Culture > Television

TV: Nyuk-nyuk to pride

Television | Three Stooges throw a pie in the face of today's sitcoms

Issue: "Lyons thrown to Baptists," Sept. 20, 1997

If "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," then greater love hath no comedian than this, that a comedian lay down his face, body, clothes- himself, in other words-for a laugh. Recent comedians have done the opposite. The goal of Jerry Seinfeld, Rosanne, and Ellen Degeneres in the sitcoms that bear their names, for instance, is to play themselves, and as a result their "selves" (Seinfeld's neurotic New Yorker, Rosanne's dysfunctional white trash, Ellen's uncloseted lesbian) is all they end up playing.

Older comedians were funnier because they knew not only that jokes need butts but also that there's no better butt of a joke than the comedian himself. Milton Berle,Lucille Ball, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy knew that they couldn't have their self-respect and eat it, too. So they simply ate it and have earned the undying affection of every generation since.

Few old-time comedians, however, have remained as popular as the Three Stooges. From 1934 to 1959, they turned out 190 "shorts" (the 20-minute made-for-theaters films for which they're best known), and since 1958 these same shorts have been a staple of local television stations, not to mention film festivals and fan-club conventions. Now, with the advent of Stooge TV-a nightly, one-hour, three-episode Stoogefest that the Family Channel runs, interestingly enough, right after The 700 Club-national access to the Stooges' unique brand of slapstick and farce is easier than ever.

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"Farce as farce, farce for its own sake unhampered by lessons and deeper meanings, is a conservative art form," writes Florence King. "Liberals are the ones who demand that their entertainment be didactic and 'worthwhile'." No comedians forswore lessons and deeper meanings with more energy, wit, and audaciousness than Moe, Larry, and Curly (later Shemp, then Joe, and finally Curly Joe).

Having developed split-second timing as young vaudevillians, the Howard brothers (Moe, Curly, and Shemp, nee Horwitz) and Larry Fine (nee Feinberg) went on to split the atom of absurdity with explosively funny results.

"Our comedy is based on upsetting dignity," Moe once told an interviewer, and that went double for the Stooges' own. With their comic haircuts and, in Curly's case especially, ill-fitting clothes, they looked funny even before they opened their mouths.

And although what came out of their mouths was funny, the comedy for which they're best loved (and sometimes criticized) was physical. By making every prop in their sets a potential weapon or hazard, they even managed to upset the dignity of mere possessions.

But perhaps their biggest contribution to the overturning of pomposity was their transformation of the great American pie fight into a source of genuine yet comic catharsis. Because self-importance and a face dripping with whipped cream are mutually exclusive, the Stooges' pie fights embodied the reductio ad absurdum of human pride. Nothing would improve an episode of Seinfeld, Rosanne, or Ellen more quickly.

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