Learning from the Three Stooges

Learning from the Three Stooges

The Three Stooges are now history. Since 1975, there had been just one survivor of all those zany celluloid schticks: The slapping, the pokes in the eye, the fists to the noggin that my generation grew up on. Look, we liked Elvis, but he wasn't on TV five days a week. On my street, circa 1960, the Stooges ruled.

Yes, the last Stooge has left us. Actually, there were six of them at one time or another: Moe, Larry and Curly (the three most fondly remembered), plus Shemp, Joe Besser and Curly Joe. Now the last, Curly Joe DeRita, has passed on to the happy slapping ground. He received a three-column obituary, with a photo, in The New York Times. Not bad for a Stooge.

He wasn't the most senior Stooge, or the most popular Stooge — the one who comes to mind — but he was a Stooge all the same. A piece of many childhoods was laid to rest with Curly Joe.

In my Long Island neighborhood, all the 10-year-old ne'er-do-wells were connoisseurs of the Three Stooges. We'd gather at my house at 5 p.m. each weekday and watch half an hour of comedy shorts. The plot was sustained largely by Stooge-on-Stooge mayhem, punctuated by "nyuk-nyuk-nyukking," finger-snapping hand-jive and other forms of non-verbal speech. We were not exactly a sophisticated audience; we loved every minute.

There was concern about TV violence even back then. Officer Joe Bolton, who introduced the segments, was forever explaining that the Stooges were "professionals" and that we shouldn't try any of this face-smacking comedy at home. He twirled his nightstick while cautioning us, and we couldn't imagine Officer Joe, or any policeman, swinging a nightstick in anger. Of course, the decade was still young.

We knew the Stooges weren't primarily about violence. None of us grew up to be eye-pokers or cranium-crackers, much less professional Stooges. The trio was basically a human hurricane. Whatever they touched turned to rubble: homes, gardens, businesses, cars, etc. High-toned dinner parties catered by the Stooges soon became epic food fights, with fashionable ladies exchanging pies in the face. When the trio went hunting, they bagged one another, generally where they had the most padding. If they were dog catchers, the smart money was on the pooches.

We learned new words from the Stooges, hifalutin ones like "indubitably" and "imbecile": and mal mots such as "murdalize," as in "I'll murdalize ya." Those catering Stooges transformed a request for canapes into "a can of peas." We weren't sure what canapes were, but we knew a can of peas wasn't what the socialite ordered.

I have to confess that Curly Joe was not our favorite. We'd moan in unison when the opening credits featured him or Shemp or Joe Besser along with Moe and Larry. The original Curly, Curly Howard, was our main Stooge: Curly of the famous "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk," of the dismissive hand-wave. Curly was an imbecile, all right, but he had his pride.

When Moe got too oppressive, Curly would mesmerize the mop-top (the Beatles copied Moe's coif, I firmly believe) by rhythmically waving his hand, inducing Moe's ugly mug to mimic every movement. Finally, Curly's hand banged a tabletop or a brick wall and Moe's head would follow suit. "Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk." If Curly could pull that off, there was hope for us budding imbeciles as well.

I rented a video of the Three Stooges for my 6-year-old son not long ago (OK, I watched with him). I thought he was going to injure himself he laughed so hard. Suddenly it came to me why we kids found the Three Stooges so hilarious. Here were three grownups acting like us, only way dumber; three adults who couldn't cross the street without backing up traffic, who couldn't pick up a piece of lumber without braining every Stooge and non-Stooge in the county.

The notion of our elders being wildly incompetent, confused or ignorant as sandpaper was thrilling and cathartic. We were the ones who were always messing up, who didn't know (expletive deleted) from Shinola. Moms and dads and teachers were good at hiding their foibles (still are, by and large). They worked hard at being formal or proper or at least in control, like those socialites whose party was catered by the Stooges and who wound up throwing pies at one another.

We knew the grownups weren't perfect, were far from it, but it wasn't because they admitted as much to us. The Three Stooges took the notion of imperfection to the max: These folks who controlled our lives were downright dangerous.

At 43, I am an alleged adult. The Stooges were correct. We don't know what we're doing half the time; just read the newspapers. But please don't pass it on: The children may be listening.

Curly Joe DeRita died a Stooge — it says so right in his obituary. With a small "s" it would be an insult. With a capital "S" it's an honorific.