a new idea but ludicrous when you wonder how the bad guy didn't recognise that wasn't his own face. Aside from the famous bit, The Naughty Nineties is rarely considered one of the team's most consistent movies, and that may be true, but there was quality here.