[I’m finally back in the US of A after an interminable biz trip in Qatar. Jet lag and the necessity that I pay some attention to the long-neglected Kay-Kay means I’m recycling an old post this week, but one of my and Kay-Kay’s favorites. What with the lunacy in both Washington and London these days, it only seems appropriate we talk about The Three Stooges. Back next week with something new and devastatingly witty.]
True story. One of the salient things that initially attracted me to my wife was… The Three Stooges. At the risk of serious gender stereotyping, let me just say that 99.999% of all Late Baby Boomer-aged girls/women I have ever met, spoken with, attempted to date, or dated—and that funnel gets very narrow by the end—uniformly believe The Stooges are “dumb,” “stupid,” and/or “have goofy hair.” Not my Kay-Kay. She still thinks The Stooges are hilarious. Hence the reason I was instantly enamored of her. That and she did my laundry. I’ve always hated doing laundry.
In the interest of academic integrity, I freely admit that there’s a Dissenting School of Thought that holds The Three Stooges are merely “juvenile” and/or “uncouth,” suggesting that the simulation of eye gouging, pulling noses with a pair of pliers, or dropping a plaster ceiling on someone’s head is somehow less than morally elevating. Noted. But it’s my blog, so too bad.
Admittedly, there is some marginal danger from becoming a devotee of The Stooges at a young age. Or as a college student with too much time and liquor on hand. I confess to being inadvertently poked in the eye more than once perfecting the “Pick Two” schtick. But that was a small price to pay for that feeling of utter contentment that can only come when you and a couple of friends have successfully emulated The Stooges’s synchronized sleeping roll-over with a harmonic snore arpeggio, punctuated with a final “bee-bee-bee-bee.” It’s transcendent. And I have it on good authority the Dali Lama totally digs The Stooges. As far as you know.
And let us not overlook one of the gems contributed by The Stooges that is now embedded in American cultural literacy. Of course, I refer to their law firm of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe. (I pause to note that the truly regrettable Stooges reboot in 2012 ran this esteemed joke off the rails and into the ground, adding a proctology practice, “Proba, Keister, and Wince” and a firm of divorce lawyers, “Ditcher, Quick, and Hyde.” Sacrilege, really.)
The Stooges also had a lesser-known songbook that is near to the heart of True Disciples, starting with the ear-worm-worthy Big Band version of “Three Blind Mice/Listen to the Mockingbird” mashup that served for decades as the intro theme song to most of the 190 shorts they made for Columbia Pictures. They did scores of tunes sprinkled throughout their films and immortalized in several albums. They even delved into opera, lip synching Chi mi frena in tal momento from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. My personal favorite, however, remains the intriguingly titled, “She Was Bred in Old Kentucky, but She’s Only a Crumb Up Here,” although we only hear one verse sung by Curly while slicing a loaf of bread.
There were a total of six Stooges over the fifty-year life of the act from vaudeville through television. The brains of the enterprise throughout was, of course, Moses Horwitz, which any good Stoogian will tell you was the real name of the bowl-cutted Moe Howard. The engine room of the comedy team was, from beginning to end, Moe and the wire-haired Louis Feinberg (a.k.a., Larry Fine). The third Stooge rotated over time between two of Moe’s brothers, Samuel (Shemp) and Jerome (Curly) Horwitz/Howard, then passed out of the family in later years to Joe Besser and finally to Joe DeRita.
I believe I speak for all True Stooge Fans when I say that there really was only one Third Stooge—the epic physical comedian and endearingly innocent man-child that was Curly Howard. The Distant Second among the Third Stooges was his oldest brother, but Shemp was really only good for predictable physical humor, like stepping on an upturned rake and getting smacked in the face with the handle. He lacked Curly’s onion-like layers of funny. Curly would have been praiseworthy for his “nyuk-nyuk-nyuk” alone, but there was so much more to him. Alas, he was truly The Sad Clown. Believing he was unattractive to the ladies—How? How I ask you?—he was a notoriously gargantuan devourer of food, alcohol, and any woman that would have him. So like his comic progeny John Belushi and Chris Farley, Curly burned brightly but too briefly, his health ruined by 1946 and replaced by Shemp.
Wikipedia quotes two film scholars in its entry on The Stooges thus:
Aesthetically, the Stooges violated every rule that constitutes “good” comedic style. Their characters lacked the emotional depth of Charlie Chaplin… they were never as witty or subtle as Buster Keaton… And yet… they were responsible for some of the finest comedies ever made. Their humor was the most undistilled form of low comedy; they were not great innovators, but as quick laugh practitioners, they place second to none.
I wholeheartedly and unapologetically concur.
The secret, I think, to The Stooges’ enduring place as America’s clown princes of comedy lies in the unaffected simplicity of their yuks. You can just laugh out loud—reflexively, unthinkingly, even primally—at their pratfalls and physical insults. I’m fairly certain you could show a Stooges short to a classical Greek, a medieval monk, or a cargo-cult Pacific Islander and each would at least chuckle a little. Might even get full-blown belly laughs out of the Greek guy. I mean, Aristophanes killed with fart jokes in the 5th century BC.
The latest generations to rediscover the hilarity of The Stooges may be experiencing a little vicarious consequence-free physical danger. We’re now working on our second generation of bike-helmeted and elbow-padded children who we attempt to raise in cotton-lined test tubes. The Stooges might be quite therapeutic for them—the comedy version of making sure they get licked by a few dogs and eat a little dirt so as not to grow up too antiseptic.
And in the final analysis, The Stooges harken us back to a less complicated time. Their best work was done before there was an atomic bomb, although they were happy to take glancing swipes at Fascists and Nazis in their day. No matter what befell them, The Stooges always survived to insult and abuse each other for another day, in another place or time, but always in the same slapstick manner. Why soitanly.
So I say, Make America Goofy Again—and semper Stoogi…
Sorry, I was one of those who did not like them. They were”mean” to people and I was brought up to be kind. I grew up in Lala Land. I didn’t like clowns either. But I like the blog.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the stooges, I grew up with them and have loved them ever since.
Seriously, the fact that my wife was the only girl I know who thought the Stooges were hilarious sealed the deal for me. Been married 27 years now and she still thinks the Stooges are a riot.
To this day I think they were the best comedy team my granddaughter has been watching them with me sence she was a baby shes now 10 and still watches them with me….the only thing I feel bad about . Is they were robbed..they never got paid for reruns. Shame on the people who handled their finances …still love them to this day
Unfortunately, that was not an uncommon occurrence back in the day. A lot of these actors cranking out these serial shorts were just paid piecework by the episode. It was considered journeyman work for vaudevillians–no one really understood the durability of acts like this. Curly will always be the paradigm Sad Clown to me–so much talent as a physical comedian, so little self-regard. Tragic, really, but a precursor to other Big Men comics, like John Belushi, John Candy, or Chris Farley. But the all gave us so much happiness–the Curly Shuffle, Samurai Deli, Ox in “Stripes,” and Matt Foley, motivational speaker.
Curly was a naturally brilliant comedian–the equal of Chris Farley & Melissa McCarthy–who I consider to be the female version. Yes, they were grossly overpaid, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that they & their humor will be fondly remembered far longer than the studio suits who may have taken advantage of them.
I agree. It’s the natural and easy physicality of their comedy that links those three greats. The Stooges have become so engrained in American culture. I read a commentator a few weeks ago who described Kevin McCarthy as, “The Shemp of American politics, never missing a rake to step on.”