The Kings of Slapstick

Today, a post about slapstick in general as a form of humor, and about the kings of slapstick specifically. Any baby boomers born and raised in America, and many others as well, will immediately know whom i’m referring to. It is, of course, The Three Stooges. First, an introduction to slapstick.

Slapstick is a type of comedy involving exaggerated extreme physical violence or activities which exceed the boundaries of common sense, such as a character being hit in the face with a heavy frying pan or running into a brick wall. While it has often been derided by those who consider it lowbrow, the performance of slapstick comedy requires exquisite timing and skillful execution. That’s what I appreciate about it most, the devotion its practitioners require not just to do it, but to do it well, which means making it look effortless.

The phrase comes from the battacchio—called the ‘slap stick’ in English, a club-like object composed of two wooden slats used in Commedia dell’arte. When struck, the battacchio produces a loud smacking noise, though little force is transferred from the object to the person being struck. Actors may thus hit one another repeatedly with great audible effect while causing very little actual physical damage. Along with the inflatable bladder (of which the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), it was among the earliest forms of special effects that could be carried on one’s person.

Building off its later popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century ethnic routines of the American vaudeville house, the style was explored extensively during the “golden era” of black and white, silent movies directed by figures Mack Sennett and Hal Roach and featuring such notables as Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Dick van Dyke, the Keystone Kops, and finally, the Three Stooges.

The Stooges began their comedy career in 1925 as part of a raucous vaudeville act called ‘Ted Healy and His Stooges’. In the act, lead comedian Healy would attempt to sing or tell jokes while his noisy assistants would keep “interrupting” him. Healy would respond by verbally and physically abusing his stooges. Brothers Moe and Shemp were joined later that year by violinist-comedian Larry Fine, and Fred Sanborn joined the group as well.

In 1930, Ted Healy and His Stooges, including Sanborn, appeared in their first Hollywood feature film: Soup to Nuts, released by Fox Studios. The film was not a success with the critics, but the Stooges’ performances were considered the highlight and Fox offered the trio a contract without Healy. This upset Healy, who told studio executives that the Stooges were his employees. The offer was withdrawn, and after Howard, Fine and Howard learned of the reason, they left Healy to form their own act, which quickly took off with a tour of the theatre circuit.

In 1932, with Moe now acting as business manager, Healy reached a new agreement with his former Stooges. In 1933, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) signed Healy and his Stooges to a movie contract. They appeared in feature films and short subjects, either together, individually, or with various combinations of actors. In 1934, the team’s contract with MGM expired, and the Stooges parted professional company with Healy. According to Moe Howard in his autobiography, the Stooges split with Ted Healy in 1934 once and for all because of Healy’s alcoholism and abrasiveness. Their final film with Healy was MGM’s 1934 film, Hollywood Party.

The Stooges appeared in 190 film shorts and five features under a contract with Columbia Pictures. Del Lord directed more than three dozen Three Stooges shorts. Jules White directed dozens more, and his brother Jack White directed several under the pseudonym “Preston Black”. (In the early shorts, Curly was billed as “Curley”, and also as “Jerry Howard” when receiving a writing credit.)

Curly was easily the most popular member of the team. His childlike mannerisms and natural comedic charm made him a hit with audiences. The fact that Curly had to shave his head for the act led him to feel unappealing to women. To mask his insecurities, Curly excessively drank, ate and caroused whenever the Stooges made personal appearances, which was approximately seven months out of the year. His weight ballooned in the 1940s, and his blood pressure was dangerously high. His wild lifestyle and constant drinking eventually caught up with him in 1945, and his performances suffered. Anyone viewing Curly’s last dozen shorts will see a seriously ill Curly, struggling to get through even the most basic scenes.

Curly suffered a debilitating stroke on May 6, 1946. Moe Howard turned to his older brother Shemp Howard to take Curly’s place. Shemp, however, was hesitant to rejoin the Stooges, as he had a successful solo career at the time of Curly’s untimely illness. However, he realized that Moe’s and Larry’s careers would be finished without the Stooge act. Shemp wanted some kind of assurance that his rejoining was indeed temporary, and that he could leave the Stooges once Curly recovered. Unfortunately, Curly’s condition declined until his death on January 18, 1952.

The quality of the Stooge shorts declined after Columbia’s short-subject division downsized in 1952. Three years after Curly’s death, Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack at age 60 on November 22, 1955. Joe Besser replaced Shemp in 1956, appearing in 17 shorts. The final Stooge release, Sappy Bull Fighters, did not reach theaters until June 4, 1959. With no active contract in place, Moe and Larry discussed plans for a personal appearance tour; meanwhile, Besser’s wife had a minor heart attack, and he preferred to stay local, leading him to withdraw from the act. For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Stooges hit a dead end. On January 9, 1970 Larry suffered a paralyzing stroke, ending his acting career. He suffered another stroke in December 1974. The following month, he suffered a more serious one, and slipped into a coma. He died on January 24, 1975, at the age of 72. Moe fell ill from lung cancer shortly thereafter and died on May 4, 1975.

They are icons of my misspent youth, indeed, of every American born baby boomer. I miss them still.

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