The Three Stooges are arguably the most popular and influential comedy institution in Hollywood history. The American vaudeville team was active from 1922 until 1970 and best remembered for their 190 short subject films for Columbia Pictures. When we say “vaudeville,” we mean staged entertainment that frequently combines pantomime, dialogue, dancing, and song.
The Stooges’ hallmark styles were physical farce and slapstick. Six “Stooges” appeared over the act’s run, with only three active at any given time: Moe Howard and Larry Fine were mainstays throughout, and the pivotal “third Stooge” was played by Shemp Howard, Curly Howard, Shemp Howard again, Joe Besser and “Curly Joe” DeRita.
The Three Stooges concept was brought back to Hollywood with 2012’s mixed-bag slapstick film based on the film shorts from 1934 to 1959. The household-name Farrelly brothers (also responsible for Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin) co-wrote, produced, and directed the film, which stars Chris Diamantopoulos (Silicon Valley), Sean Hayes (Will & Grace), and Will Sasso (Mad TV). Given that this reimagining didn’t necessarily work for critics and audiences, let’s take a look further back and examine what it was that made the original Stooges such a landmark comedy troupe.
Longevity Of The Three Stooges
The act began in the early 1920s as part of a vaudeville comedy act billed as “Ted Healy and His Stooges”, consisting originally of Healy and Moe Howard. Over time, the original Stooges were joined by Moe’s brother, Shemp Howard, and then Larry Fine. The four appeared in one feature film, Soup to Nuts, before Shemp left to pursue a solo career. He was replaced by his and Moe’s younger brother, Jerome “Curly” Howard, in 1932. From 1934 to 1946, Moe, Larry, and Curly produced over 90 short films for Columbia. It was during this period that the three were at their peak popularity.
Curly suffered a debilitating stroke in 1946, however, so Shemp returned to reform the original lineup, until his death of a heart attack in 1955, three years and ten months after Curly’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1952. Film actor Joe Palma was used as a stand-in to complete four Shemp-era shorts under contract. This procedure — disguising one actor for another outside of stunt shots — became known as the “fake Shemp.” Columbia contract player Joe Besser joined as the third Stooge for two years, departing in 1958 to nurse his ill wife after Columbia ended its shorts division.
Comic actor Joe DeRita became “Curly Joe” in 1958, replacing Besser for a new series of full-length theatrical films. With intense television exposure in the U.S., the act regained momentum throughout the 1960s as popular kids’ fare, until Larry’s paralyzing stroke in the midst of filming a pilot for a Three Stooges TV series in 1970. Larry Fine died in January 1975 after a further series of strokes. Unsuccessful attempts were made to revive the Stooges with longtime supporting actor Emil Sitka in Fine’s role in 1970 and again in 1975, but this attempt was cut short by Moe Howard’s death on May 4, 1975. That marks a nearly-50-year run for the comedy team and is one of the reasons why they are so legendary.
The internal mechanism of The Three Stooges is deceptively simple, which is why it worked without fail for so many different setups. It’s based on the premise that all of them are stupid, but some are more stupid than others. Moe, with his permanent scowl and bowl-cut hair, was the leader who oversaw whatever the Stooges found themselves pursuing. Curly, his hulking frame bursting out of his suit, was the irredeemably incompetent man-child and recipient of most of Moe’s abuse — which includes the iconic double eye-poke.
Moe actually had his brother Shemp to thank for that signature move: Once, during a card game, Shemp became so convinced that Larry was cheating him he leaped up and poked him in both eyes. Larry, too often underestimated, was the all-important bridge between Moe’s authoritarian bully and Curly’s babyfaced clown. An easygoing simpleton, Larry was the essential, non-threatening intermediary who brought a special genius to the role. Given each character’s distinct style, brought together for naturally comedic content, it’s no wonder the troupe ran for so long and are still celebrated today.
The pokes, punches, and slaps may have been well choreographed from their years of work in clubs and enhanced with sound effects, but there were still many dangers to be had during filming. The Stooges didn’t start using a Foley machine to enhance their physical gags until they started working with director Jules White at Columbia, and Healy usually held nothing back while slapping and punching his Stooges.
In Larry’s biography, he explains that during the filming of Three Little Pigskins, the script called for all three of the boys to get tackled by a group of pro-football players. The Stooges may have done their own stunts in slap fights, but they were hardly stuntmen and insisted they have three professionals stand in for them. The director eventually relented and hired some doubles to stand in for them. The doubles suffered several broken ribs and limbs from the hard tackle, and the studio hired doubles ever since to handle the bigger stunts.
Even the infamous pie fights were serious hazards on the set. Since filming required multiple takes and the shorts department had smaller budgets, they had to reuse the thrown pies for retakes. The crew simply swept up the gooey mixtures off the hardwood floor and slapped them back in the pans. Sometimes, one of the recycled pies would have an occasional nail or wood shard from the dirty studio floor mixed in with them.
Legacy & Influence
The Three Stooges remained popular well into the 21st century through TV syndication and the merchandising of their images on commercial products. The movie The Three Stooges, in which a new cast inhabited the familiar roles, was released in 2012. Their third Columbia short Men in Black, a parody of the Clark Gable drama Men in White that had the boys playing well-meaning doctors who do more harm than good, earned an Academy Award nomination in 1934 for Best Short Subject – Comedy. Fortunately for the Stooges, the film’s critical and financial success got them a higher weekly salary and a better contract. Unfortunately, it lost to a musical short called La Cucaracha and became the only film in their extensive library to earn them an Oscar nomination. All of the original shorts can now be streamed on Amazon Prime.
The Stooges have also been referenced countless times over the years in pop culture, whether it be a familiar gag, impersonation, or explicit allusion. Films including Stripes, Lethal Weapon, and Flubber have also nodded to the comedy troupe in some form or another. And let’s not forget television — shows like Family Guy, Futurama and Garfield have all referenced the Stooges as well.