I went on a bender the other day and watched roughly eight hours of Three Stooges
shorts. It had been years since I had seen any Stooge material outside of a few
brief clips, and watching them all in a prolonged stretch was an amazing thing.
I’m willing to bet that half of the women reading this just dropped
out. Hey, call me a chauvinist, but if you can find a woman who will tolerate
the Stooges, let alone suffer an intelligent Stooge conversation with a smile,
I’ll show you a rare breed of woman indeed. I read Gregg
Stevens’ explanation of this phenomenon and I can’t really find
fault with it. However, I think I can supply a more post-modern interpretation
of The Three Stooges that will serve to make them valid for the 21st century.
No, I’m not kidding, either.
Born in the cauldron of Vaudeville road shows, the Three Stooges went from playing
support for Ted Healy to developing their own act and striking out on their own.
The “stooge,” in Vaudeville parlance, was an inept character that
the lead comedian or straight man used to get laughs. Healy’s Stooge act
quickly became the draw of his touring show in the 1920s and 1930s. Years later,
when Columbia signed the Three Stooges to a series of 2-reel comedy shorts, they
became the most popular comedy series for the studio for many years. Even now,
one can see the Three Stooges on any number of TV stations across the country.
I first watched them in the 1970s on the late, great Slam Bang Theater out of
Let’s face it; it’s humor at its most crude. Slapstick (so named because
of the noise-maker used to dress up the appropriate action with a startling noise)
is that broad, hyper-violent, physical comedy that gets laughs by surprise and
the display of pain. As forward-thinking denizens of the future, we should be
beyond its rudimentary charms -- but we aren’t. Moe catching a wooden board
in the face is just as funny now as it was 65 years ago. What keeps us coming
back to The Stooges?
For me, it’s about learning that we aren’t the masters of our environment.
The Three Stooges are nothing less than a force of nature, a subtle reminder that
we’re not as clever as we think we are. They are pure chaos, constantly
trying to impose order on their world, and incapable of recognizing that they
are themselves the agents of chaos.
Their task may be simplicity itself: fix the plumbing, paint the office, press
and steam the pants. Their methods are direct, often springing from the id. The
quickest way to get at a pipe is to go through the wall. Why waste time painting
the walls when you can paint the pictures on them as well? Moe, the Alpha male
of the group, is constantly trying to bring order and control to the task at hand.
“You go over there and start painting,” he says, and usually Moe is
focused on the task at hand and doing a good (or at least not damaging) job. It’s
when he catches a face full of paint or a saw across the top of his head that
he has to stop what he’s doing and maintain order -- through violence (again,
the most direct and most flawed form of control). It’s these reactions that
set up reactions from both Stooge and environment, until the house floods, the
walls collapse, and the police (always lampooned, even if they are the real representation
of law and order) are dispatched. Stooge shorts frequently end with the Stooges
making a fast getaway, the job thoroughly botched.
Only Moe understands that he is attempting to impose order and maintain the status
quo. The other Stooges see this goal, and are fully aware of it, and may even
think that they are achieving it, but never do. Curly, Larry, Moe, and even Shemp
are defeated by their own nature every time.
Each Stooge represents an aspect of modern man, with inherent foibles and flaws
that constantly impede their progress. Curly is the most savage of the trio.
He barks at the things that thwart him, engages in presenting behavior when
pretty women are nearby, and has the least amount of self-control in social
situations. Even when he’s behaving properly in a social context, it’s
with the self-satisfaction of a performing chimp who has mastered a trick. And
frequently, if not rewarded, Curly’s behavior reverts to type. At his
most primal, Curly’s motivation comes from having his basic needs tended
to: food, shelter, clothing, companionship, etc.
Larry is the perception of the civilized man; cultured (he plays the violin),
suave (often the target of the women’s affections), and constantly trying
to placate either Moe or Curly with words -- violence is rare from Larry. He’s
the most put-upon Stooge by default, and also the most hapless. One gets the
impression that if he were more aggressive, he’d be more effective. Larry
seems constantly conflicted, with one foot in the camp of violence, and one
foot in the camp of reason.
Moe is the true embodiment of the civilized man. He’s the leader through
intimidation, speaker for the trio, and on the surface, the most competent in
his ability to interact with the rest of the world. However, he is the most
violent of the Stooges, using violence as his first mode of expression, particularly
in negative emotions or corrective behavior. He may act more civilized than
Curly, but he’s no better. In fact, he’s worse in temperament.
Watching the Three Stooges now, it’s easy to see how they continue to
mirror the very society they lampoon. As comic foils, they provide an insight
into how modern man takes an overly simplistic view of complex problems, and
vice versa. Doomed to failure when they feel it is impossible for them to not
succeed, their only recourse is more chaos and the expression of empty violence.
The Three Stooges are symbols of the entropy inherent in civilization and society,
and as such they are not to be dismissed so lightly for their usage of slapstick
and shtick. A cigar may be just a cigar, but a slap is never just a slap.