A quick shout-out: My pal Judd Legum, who you might know from his tenure at ThinkProgress, recently made a big leap into the world of newsletters. His newsletter Popular Information dives into politics with a thoughtful eye and his signature incisiveness. Highly recommended.
“To sit down all alone with a blank sheet of paper and try to put down in words sixty-five years of show business is such a monumental undertaking that I sometimes wonder if I’ll have enough energy left to read it when I’m finished.”
— Moe Howard, in an early draft from his autobiography, Moe Howard and The Three Stooges, a 1977 book that came out two years after his passing … and was left incomplete. Howard’s daughter, Joan Howard Mauer, finished the book and ensured it got published. In 2013, the book was retitled I Stooged to Conquer as part of a re-release. The book, written for the somewhat modest reason of Howard trying to definitively answer questions he repeatedly got in his fan mail, reads as the words of a modest man who found success with his brothers—not the famously short fuse that drove much of the comedy in the many short subjects he created.
Why The Three Stooges are worth admiring in the modern age
There’s a certain purity to a Three Stooges short that doesn’t get replicated very often in modern comedy sketches, which often rely on complex conceits to cull their best jokes.
Shows like Arrested Development or 30 Rock play more aggressively with dialogue and framing, and more traditional sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory masterfully emphasize convention, creating a comfort level with which to sell the jokes.
The Three Stooges’ comedy has some of that convention, sure, but really what makes the films work is a physicality that’s rare in modern comedy. There’s lots of violence, but no gross-out stuff. Moe Howard’s slap set a high bar for the Jackass guys to top, and he didn’t even have to go blue in the process.
In many ways, the best Three Stooges sketches work like cartoons; even while rooted in some degree of reality, the trio’s unusual appearance and zaniness has a way of cutting through everything.
A good example of this is the 1934 short Men in Black, in which Moe, Larry, and Curly basically play out the plot to a Scrubs episode 70 years early.
One of the most inventive jokes in the sketch plays with a trope more closely associated with cartoons: hammerspace, or the tendency for objects to appear out of thin air only when they’re needed, and remain hidden away in this unseen space when they’re not.
Multiple times during the sketch, the trio runs into a supply closet and comes out with a completely impractical form of travel for the task—once with a horse, once with a bicycle, and once with three miniature cars. The anonymous voice on the loudspeaker shouting “Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard” clearly seems targeted at getting these knuckleheads to fall into line. But they always find a way to tweak things just a little more.
This short, one of the earliest they worked on during their long-term contract with Columbia Pictures, is the only Oscar-nominated thing ever associated with The Three Stooges. They worked together in one form or another for nearly 50 years.
The Stooges didn’t always need this sort of fantasy to pull off comedic magic, of course. My personal favorite Three Stooges film is An Ache in Every Stake, a magical 18-minute film that culls much of its humor from the failed attempts of the trio to get an icebox (and, of course, the ice) up a massive outdoor staircase.
Maybe there weren’t a ton of layers that made The Three Stooges great. Maybe it was simple: They had a polished chemistry from decades of close interaction and they were goddamn funny showing it off to the world.
But they were also willing to speak for the everyman, the hoi polloi, as it were. The Stooges were often shown working factory jobs, manual labor, or as the wait staff. (I personally could not imagine them working on a laptop at a WeWork.) They were rarely, if ever, portrayed as rich, and in their films, they had a tendency to punch up, not down. Moe, Larry, and Curly would throw pies at a party full of annoying rich people in one film, but save the orphanage in another. They fought with each other, but it didn’t come at the expense of the less fortunate, unless that less fortunate person was Curly Howard.
Perhaps the most prominent and visible example of this type of punching up is You Nazty Spy!, a parody of Nazi Germany that came out during a particularly interesting time in American history. It was a film that flouted the Hays Code to parody Hitler, and did so nearly a year before the U.S. entered World War II. Moe Howard and Larry Fine each called it their favorite Three Stooges film, and it’s understandable why: It did something risky at a time when nobody else was doing it. They beat out Chaplin's take on the same issue by many months.
Maybe the Stooges weren’t so pedestrian after all.
Five things that made The Three Stooges what they were
- Curly’s haircut. After Shemp left to go solo in 1932, Moe made the case that his brother Jerome join the group, backing up performer Ted Healy, in his stead. However, Healy felt Jerome, with his locks of hair and a mustache, was missing something distinctive, and suggested he shave his head. Jerome, nicknamed “Babe” by his family, did so almost immediately, and Curly was born.
