- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

All right, you knuckleheads. Spread out. The Three Stooges are returning to TV Tuesday night at 8 in a one-hour NBC special inexplicably hosted by former "Cheers" bartender Woody Harrelson.

Springing from 1920s vaudeville and evolving into the undisputed slapstick kings of the short film, these durably popular, moronic, madcap miscreants were among the longest-running comedy acts on the silver screen. Their huge catalog of 15-minute shorts dwarfs the output of bigger names, from Laurel and Hardy to W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. After World War II, the Stooges went into a long decline. By the late 1950s, it looked as if they and their patented brand of low physical comedy and mayhem were finished for good when they lost their film contract.
But Moe, Larry, Curly (and a shifting cast of inferior third Stooge stand-ins as a surfaced) again in syndicated television reruns to the delighted cackling of a new audience of young fans. The Stooges' reappearance on the small screen, usually as part of a local station's children's show, mesmerized a whole new generation, boomer youngsters irresistibly drawn to the cartoonish rejection of authority that permeated every predictable Stooge story line.
After dashing home from school, boys in particular plunked down on the living room carpet (never on the plastic-covered furniture) en masse every afternoon to whoop in delight as three grotesquely coiffed grown men slapped each other silly in fast-paced, highly choreographed Rube Goldberg moves featuring flailing fists and hands and the occasional sledgehammer blow to the noggin which damaged the hammer and not the head. Like Warner Bros. cartoon figures made flesh, the Stooges were indestructible.
Parents initially were delighted that their children were being amused by the same idiotic characters who had entertained them at movie-palace matinees before the war. Moms soon became alarmed, though, when they saw their sons executing ritualistic Stooge violence with their pals in the back yard, complete with the requisite sound effects: "Why, I'll moitilize yah."
Executing the "Curly shuffle" a choppy, Depression-era moonwalk with muddy shoes on mom's freshly waxed floor was bad enough. Mimicking Moe's famous split-fingered eye-poke, even when the target employed the classic Curly defense maneuver (hand up and perpendicular to the nose, thus blocking the predictable forward thrust) was even more disconcerting to nervous moms. Then when dad's saws and sledgehammers started disappearing from the garage, protest calls lighted up the switchboards of local channels like dozens of tiny Christmas-tree bubble lights.
But the Stooges were just too popular a draw to be bumped off late-afternoon television. So, before each Stooge short, the local host, usually a fake sea captain or circus clown who doubled as the station's morning weatherman, carefully warned his impressionable young charges, "Don't try this at home." The hosts were routinely ignored. ("Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.")
Moses, Shmuel (Sam), and Jerome (Jerry) Horwitz were three of five Jewish brothers born in and around Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century to Jenny and Solomon Horwitz, a clothing cutter. Sam became known as "Shemp" because of the way his mother pronounced his name.
As youngsters, the Horwitz boys charged a penny for admission to shows they created for neighborhood children. During one of those shows, they struck up a friendship with a customer named Lee Nash.
Nash went on to vaudeville, changing his name to Ted Healy and developing a reputation as a comic. He sought out two of his old pals, now calling themselves Moe and Shemp Howard, and put together a song-and-dance slapstick routine called Ted Healy and His Stooges. Shemp grew tired of Healy's top billing and took off on his own, establishing a decent film career and serving as second banana in the popular "Joe Palooka" films. He was replaced by Larry Fine (Louis Feinberg), although the three performed together with Healy for a time.
Mr. Fine had grown up on the south side of Philadelphia. When he was a child, one of his arms had been burned badly by acid in an accident in his father's jewelry shop. As part of his rehabilitation, he was encouraged to take up the violin. He soon became good enough to play professionally and drifted into vaudeville, where he attracted Healy's attention.
Three Stooges seemed to work fine for Healy's act, but with Shemp's departure, the boys found themselves again one short. Jerome, now called "Babe," was interested, but when Healy saw his long, wavy, handsome brown hair and prominent mustache, he suggested that both needed to go. ("Oh, soitenly.") After a quick buzz cut, Babe was humorously rechristened "Curly." Moe and Larry adopted their own trademark haircuts, and the rest is movie history.
The act became so popular that the troupe began to perform in MGM shorts.
