No stooge for the StoogesApril 13, 2012
By Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — Here’s what I never liked about The Three Stooges, despite Jerome Horwitz (better known as Curly Howard) and his timeless arsenal of vocal delights: I think the Stooges give roughhouse slapstick a bad name.
Call this column “Confessions of a Pre-Teen Comedy Snob.” When I was a kid, comedy was my entry point into film history. When I discovered the early Marx Brothers films, the Paramount ones, not the MGMs, I was a goner. When I first saw Laurel and Hardy in both short and long form, with or without sound, I was beguiled by the symphonic calamity of their best movies. When I saw It’s a Gift and The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, W.C. Fields became a treasure to me.
And then I saw my first Buster Keaton films, the 1922 short Cops as an introduction, topped by the great Sherlock Jr. two years later. No one took more abuse on screen in an American film than Keaton; no one got smacked around more by his own family on stage in vaudeville, in training for the movies. Yet no one came back for more with more panache.
Keaton elevated violent slapstick and mind-boggling stunt work to the highest form of personal expression. The Three Stooges made a lot of money, and made a lot of people laugh, but compared to the greats or even the goods, their work always felt like work to me. Their short films, cranked out at an astounding, mediocrity-ensuring rate of production, stripped everything down to a highly codified and numbingly repetitive series of physical rituals. The eye-poke. The sledgehammer to the noggin. The buzz saw to the forehead.
My brother and I tried enjoying them as kids. (My folks didn’t have any sort of issue with us watching the unavoidable reruns on TV in the ’60s and ’70s; we were pretty mild-mannered kids. Bob Newhart was my favorite comedian when I was a teenager. Even he was a little wild for me.) I remember us sort of staring at one of their films, our heads titled slightly to one side, like Nipper, the RCA dog on the old record labels. What’s this stuff? I thought. I just saw the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers. I just saw Keaton’s The Navigator for the first time. Why am I wasting my time?
In the ’60s, when I was going to every single movie I could see, Hollywood rediscovered the golden era of silent-era slapstick and, generally, inflated it and bloated it to the bursting point while ignoring niceties such as timing and a light touch amid all the faux-carnage. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the first, in 1963. The Great Race (which I prefer to Mad World, thanks to Jack Lemmon and some of director Blake Edwards’ more inventive sight gags) came two years later. The industry perpetually returns to what worked before.
The new Farrelly Brothers salute to the Stooges has its moments, but very few. It’s a forlorn exercise in nostalgia. In this awkwardly updated context it’s not much fun to watch three guys wail on each other, over and over and over. Besides, these days people get run over by cars, flung out of windows, clocked with wrenches on every other TV ad for whatever: car insurance, beer, soda, electronics. We’re slapstick-saturated. And none of it’s very funny.
You need crafts people and a poetic streak to elevate slapstick, or any sort of humor grounded in painful physical humiliation. I will close with Shakespeare. Once upon a time, there was a mid-16th century narrative ballad titled “A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin, for Her Good Behavior.” In it, a husband beats his willful spouse bloody. Then he wraps her flayed skin in salted horsehide. That’s entertainment!
Then came Shakespeare, who took the basic idea behind that lowly ballad and turned it into The Taming of the Shrew, which, don’t get me wrong, is minor Shakespeare, and extremely problematic. But it’s interestingly brutal in many ways. That’s about the most I can say for the original Stooges, even with the levitating element of Curly Howard: Their monomaniacal brutality fascinates from a sociological perspective. But compared to Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis and Keaton and Chaplin and Fields and the Marxes and Harold Lloyd and you name it, well … let’s just say it’s slapstick of another kind.