Recently, a columnist opining about the hijinks in our nation’s capital, made a reference to the Three Stooges. He wrote, “Watching Congress try to get anything done makes me think Moe, Larry, and Curly are in charge.”
As a longtime member of the Three Stooges Fan Club, I was offended. The Stooges would never stoop so low as to engage in politics. Instead, they preferred to poke fun at the rich and powerful, who would often be rewarded with a pie in the kisser. Frankly, we could use a little of that right now.
Moe, Larry, and Curly have been a part of my life since the beginning. When I first laid my eyes on a TV screen, they were there. We took a few breaks over the years, but eventually some TV station would bring back the knuckleheads, and we would reunite.
The Stooges act started almost a century ago. Brothers Moe and Shemp Howard, along with their friend Larry Fine, first started doing live performances in the 1920s. Shemp left to go solo by the 1930s, and younger brother Jerry (Curly) joined Moe and Larry, making two-reel “shorts” for movie theaters. These were 18-minute films, designed to show before the big movie. (Each reel could hold ten minutes of film, so a full-length movie required about twelve reels).
Beginning in 1934, the Stooges filmed almost two hundred “shorts” until the act (seemingly) ran out of gas in 1957. Curly had suffered several strokes in the mid-1940s, and had to retire at the age of 43. Older brother Shemp returned to the act, and was the “third stooge” until his sudden death in 1955 at the age of 60. Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita filled in until the act finally folded in 1970. Both Moe and Larry died in 1975, the last of the original Stooges.
When I was little, I thought Curly Howard was the funniest person in the world. I still do. There is not a male baby boomer among us who hasn’t imitated Curly in some way. As we have had children and grandchildren, it has been a rite of passage for our offspring to be exposed to the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges.
We can do that thanks to a decision made by Columbia Pictures in 1958. By that time, theaters were no longer interested in Stooge films. Columbia declined to renew the Stooges’ contract, rendering them unemployed for the first time in 24 years. However, the timing was right for the Stooges’ antics to be transferred from the big screen to the small screen.
Television stations had discovered that afternoon kids shows could be quite lucrative. Within a few years, those shows had exhausted their supply of cartoons, and needed new material. Columbia had the solution. Their long-forgotten Stooge comedies were TV-ready.
There was only one problem. Those films were not originally intended for eight-year-olds. Moe frequently handed out face-slaps, butt-kicks, and eye-pokes. Our parents were convinced that we would imitate our on-screen idols, by poking each others’ eyes out.
Their fears were not unfounded. I would be lying if I said that none of us tried this on the playground. After all, just seconds after Larry and Curly squealed with discomfort after a poke in their eyes, they were good as new. They were real-life cartoons.
So, each day, our local kids show host would caution us about this harmful horseplay. “Now kids, don’t act like the Stooges at home. They’re grown-ups, and they know how to pretend, without hurting each other. But you might poke someone’s eyes out, and you don’t want to do that!”
Message received, Cowboy Bob. To my knowledge, no one in my circle of Stooge fans ever lost an eye. But we gained a lifelong guilty pleasure we still enjoy today.
After becoming an adult, a husband, and a father, I would often find myself in Stooge-like situations, with Stooge-like results. Have you ever seen Shemp try to unfold the legs from a card table, resulting in finger-smashing failure? That’s me. Did you ever see Curly’s disastrous attempts at plumbing repairs? You’re looking at me. Do you remember Moe and Larry in the kitchen, totally botching a recipe? It’s the story of my life.
The Stooges stayed busy in their prime, but never became movie-star wealthy. Moe was financially savvy, but Larry was said to spend his money as soon as he made it, and Curly was the personification of “live fast, die young.” I’d like to think they’re stumbling around in heaven, with Curly peeking over the edge of a cloud saying, “Hey look. They’re still laughing at us in the year 2020!” Moe would grab Curly’s ear and reply, “What are you, a wise guy?” The slapping and poking would ensue, and the angels on high would laugh. Eternal joy, indeed.