In time, the boys began to find Healy obnoxious and overbearing and discussed departing. Fate intervened when Healy was offered an MGM film contract on his own. Relieved, they all went their separate ways. Now calling themselves the Three Stooges, Larry, Curly and Moe signed on in the mid-1930s with a tiny studio that eventually became Columbia Pictures.
Stooges comedy consisted mainly of wild physical antics and verbal chicanery that went far beyond their relatively tame vaudeville iterations. The Stooges evolved into classic stock characters, tricksters not unfamiliar to students of ancient Plautine comedy or Italian commedia del'arte: Moe, the bossy bully: "Oh, a wiseguy, huh?"; Curly, the crazy one with the high-pitched voice: "Woob-woob-woob"; and Larry, the peacemaker who invariably got poked, slapped or hair-pulled for his pains: "Sorry Moe, I didn't mean it. OW!"
In each short, the boys frequently were employed by the upper classes and ended up destroying their employers' homes, lives and reputations because of their complete lack of discipline, logic or self-control. A pie fight at a dinner party frequently was the preferred method of solving an argument: "So that's how you want it? Well …"
The Stooges were the perfect antidote to the Depression, bottom dogs who still got the better of their betters, American anarchists who flouted authority and lived to tell about it, even if they often were chased off the last reel.
The Stooges' brilliantly choreographed slaps, punches, nose clamps and other shtick, combined with Curly's weird, unearthly utterances ("Gnong, gnong, gnong"), were a hit in movie houses across the United States. They made roughly 200 shorts between 1934 and 1958. Curly suffered the first of several strokes in 1946 and had to leave the act. He was replaced by his brother Shemp. Curly appeared in one brief cameo with the other three but died in 1952. He was just 48.
Shemp died Nov. 23, 1955, and was replaced briefly by Joe Besser. Mr. Besser never quite jelled with Larry and Moe, and he left the crew in 1958, replaced by the Stooges' old friend Joe DeRita, a comic and B-movie actor. Unfortunately, that was when they lost their contract.
Within two years, largely as a result of a new generation of TV children, the Stooges were an item again, and they made several full-length movies with "Curly Joe" DeRita. They appeared on TV on Ed Sullivan's show and others and even had a brief cartoon series. In increasingly poor health, Moe and Larry died in 1975. Curly Joe died in 1993.
The Stooges' brand of physical comedy captivated young audiences everywhere and influenced actors and comics in a wide variety of roles. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope developed their own ritualized hand motions for their "Road" comedies with the Stooges clearly in mind. Jerry Lewis acknowledges the Stooges as the inspiration for many of his physical jokes. Horror filmmaker Sam Raimi has cannily employed Stooge routines in his films. Robin Williams and Jim Carrey owe a lot of their over-the-top mugging to the boys.
Even Mel Gibson has stolen a routine or two from them in his "Lethal Action" series.
Unfortunately for Stooges fans, by the 1970s, a new generation of moms picked up where the 1950s moms had left off. Fifties moms ultimately were willing to let boys be boys (girls have rarely been big fans of the Stooges' highly male antics), but many post-Vietnam, anti-ROTC feminist moms seemed intent on programming aggressive male traits out of their young sons.
Random violence, even comic violence, became distinctly unfashionable. Guns and G.I. Joe dolls soon bit the dust, and even the old Warner Bros. cartoons wildly anarchistic and hilariously violent escapades starring Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner started getting the evil eye.
Eventually, the comically aggressive, all-male and somewhat misogynistic Three Stooges got caught in the crossfire. They and Bugs gradually melted away from after-school fare, replaced by safer figures such as Big Bird, Barney and the pre-porn Pee-wee Herman. It was part of the emasculation of America. It was never an organized thing, but as it accelerated through the Carter era, this phenomenon began to produce harmful effects: men with perms, Alan Alda, boys who don body armor to ride their bikes.
Things change. The Stooges have begun to reappear furtively over the past few years on cable channels and occasionally on AMC, poking eyes and gaining the allegiance of a new generation of young fans for whom these antics are not even PG anymore.
Hollywood types are talking once again about reviving the Stooges with new actors. Perhaps, though, in the end, the Stooges are unique and irreplaceable icons. For they are "all-guy" American originals like Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Clark Gable, Clint Eastwood and even the Marx Brothers cussed individualists who live life to the fullest and don't kowtow to hectoring, high-toned types just because they have bigger houses, lots more money or sharper looks.
Sharper looks?
"Hey. I resemble that remark."

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