- Larry’s violin skills. As an infant, Larry Fine was severely injured by an acid burn on his arm. To help strengthen the muscles that were damaged by the injury, his parents gave him a violin and trained him on the instrument. The tactic worked well enough that it became an in for a show business career, though Moe says that Fine “realized quite early that classical music wasn’t for him.” The violin eventually became one of Fine’s defining onscreen elements.
- Moe’s summer working on a showboat. In his autobiography, Howard talks at length about his formative first steps toward to become an entertainer—involving a risky move to take a job in Mississippi working as a performer on a showboat. It was a pivotal move, and Shemp discouraged him from taking the leap. However, Howard found success with the move and made a significant amount of money doing so, which allowed him to support his family, setting the stage for Moe and Shemp to find success on the vaudeville circuit.
- Joe Besser’s desire not to get hit. Besser, an established actor who stepped in for Shemp after he died in 1955, gained a reputation for not taking as big a part in the physical comedy the Stooges were associated with. This was intentional: Besser had a contract with Columbia Pictures that did not allow him to be subject to bodily harm of the kind that the Stooges were known for. Per the contract, Besser could dish it out—he was the rare Third Stooge that hit Moe—but he could not get it back. Besser is seen in retrospect as a lesser Stooge, but he helped the team find a path forward without a second Howard to help.
- A general willingness to adapt. When times called for a certain type of stooge, The Three Stooges were ready to deliver. This is most apparent in the early 1960s, when the trio—complete with Curly Joe DeRita, a decent doppelgänger for Curly Howard—embraced the idea of becoming a kids’ act as a result of their sudden fame on television. It wasn’t their best-reviewed era, but it did reflect the idea that the Stooges were not a static entity. The troupe rolled with the punches in a way that would be considered rare today.
The year that The Three Stooges filmed Jerks of All Trades, an early television pilot that involved the Stooges—at this time, Moe, Larry, and Shemp—trying and failing to perform a different line of work each week. So, basically, a scripted version of Undercover Boss, 60 years early. The pilot, shot on kinescope like other shows of the era, can be found on YouTube.
Why the story of The Three Stooges, for many decades, was kind of a tragedy
These days, you can generally figure out how popular you are and how big your reach is in your given industry pretty easily.
All you have to do is Google your name, pull up an analytics app, or look at the number of followers you have on Twitter or Facebook. It’s something that we take for granted today, even though it was harder—but still possible—to do even a decade prior.
But imagine it’s the 1930s, and you’re not at the top of the Hollywood system. You’re not Clark Gable or Shirley Temple, and you have no way of telling what people outside of your immediate field of vision think about the work that you’re doing. TV isn’t a thing. Newspaper articles about your work are sparse. The work you do generally, even though you’re the star, does not get nominated for awards. It’s not even the main feature. But it’s still steady work, and you’re proud of it, even if it’s not making you a millionaire.
However, if you knew how famous you actually were, you might feel like you weren’t getting your fair share. That you should have been mentioned in the same light as Clark Gable or Shirley Temple, but you were not.
That’s the real story of The Three Stooges, if you break it down: A comedy troupe whose success was minimized by the very people that should have been doing their best to maximize it, all in an effort to ensure their control.
Certainly, though, the Stooges—borne from the backing team of vaudeville star Ted Healy, Howard’s childhood friend who he improbably became reacquainted with through a newspaper ad—were hugely prolific, but for much of their career they lacked control over their destinies.
Healy helped form many of the basic elements of the Stooges, but didn’t exactly have a reputation as a great boss (Howard described Healy as having a “Jekyll and Hyde personality,” which led Healy to subjugate them and withhold pay), and there were numerous legal battles before the Stooges broke up with him for good in 1934.
It was during this period that The Three Stooges we know and love came to life, via a deal with Columbia Pictures’, which made the Stooges a centerpiece of the studio’s short subjects department. Over a 23-year period, the Stooges filmed around 190 films—an impressive amount of work for a single studio.
