As far as slapstick is concerned, The Three Stooges stand alone as the quintessential purveyors of the comedic gag. They transformed low brow humor into an art form all its own, bringing their vaudevillian act to the screen for an impressive thirty-seven years. Their work takes on a near-archetypal significance in the history of American comedy: No one forged such wicked chemistry, no one managed to make violence so artful, no one found themselves in such awkward scenarios.
Moe Howard was the cranky boss, always barking orders and taking responsibility for situations that are inevitably bound for doom. Jerry “Curly” Howard was the naove whipping boy of the troop, though no one has ever matched Curly’s ability to perform the frustrated scapegoat so innocently and unironically. Joining from the flank was Larry Fine, who was quite willing to impart his sense of justice on the unsuspecting Curly as the sycophant to the tyrannous Moe. Together, the original three stooges crafted a formula for comedy that even today remains profoundly original and witty. Their mix of madness and mayhem has indeed stood the test of time.
The history of the troop is one of both ingenuity and luck. Traces of the Stooge style began when Moe Howard worked on the vaudeville circuit worked with childhood friend Ted Healy. As part of the performance, Moe would interrupt and rag on Healy’s performance. One day, Moe’s brother Shemp Howard saw the performance and was bullied into the shenanigans. On a fateful evening in 1925, the three met Larry Fine–a violinist from a musical act called Haney Sisters and Fine–and Ted Healy & His Stooges were born. They were a hit on the American vaudeville circuit; they even made Broadway. They were so popular, in fact, that they even made a film in the height of the Depression: 1930’s “Soup to Nuts.”
Healy soon took a better position at MGM and Shemp began working for Vitaphone in New York. Shemp was then replaced by his and Moe’s younger brother Jerry Howard. Playing the irreverent “Curly,” the bald man without a plan took the role by storm, vaulting the Three Stooges to heretofore unseen comedic heights. Soon enough, they were making shorts for Columbia Pictures. “Men in Black,” their second short directed by Ray McCarey, was even nominated for an Academy Award in 1934.
Throughout their forty years of comedic brilliance, The Three Stooges worked with many directors. They first established themselves as a force to be reckoned with working with director Del Lord. In classics like “Dutiful but Dumb” and “An Ache in Every Stake” from the early 1940’s, the directorial flair he had for quick narration added to the troupe’s slapstick style, creating sound comedic chemistry.
The Stooges worked with many other directors, Charley Chase and Edward Bernds to name a few,but often their act depended on impromprovisational talent. For instance, “Curly’s” classic “woo-woo-woo” began as a slip up when he forgot one of his lines in Men in Black.
Despite shifting directors and changes in cast–Curly was hospitalized in the forties and was again replaced by Shemp, who was then replaced by Joe DeRita in 1958–The Stooges managed to continue performing for many years. They always experimented with different forms of comedy, mixing political satire, romantic screw-ups and fraternal bashing with unmatched irreverent wit. The troupe retired in 1975 when Moe Howard died of lung cancer.