All the World’s a Stooge

Classic Columbia Pictures Title Card

I am an unapologetic Three Stooges fan.  I have been almost my entire life.  My Dad and I watched them and laughed together.  My sons and I have done the same.  My youngest son and I recently saw the Farrelly Brothers’ new Three Stooges film and laughed ourselves into fits.

Who were the Stooges?  Moses Horwitz (Moe Howard); Louis Feinberg (Larry Fine); Jerome Horwitz (Curly Howard); Samuel Horwitz (Shemp Howard);  Joe Besser; and Curly Joe DeRita.  Moe, Curly and Shemp were brothers.  The original line-up was Moe, Larry and Shemp.  Curly replaced Shemp.  Shemp then replaced Curly.  The abominable Joe Besser replaced Shemp.  Finally, Curly Joe replaced Besser.

People have always joked about men liking the Stooges and women hating them.  Back when Jay Leno was funny (yes, kids, he WAS very funny), he said the major difference between men and women is that all men believe that The Three Stooges are “comic geniuses” and all women think they are “shitheads.” Perhaps.

Just to prove my expertise to you the reader, I have done no research for this post.  I am simply drawing from my immense knowledge of the Three Stooges gathered over the years.  Impressed?  You should be.

MR. BILL

In Harlan County, Kentucky, we had cable TV before almost everyone in the country–since the 1950’s, in fact.  Why? Because we were so isolated in the mountains that we couldn’t get decent TV reception from antennas.  Thus, someone came up with the brilliant idea of connecting our homes one huge antenna by cable connections.  This was my pipeline to the Stooges.

For you youngsters out there, televisions used to have “dials” to change channels.  The channels ran from 2 through 13.  We Harlan Countians had reception on ALL of them.  Good, clear reception, too.  One of the channels we got was WLOS out of Asheville, North Carolina.  WLOS delivered the Stooges. On weekdays, before school, most kids watched WLOS’s “Mr. Bill Show.”  Mr. Bill was Bill Norwood.  There was nothing especially entertaining about Mr. Bill.  He was just a nice guy who read kids’ letters and showed their drawings on TV.  He showed cartoons and–most importantly–Three Stooges shorts.  When Mr. Bill was on vacation, his substitute was WLOS weatherman Bob Caldwell.  Bob did the same things as Mr. Bill but seemed to me to be an utter failure.

The Shorts

What is a “short?” you ask.  Well, theaters used to show cartoons and “shorts” before the feature.  Shorts were typically 20-25 minutes long.  Our Gang (aka The Little Rascals) was a classic short.  The Stooges were Columbia Pictures’s cash cow when it came to shorts.  They made shorts from the early 1930’s through the late 1950’s.  When TV came along, the Stooges made it on the air and found a whole new audience.  By the late ’50’s, the Stooges (those left) were long in the tooth but became more popular than ever.

Stooges shorts consist of the Stooges finding themselves in some type of predicament (pretending to be chefs, buying a racehorse, in the Army, etc.).  They usually are in conflict with someone else and each other.  Moe is the leader and inflicts frequent, violent punishment on the other Stooges.  Eye pokes, hammers to the head and face slaps are but a few examples.  My personal favorite is when Moe raked a cheese grater across Curly’s face.

Most films follow a similar story arc.  This first 10 minutes or so introduce the characters.  Then, a conflict is introduced as the first plot point and turns the film toward its story.  A final plot point is introduced and turns the film toward the resolution of the conflict, or end of the film.  Here’s an example from The Godfather:

  • Introduction:  Connie’s wedding introduces all the main characters of the Corleone family.
  • Conflict:  The four other crime families want the Corleones in the drug business.  This is the first plot point.
  • Story:  Michael becomes involved in the family after his father is shot.  Kills The Turk and McCluskey.  Goes into hiding.  Eventually returns.
  • Resolution:  Final plot point is the meeting between Michael and the Godfather in the garden.  Then the film moves toward resolution of the conflict.  In that case, killing everyone.

A film scholar would debate me on some of the details, but that’s the basic set-up of every film. The Stooges had none of that.  Their films were too short.  We know the Stooges and we know what they do:  Hit each other a bunch, make fun of people and ended up okay.  We watch for the slapstick, not the story.

So, why do I love the Stooges?  Read on, my friends.

Gimme Moe, Moe, Moe!

Don’t we all secretly (or not so secretly) want to be like Moe?  Moe is the boss, the ringleader, the one everyone looks to for their decisions.  He gladly accepts this role and gives no quarter.  He doesn’t hesitate to rip out huge hunks of Larry’s hair or to poke Curly in the eyes, despite the retinal damage it will cause.  He’s sawed Curly’s head, pulled his teeth and put his head in a vise.  He’s steam pressed Curly, slapped and kicked him.  Moe had to keep them in line and he did.

Moe helping Curly with a tooth problem.

Moe was a big brother, a boss and stern taskmaster.  When all was said and done, Moe cared for his fellow Stooges.  How many times did he say:  “I’m sorry, kid”?  He meant it, even if those words were followed by a slap in the face.

In real life, Moe was a fine fellow by all accounts. Kind, generous and caring.  He looked after his brothers, especially Curly when his health failed at far too young an age.  Moe enjoyed the Stooges’s resurgence in popularity and never shied away from his Moe persona.  I like that.  He was Moe.

Moe being Moe on the Mike Douglas Show in the 1970’s.

Curly

Curly (or Curley, as it was sometimes spelled) was the Olivier of the Stooges. The Stooge by which all Stooges are measured. Whether he was barking or spinning in the floor, Curly left an indelible mark on every short in which he appeared.

