“The Vulgarian Frontier: Subject to Change Without Notice.” –Signpost in Dutiful but Dumb (1941)
Now that The Three Stooges, the new Farrelly brothers mediocrity, is just a day away from nationwide release, it’s very easy to misremember what made Larry Fine and Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp Howard’s routine so memorable. Like many Vaudevillians' acts, the Stooges’ brand of violent slapstick humor comes from a flagrantly low-brow kind of self-loathing. The fates seemed to regularly conspire against the Stooges but it somehow seemed justified because their personae were so very ugly. In fact, many of their best gags are about how unattractive they are, like when Shemp tiptoes around an old dark house in Spooks! (1953) and recoils in horror when he sees a bat with his face on it. “What a hideous, monstrous face,” Shemp says, before the bat descends on fishing wire while burbling, “Bib-bib-bib-bib.” The Stooges were never high artists but they were very good at taking themselves down a peg or six.
At the same time, one of the more dated and, yes, problematic aspects of the Stooges’ act is that they make fun of themselves by proxy, mocking many of the women that they try to woo. Being initiated in the Women Haters' Club in Women Haters (1934) is not much different than the Stooges’ scheme to get Larry married so that he inherits a fortune in Brideless Groom (1947), in that both scenarios assume that women can only be equal to men if they’re just as loutish, conniving, or fugly. Women often beat up the Stooges, but not because these guys were feminists, and wanted to joke about how ineffectual and chauvinistic their Stooge personas were. Actually, the Stooges just had really low self-esteem. So when Moe, Larry and Curly get wrangled into a car by a trio of women in False Alarms (1936), it’s telling that the most vocal gal is a thuggish-looking dullard who sees the Stooges as a meal ticket: “Come on, girls, let’s go places and eat things.”
Women were, however, not consistently used as direct reflections of the Stooges’ own insecurity. Women are more generically used as trophies, in shorts like Gents Without Cents (1944) and Pardon My Backfire (1953). This shows to go you that while the repetition of certain routines is a staple of the Stooges’ brand of humor, Fine and the Howards don't have a consistent philosophy on life or comedy. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, since that lack of focus is also a central part of the group’s charms–more on this in a moment.)
Besides, the Stooges never really needed anyone else to prove just how grossly incompetent they were, since their bumbling behavior was always an extension of their “hideous” looks and, thankfully, the Stooges never opted for plastic surgery. Scowls, dumb show stares, bulbous noses, and the group’s signature hair-stylings are just as integral to the group’s masochistic schtick as the vigorous eye-poking and cheek-slapping that made them famous.
Then again, the Stooges are often at their funniest when the pacing of their gags is so manic that you can hardly understand them. For instance, in Spooks!, each successive gag is delivered at a successively faster rate, until finally a giant gorilla that’s been skulking about out of sight makes a dramatic re-appearance. Additionally, some of the gags are weirdly dense and feature puns that are so cerebral that they’re practically middle-brow. In Malice in the Palace (1949), the boys pore over a map that shows in great detail the geography of the imaginary land of Shmow. Now, you can pause your dvd and pore over the details of punny made-up territories like the Bay of Rum, Igypt, Jerkola and Great Mitten. But the fact that this intricate gag was originally shown for only a few seconds makes the Stooges' anything-for-a-laugh modus operandi all the more apparent.
Besides, being flagrantly nonsensical suited the Stooges, as in an earlier part of Malice in the Palace where the group tries to eat meat that they're convinced was once a cat or a dog (whenever they prod the food with their flatware, a pooch and a puss respectively yelp and hiss). Or how about when Moe inadvertently destroys a car's horn in Pardon My Backfire and the horn spontaneously exclaims, "They got me," as if it were dying? If nothing else, the Stooges are at their best when they're charging out of left field. Their jokes aren't exactly avant-anything, and their sense of humor certainly isn’t consistently surreal. But with 200+ shorts at their backs, it's safe to say that the group's longevity stems from the variety of ways they contrived to hurt themselves. They kept enough variety in their gags to make even the sleepiest of their shorts feature one or two gut-busters. Pretty impressive for a bunch of guys that couldn’t even stand to look at their own reflection.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.