what i learned from the (real) three stooges

Like many other things I still enjoy today, my love of The Three Stooges was passed down to me from my dad. My brother, sister and I are probably among a very select group of thirty-somethings who can – and do – quote Stooges shorts at length. We had a videocassette – made by a friend of mine from his uncle’s rather prodigious LaserDisc collection(1) – that was about six hours of Stooges shorts that we would gather around in the way that other families might gather around Little House on the Prairie or Lassie.(2)

I learned a lot from the Stooges over the years, which is why I will not be going to see the new movie. Let me put it this way: think back to your favorite teacher in school. Now imagine learning that same material from someone else after you’ve already learned it from him or her.


Before we get to what I’ve learned, though, let’s address something: When people talk about The Three Stooges – especially in their classic configuration of Larry, Curly and Moe – they mostly talk about the so-called violence. Let’s skip over the part in which, in our post-Tarantino world, we really have no right to talk about excessive violence of any other time or medium. Instead, let’s remember that the Stooges started in the 1920s as a vaudeville act(3) and, typical of such, physical comedy was a large component of the act. In fact, performing comedy on a stage for a large audience almost requires physical comedy, and, like anything performed on stage, also requires exaggeration. So the comedy was not only physical, but by nature of the vaudeville medium, was excessively so. Once you take that act and train a camera on it, it will most certainly seem to shift from physical comedy to violence. But it is not violence; it is merely physical comedy.

There’s so much more I learned from The Three Stooges, things so important to me that they inform my everyday choices. And so important that I was honestly shocked when I first heard people talk about the violence of Stooges shorts. I thought, “That’s what you take away from the Stooges? How sad for you.”

Here’s what I learned from The Three Stooges.

Lesson One: Silliness in the Face of Reality

This video a about four minutes long, but you only need to watch the first twenty seconds of it to get my point.

I learned from Curly a lesson that would be reinforced years later first by Roger Rabbit and then by our current comedic geniuses Paul Rudd and Will Farrell: never – never – underestimate the importance of being just plain silly. In the clip above, when the waiter sets the bottle in front of Curly, it’s not enough for Curly just to open it and enjoy the drink. First he has to express his surprise, and then he has to do one of his trademark handjives. There is no reason for it whatsoever. Its only purpose is simple silliness. Curly, the character, is not trying to impress anyone. Instead, he is merely expressing the joy he feels as he’s about to enjoy a tasty cold beverage. It’s a beautiful moment, and reminds me of Ashley, who actually does something I call her ‘happy food dance’ just because she’s excited to eat whatever we’re about to eat for dinner. Which, if you’re paying attention, means that yes, there is something of my love for Curly in my love for Ashley.

Lesson Two: Honesty in the Face of Calamity

Skip to about minute 2:15 and watch until about 2:40 of this video.

Curly is just about the goofiest, clumsiest, weirdest person ever. He is overweight, shaves his head, and has what some would think is an annoying voice. He views barking at inanimate objects as a valid strategy to best them in a fight. He gets into fights with inanimate objects. And often loses. Nevertheless, he doesn’t pass up the chance to flirt with the nurse. And even when that doesn’t go as planned, and even after he looks ridiculous in a gas mask, he still thinks a pretty woman might be interested in him and doesn’t hesitate to let her know that he would be equally interested. It’s neither arrogance or ignorance. It’s simple honesty. It’s “This is who I am; if you’re cool with that I’m cool with you.” If only everyone could be like that – goofy or otherwise – the world’s collective pulse rate would be much, much lower.

Lesson Three: Witty Wordplay in the Face of Adversity

This clip’s only about a minute long and you’ll need to watch the whole thing. Also, I like that the person who posted says it’s his or her favorite Stooges moment ever. It’s pretty high on my list, too.

I have no idea where Moe and Larry got their press badges, but it’s pretty obvious that Curly yanked his Pull lever from a toilet. Why didn’t he grab a press badge from wherever Moe and Larry got theirs? You might think that maybe they could only find two. I like to think that Curly just wanted to be goofy, but at the same time to kind of stick to the man in his own silly way. He might have been able to hold the lever up and still say “Press” and maybe get away with it. But instead he actually says “Pull” and then makes sure the guy knows he’s being put on. Awesome. If you’re going to make fun of the establishment, make sure they know you’re making fun of them. Then run like hell.

Lesson Four: Follow Directions, Even When You Don’t Know What’s Going On.

This is the longest clip I’ll foist upon you. This is from what might be my favorite Stooges short, so I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing. But you really only need to watch from about :15 to about the 1:00 mark.

When Larry tells Curly to shave some ice, Curly has no idea that he wants him to chip off slivers of ice so they can make a dessert called, appropriately, shaved ice. Nevertheless, Curly follows the directions as he understands them. In fact, Moe is doing exactly the same thing. In this short, they’ve been promised money if they can prepare a birthday dinner, and prepare a birthday dinner they shall. The fact that they don’t know what they’re doing doesn’t matter. If you watched the whole clip, you’ll see more evidence of this. (I particularly like how Curly dices the potatoes and even pretends he got a lucky roll.) This notion got me first through algebra, then geometry. I had no idea how any of it worked, but I followed instructions and got As and Bs. It has gotten me through far more adverse situations as well, the idea being that if you pretend you know what you’re doing, people will assume you know what you’re doing. Hopefully at some point you figure out what you’re doing – which of course the Stooges rarely do. But if you don’t, just follow instructions to the best of your understanding. And for God’s sake, if you’re told to shave some ice, make sure you make conversation with the ice. Otherwise you’re just being rude.

  1. LaserDiscs were these LP-sized video discs that were just terrible to watch. If a person sneezed like two towns over the disc would skip. Imagine listening to a record player in the car whilst driving down a recently firebombed street. They were that bad. You know how some people say that vinyl provides a better listening experience than CDs or MP3s or anything else? No one has ever said anything similar about LaserDiscs. No one. Ever.
  2. My brother and I have a shared experience in which, some time after we moved out of our parents’ house, we learned that not everyone was raised on the Stooges. He once talked about quoting lines from a short and no one knowing what he was talking about. It happened to me, too. Still does, in fact.
  3. They were originally called Ted Healy and His Stooges.

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