Talk of the Town - Some guys have all the nyuk April 15 2004
Reaching your inner stooge
If the great lie of men is, "I'll call you," womanhood's biggest whopper has to be, "I like a guy with a sense of humor."
Because when a 24-hour marathon of "The Three Stooges" aired on television, every woman I know — OK, my spouse — said the same thing: "They're not funny."
You can say the Stooges were one of the most popular comedy acts in history, enduing more than 40 years, yet there is the distaff sniff: "They're just not funny."
You can point out that the trio, which came boiling out of vaudeville circa 1930, made more than 200 slaphappy films continually seen and enjoyed around the world.
"They're still not funny."
"You don't have to take my word for it," I reasoned. "The Three Stooges are on American Movie Classics. See? Classics? It's right in the name."
Whereupon I was left alone with the TV. Well, not alone. Moe, Larry and Curly were there, too.
"Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!"
How can you not love these guys? Just look at a sample filmography:
Slippery Silks (1936) — The Stooges begin as antique furniture restorers. After destroying a rare Chinese cabinet, they inherit the Madame De France dress shop. First Stooges cream dessert fight.
Three Sappy People (1939) — The Stooges masquerade as Drs. Ziller, Zeller and Zoller, eminent psychiatrists. Features classic cream puff fight.
In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941) — The Stooges are convicts who win freedom to be with three gold-digging women. The catch is that they have to become accepted into "society." Contains the mother of all Stooge pie fights.
To describe this violent — if pre-diabetic — oeuvre as mere physical shtick is to underestimate the Stooges' social significance. Messrs. Howard, Fine and Howard form the unbridgeable fault line between the sexes.
Women, all women, regard the Stooges as ignorant, lazy oafs. They refuse to watch them, particularly when Oprah is on in the same timeslot with a panel discussion titled, "Men: Are They Ignorant, Lazy Oafs?"
Now get a bunch of guys. Any guys. Include an Inuit-Eskimo, the archbishop of Canterbury and Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Show them any Stooges picture. They'll be in hysterics by the first pie throw.
But this male fondness for anarchic comedy comes at a heavy price: female denunciation. My 11-year-old nephew may well rank as the first Stooge-related human rights case.
After watching one short that had Curly pose the thorny query — "Are you married? Or are you happy?" — the kid made the same interrogatory to his mother. He was unceremoniously banned from future Stooge watching.
Granted, the lad did repeat the same dialogue a dozen times during the course of a single afternoon. But repetition is the essence of classic humor.
Why do men universally enjoy this stuff? Because in a world that's pressured them to achieve since Adam was downsized from the Garden of Eden, the Three Stooges represent the refreshing opposite of success. They are med school students "with the highest temperatures in their class," leaky plumbers and illiterate professors. The Stooges fouled up in all walks of life, and there's a touch of Stooge in every man.
Eventually, because she had to come back in the house for shelter and food, my spouse did agree — purely for the sake of research — to view a small segment of the Stooges marathon with me. I was prepared to define the subtle differences between a knucklebrain and a chowderhead, but she had other questions.
"Who's the one saying, 'Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk'?"
"That's Curly," I explained.
"Then why is his head shaved?"
"That's the point."
"OK," she said, during the next selection. "Who's going, 'Jeeb, jeeb, jeeb'?"
"That's Shemp. He replaced Curly."
"Why did he replace Curly?"
"No. Why is he named Shemp?"
We weren't getting anywhere. Then came a scene where the Stooges sheepishly return to their wives after an imbecilic caper. Women in Three Stooges films aren't on screen for long, but they are usually a foot taller than The Boys and broader across the shoulders. They do not suffer Stoogeness gladly.
I arrived at a theory.
"Is female distaste for 'The Three Stooges' related to the almost totemic role of women in their films — as near-mythic authority figures who dispense an arbitrary and unforgiving judgment redolent of the Old Testament?"
"No. They're just not funny."
This was perplexing. If it isn't hilarious when Moe puts Larry's head in a vise, if it isn't side-splitting when Curly fights an oyster in his oyster soup, then my entire system of values is bankrupt.
"You mean," I demanded, "that if someone came in here right now and socked me with a lemon meringue, you wouldn't laugh?'
"All right," she conceded. "That would be funny."
Glen Slattery is looking for a good pie fight.