But while the segments were hugely successful for the studio—to the point where the studio would only let theaters run them in exchange for picking up the studio’s B-movies—the head of the studio, Harry Cohn, took advantage of the fact that the Stooges had little awareness of their success in the world at large—no Twitter accounts to analyze, no Google search to offer evidence of their reach—to discourage them from leaving the roost.
Instead of thinking that they held the power as major stars, they believed they were minor players, working for the man, believing the sky could fall at any time. Their reliance on Columbia became crippling to their career—they got by, receiving a few thousand dollars per film, but never thrived.
It would only be clear how much money they were getting screwed out of years later.
In the 1999 book The Three Stooges: An Illustrated History, From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons, Moe Howard’s daughter, Joan Howard Mauer, noted the trio had an agent who had a close relationship with Cohn—and that might have led to the long-term underpayment situation.
“One of Harry Cohn’s best friends was my dad’s agent,” she stated. “They used to play cards together, they traveled together on vacation and everything. My dad never accused him of anything, but my feeling is they were just too close. I don’t know how the Stooges could have had the right representation when their agent was Harry Cohn’s buddy.”
Cohn was a major Stooge supporter, but he did little to push them out of their comfort zone, which meant the Stooges appeared in few feature films during their best-regarded era, and just one, Rockin’ in the Rockies, as the main stars.
This subtle, long-running cruelty hurt the Stooges in significant ways. Curly Howard fell ill to a major stroke at the relatively young age of 44, in part because the studio pushed him to work despite a prior stroke.
Shemp, who had found success as a comedic film actor outside of the Stooges, reluctantly returned to the fold. In Moe’s book, he suggested that he put his foot down to Columbia and told them there would be no act without Shemp; other, less sympathetic tellings of the story imply that Shemp was something of their last hope, and that he was required to take a pay cut to help out his brothers.
One must wonder if the Stooges would have faced such a dire situation had they been paid what they were actually worth to the studio.
The situation had long-term effects on the Stooges’ financial security, too. By sheer accident, all those films The Three Stooges made for Columbia worked particularly well for television due to their relatively short length, which meant that after Columbia shut down its short subjects division, the old films were still incredibly valuable.
Larry and Moe were able to bring in Curly Joe to help embrace the ensuing success over the next decade, but the Columbia contracts still stung and would linger over the Stooges’ estates decades after their respective deaths.
By the early ‘90s, when Curly Joe was on his deathbed, stories surfaced that suggested that the trio’s families were fighting over literal scraps in relation to the Stooges’ work—even though, at this time, they were showing frequently on cable television.
It was only in the mid-’90s that the headaches around the Stooges’ estates were finally worked out. It took a while, but their heirs are finally seeing the benefits of the work Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe Besser, and Curly Joe did decades prior.
The year that Mel Gibson produced a biopic on The Three Stooges for ABC. The biopic, which got mixed reviews, focused less on the comedic aspects of the troupe's life and more on the dramatic challenges that came with keeping the Stooges together. In case you were wondering, Michael Chiklis played Curly.
About 35 years ago, an obscure country band wrote a song about how awesome The Three Stooges were.
And this song, perhaps one of the biggest fluke novelties in history, had this innate ability to highlight just how far we’ve embedded the Three Stooges into our popular culture.
“The Curly Shuffle” is a nice hunk of cheese from 1983, a song that says more about 1983 than it does about The Three Stooges. Jump 'n the Saddle Band never had another hit after that song, which was named after a patented Curly Howard move that was so memorable that it reportedly inspired Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk dance, also introduced in 1983. It didn’t feel particularly hip in 1983, but we still listened anyway.
I wonder what would be necessary to give The Three Stooges the type of kickstart in admiration and public awareness they saw back then. Unlike the early ‘80s, the primary ways we consume video seem to work against the ways a Three Stooges short is consumed on television. Binging isn’t a great option for Three Stooges clips—they really work best in smaller servings—and scheduling filler isn’t really as necessary as it once was.
But there’s still a lot to them that feels relevant today in the current political and cultural era. For all their slap-happy physical humor, they were playing working-class guys with at least some degree of realism and no fear of mocking the powerful.
The Three Stooges won’t change the world, and perhaps they won’t even change your mind. They might just make you laugh. But Moe, Larry, and Curly deserve a spot in the cultural conversation right now—as the working-class icons they played so well—and it needs to be bigger than a handful of appearances on late-night television.
We need a 2018 version of “The Curly Shuffle.”