Let Us Now Praise Famous Stooges

From Creative Loafing, April 2012

It’s a miracle I survived childhood. We didn’t have seatbelts in cars, all of the walls were coated in lead-based paint, and once a week a truck used to drive through my neighborhood spraying DDT.

Moe, Curly and Larry

And don’t forget The Three Stooges.

I grew up to be a father of seven and I’ve tried to be a good parent. When the Great Scorer comes to write against my name, I’m sure I will have spent 10 years just telling kids to fasten their seat belts. I do my best to keep my kids safe.

But I refuse to protect my children from the Three Stooges.

I was a kid around the time the PTA’s of America decided that the Three Stooges were bad for us. Too much violence and disrespect, they said.

Wise guys, huh?

Looking back at my distant past, I can’t tell you how much pleasure I got from watching the Stooges. I never poked anyone in the eyes because of the Stooges. I never hit anyone with an anvil because of the Stooges.

I did laugh a lot, though.

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The three youngest of my children are — yes, indeed — boys. They are 9 and under, the perfect age for Stooging. They’re very curious about the new film about the Stooges and thank God the normally hilarious-but-raunchy Farrelly Brothers made their film family friendly.

But it makes me wish we could put more Stooges in our lives. They match up so well with my kids. My 9-year-old, Jack, is the Moe of this group. Travis, 8, is the easygoing Larry and Charley, 6, is the charming Curly.

Oh man, do I miss the Stooges. I miss the nyuk nyuk and the soitenly! that provided a soundtrack to my youth.

Because the film will rekindle so many memories of the real thing, The Three Stooges Scrapbook (Chicago Review Press, $22.95) has been revised and updated. The title is misleading. Sure, there are a lot of pictures — priceless pictures that bring back memories of those long forgotten two-reelers the Stooges churned out in the 1940s.

But there’s a lot of text — full biographical chapters on each of the members as well as a group biography. It also includes a full annotated filmography of every moment the Stooges committed to film.

And, of course, there were six Stooges.

This great collection was assembled by twin fans, Jeff and Greg Lenburg, with the help of Joan Howard Maurer, the daughter of lead Stooge Moe Howard and wife of the Stooges manager and director, Norman Maurer.

Not knowing much about the Stooges — other than the fact that they made me laugh my ass off — I was a little worried as I began reading the story. Were they pricks off camera? Did they have some deep, dark secret? Were they cruel to puppies?

Insert an eye poke here, courtesy of Moe Howard. Of course not, Dummy.

Moe Howard off camera

They were all hard-working, born at the turn of the 20th Century, and they were genetic entertainers. They were, like Mickey Rooney and other comic artists and actors of that generation, incapable of not entertaining.

And they were brothers. Moe was the oldest, born in 1897. He was the bowl-haired leader, clueless and cruel (so saeth the Grand Dames of the PTA). When the camera was off, he was an intelligent, well-read, savvy businessman. His real name, we learn was Moses Horowitz. He was the second-youngest of the Horowitz brothers. Three out of five of them became Stooges.

Brother Curly (Jerome Howard) was large in stature, but moved as delicately as a ballerina, and drew the easy laughs with the nyuk nyuk and the soitenlys that all of us came to mimic.

Then there was Larry Fine, born Louis Feinberg. He was the pal, the benign and somewhat ineffectual middle man, with one with the wild hair that  inspired Art Garfunkel’s coiffure.

As a kid, watching the Stooges classic filmed shorts from the 1930s and 1940s, you were aware of a changing cast. There was Curly — everyone’s favorite, of course — but now and then there was a Shemp. When the Stooges came on the television, you were never sure who the third one would be.  This could lead to a number of impassioned arguments about the relative worth of Shemp or Curly. (Curley usually won, but as I aged, I began to appreciate the nuance of Shemp.)

This was Samuel Horowitz, the oldest brother in the household. Shemp actually preceded brother Curly in the act, back when the Stooges were (lowercase) stooges in the act of Ted Healey.  But Shemp chose to pursue a solo career in comedy. Larry, Moe and Curly built a career that was derailed in 1946, when Curly suffered a stroke.

Shemp stepped in, serving as Third Stooge for a decade until his sudden death. He was out one night in 1955, clubbing with pals. He got into the back of a taxi with his friends, lit up a stogie, and immediately keeled over as his heart attacked. When he feel, he landed in the lap of one of his friends, and his cigar set his pal’s pants afire.  The book is filled with such small moments of detail.

Then came Joe Besser and Joe DeRita, who filled the third slot, until the act finally called it quits in the 1970s.

I remember my parents dragging me to a somewhat ponderous yukfest in 1964 at the big new theater in Cutler Ridge. The film was It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and every American comedian who could still draw breath made an appearance. For me, the film was made by a five-second segment showing the Stooges, now old men. They were silent and for me, they stole the film.

But it was a shock. For me, raised on those 20- and 30-year old theater shorts repeated over and over on television, the Stooges were forever young. Here they were in 1964, looking their ages. As a little kid, it was sort of a revelation: even the Three Stooges get old.

They were entertainers to the end. They were gentlemen off camera. They made me laugh — a lot — and even if the new generation gets “the message” second hand, through this new movie, that’s something, I guess.

But let’s face it. Couldn’t we all use a little more Three Stooges in our lives?

I know I miss them. Even today, sitting at my desk in a fine sports jacket and necktie, when someone comes into my office in need of approval for one thing or another, I always respond, “Soitenly!” Unless my guest is of a certain age, they don’t get it.

But I make myself laugh, just thinking of the Stooges.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk.