When Kurt Vonnegut dedicated his novel Slapstick to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, he pinpointed the way an ideal team can transcend chemistry. Like Vonnegut’s Wilbur and Eliza, the twins who became geniuses only in each other’s presence, Laurel and Hardy united to become two halves of a single being. They bickered, they kicked each other’s backsides, and were always mired in “another fine mess,” but there was always the sense that they could not survive apart.
Much the same could be said of the Three Stooges, a comedy team with the flawless internal logic of a fine-tuned clock. There is Moe, the leader (by temperament if not acclamation), a tough-minded bruiser who gets things done and brings some semblance of organization. There is Curly, Moe’s polar opposite — cheerful, energetic, optimistic, and totally incapable of seeing what is not in front of him (in A Plumbing We Will Go, he tries to fix a leak by attaching one pipe after another until he is trapped in a cage). And there is Larry, the middleman personified – he has no distinctive personality, but he’s essential in the same way as ski poles.
If there were no Moe, the group would collapse into chaos (notice how Curly and Larry almost never talk to each other?). If there were no Larry, their films would be about a mean guy beating up a nice guy (Curly and Larry outnumber Moe, and could overpower him if they wanted to). And if there were no Curly … well, I guess there would be Shemp, if you’re into that sort of thing, but nobody wants to see just Moe and Larry. Why do these men stay together, despite the fact they don’t seem to particularly like each other? Because apart, they could not function in the world.
Curly was long gone by the time of The New Three Stooges, a 1965-66 cartoon show new to DVD from Madacy, but if viewed with generosity, it offers some insight into the Stooges in winter.
The Stooges had enjoyed a career renaissance when their vintage shorts were syndicated to television in 1958, but with most of their audience now children, the team had eliminated malicious violence from their act — no more eye pokes, just light slapping. With portly vaudevillian “Curly Joe” DeRita filling the “third Stooge” slot (which suffered a mortality rate comparable to Spinal Tap drummers), the aging team offered a kindler, gentler brand of slapstick in personal appearances and films.
Each episode opens and closes with a live-action segment with the comedians engaged in some wheezy tomfoolery or other — they’re bakers, they’re painters, they’re digging for treasure, etc. Production values are nonexistent: Each episode is filmed in a public park or no-frills soundstage (warehouse?), and the slapstick plays out in long, punishingly static medium-shots. Like the boys’ 190 shorts for Columbia Pictures, these set pieces have little context — no need to know why the Stooges are at an airport or a barbershop, just that they’re there.
Even if the Stooges hadn’t downplayed violence, such measures might have been necessary: At 68 and 63, Moe and Larry look a little the worse for wear (Moe’s hideous dye-job doesn’t help matters). They are slower and saggier, less vicious but still ornery. Moe has evolved into an almost benevolent curmudgeon, and as for “Curly Joe,” while surely one of the least-funny men who ever lived, he does offer a credible simulation of Jerome “Curly” Howard as an exhausted 56-year-old. Collectively, they have the same combination of coziness and prickliness as an old married couple.
The 156 cartoons are cheap and forgettable, and the 40 live-action wraparounds that repeat in order to surround them all are not very funny (and the sight of the boys cavorting in skin-tight swimsuits is not for the faint of heart). But for Stooge completists, they offer a strange sort of comfort. In the autumn of their years, the Stooges are still at it, once again starting some new business together, once again throwing pies in their weary faces, and still irretrievably locked in each other’s orbit.