Curly was a comic genius.  He was a phenomenon.  I laugh almost every time he appears on-screen.  The following is just a sampling of his greatness:

  • Woob! Woob! Woob!  Curly’s trademark yell.
  • Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.  Curly’s laugh.
  • The floor spin.  Curly lies on his side and spins in a circle.
  • “Soitenly!”  Curly’s pronunciation of “Certainly.”  Said in response to almost everthing.
  • “Hey, Moe!  Hey, Larry!’  Usually heard when Curly is in dire circumstances.
  • The Shuffle:  Curly’s ability to shuffle his feet in place, creating the illusion that both feet are off the floor.
  • “La da dee. La da dah!”  The tune Curly hums usually when he’s working on something.

Much more could be added to this list.  I always marveled at how agile Curly was for his weight.  He was one of the greatest ever at physical comedy.  Pure, unadulterated genius.

Like a lot of great comic actors, there was a dark side to Curly, or Babe as Moe called him. He ate and drank to excess and gambled away his money. Debilitated by a series of strokes, Curly died before age 50.  When he died, it seemed that the Stooges were done.

Shemp: The Once and Future Stooge

In Vaudeville, Shemp had been the “third” Stooge. Only when he left the act did Curly join. In the ’30’s and ’40’s Shemp had a modest but successful comedic acting career. Legend has it that Columbia resisted adding Shemp because of his resemblance to Moe.

Side by side, Moe and Shemp were obviously brothers. But Moe’s trademark bowl haircut and Shemp’s long, greasy slicked back hair created enough difference that it worked.

If Shemp was no Curly, he was a helluva Shemp. Whereas Curly was frantic and perpetual energy, Shemp was nervous and neurotic. This was, in fact, Shemp’s personality.   A typical Shemp moment has him terrified by some person event, his hair disheveled yammering “yeeb, yeeb, yeeb!” Moe would slap his face or poke his eyes.  Shemp would snap out of it.

Shemp also fancied himself a ladies man, usually finding himself the victim of a femme fatale.  It wasn’t unusual for Shemp to absorb a beating at the hands of a woman.   I can identify with that.  I like Shemp.

Real Shemp

Shemp died unexpectedly of a heart attack in the 1950’s. Again, it seemed that the Stooges were done. Shemp’s untimely death resulted in what die-hard Stoogephiles know as the phenomenon of Fake Shemp.

The Stooges had a contract with Columbia which required a certain number of shorts each year.  Shemp died while they were filming one.  To complete the film, they used a body double for Shemp.  The double was obviously NOT Shemp.

(L-R) Larry, Moe and Fake Shemp

To fulfill their contract, the Stooges actually “completed” several more shorts without Shemp, using stock footage and Fake Shemp.  Fake Shemp was always shown from the side or back. If you watch any of the films of director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spiderman), watch the closing credits.  He often dubs several extras in his films as “Fake Shemp.”  Only true Stooge fans get the joke.

It was the mid-’50’s and Shemp was gone.  The Stooges had begun to be shown on television, and Columbia wanted to continue the series.  Joe Besser was a fat, allegedly comic actor on Columbia’s payroll.  He would be Joe, the new Stooge.  Good God.

Joe

Joe has nothing to do with why I love the Stooges.  Nothing crushed my little spirit more than to see the title card pop up on the screen with freakin’ Joe as the third Stooge.  If you think I was disappointed when Mr. Bill went on vacation, I can’t describe how the mere sight of Joe sucked the life out of me.  I’m not going to spend much time on this, but Joe wasn’t funny.  He was a whining, mincing, pansy.  “Not so haaaaard!”  followed by ultra-feminine slapping at Moe was his usual response to any attack.  It turns out that Joe Besser didn’t like being hit.  Really?  Then don’t be a Stooge!  Go do Shakespeare somewhere.  Fortunately, Joe wasn’t around long.  Columbia shut down its shorts department and this horrific sequence was over.

The mere sight of Joe still disturbs your author.

I’ll qualify this by saying that Joe Besser seemed to be fine fellow.  He spoke fondly of his brief time as a Stooge.  He just didn’t like being hit.  Oh well.  Who does?

What about Larry?

Larry was the Forgotten Stooge, rarely discussed but the glue that held them together.  Larry was often the butt of Moe’s temper (especially during the dark days of Joe), but he was often the voice of reason.  He wasn’t a straight man.  He was the man in the middle.  He often doled out abuse to Moe, but it was usually inadvertent, followed by “I’m sorry, Moe.”  Moe, of course, would accept the apology only to crack Larry over the head or pull out his hair.

I’m a Larry fan.  Without Larry, there were no Stooges. 

Curly Joe

With their new-found popularity on TV, the Stooges finally made feature films starting in the late 1950’s.  Joe De Rita took Besser’s place as Curly Joe.  I’ll be honest.  I never really cared much for the feature films, but Curly Joe was pretty good.  The Stooges were old by then and it just didn’t seem the same to me.  That said, they could still be pretty funny, and Curly Joe was a VAST improvement over Besser.

The Foils

I couldn’t finish this without mentioning Vernon Dent, Christine McIntyre and Emil Sitka, all of whom were straight “men” to the Stooges.  One of the great things about the Stooges is that they were frequently in conflict with society’s upper crust, crashing parties or finding themselves pushed into the upper echelon.  They would abuse these folks thoroughly.  Many a pie fight started under these circumstances.  The straight men would be exasperated by these antics and quite often started doling out their own abuse. 

The End

My vast Stooge knowledge has no doubt staggered you.  Oh, I’m sure it takes up brain space needed for things like birthdays, internet passwords and important account numbers.  So be it.  I think I’ll hum “Three Blind Mice” for the rest of the day.

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