I’m a victim of soicumstance! Keeping up with the Three Stooges on AMC and IFC

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Ever tune into satellite channels AMC or IFC as daylight emerges and wonder why black and white short films from 80 years ago have you doubled over in stitches? Get the lowdown on why the Three Stooges’ subversive humor prevails when all of their contemporaries are largely forgotten. In the accompanying still a behemoth of a lobster runs afoul of Larry Fine’s nose courtesy of a vindictive Moe Howard on the December 1971 cover of the iconic comedy trio’s Gold Key comic book. Issue #53 finds the vacationing Hawaiians in full n’yuk n’yuk glory. That’s Curly Joe DeRita, who replaced Curly Howard, Shemp Howard, and Joe Besser, at far left wearing the gold chain bracelet, likely part of his personal wardrobe. Image Credit: DreamWorks Classics

Comedy institution the Three Stooges now call both American Movie Classics [AMC] and IFC their basic cable home. The most ballyhooed lineup consisted of Moe Howard, younger sibling Jerome “Curly” Howard, and close comrade Larry Fine, who starred in 190 two-reel short subjects between 1934 and 1959 for Columbia Studios, a handful of subsequent feature length films, and a low budget cartoon-live action color series that kept them competitive during the swingin’ sixties.

They are virtually the only comedy act from the early to mid-20th century still in the collective consciousness, thanks to their brand of physical, well-honed slapstick. Impeccable timing didn’t hurt, either.

Curly abides as the star. The nickname started when he ingeniously shaved his chestnut-red hair and pristine handlebar mustache. Never properly trained as an actor, Curly was gifted with a natural ability that manifested itself in scene-stealing performances.

Moe and Larry both recalled that whenever Curly forgot his lines, he would hit the deck and spin uncontrollably until he remembered them. Curly’s spontaneity was thankfully preserved on film. He was also the master of catch-phrases, coining such nuggets as “N’yuk, n’yuk, n’yuk,” “I’m a victim of soicumstance!,” “Ruff! Ruff!, “Maha, a ha!,” and “Woo, woo woo!”

Unfortunately, after suffering a series of debilitating strokes in May 1946 exacerbated by hard living, older brother Shemp Howard was persuaded to take Curly’s place. Curly never really recovered, tragically passing away six years later at age 48 confined to the Baldy View Sanitarium. Shemp succumbed to a massive heart attack in November 1955 at the age of 60 on the way home from a boxing match, another cruel twist of fate which threatened the team’s survival.

For decades Shemp often rated poorly among die-hard fans when compared to Curly, but reappraisal has occurred in the 21st century. Shemp’s comedy style, while not as slapstick or energetically motivated as Curly’s, was the perfect fit for the act after Curly’s demise. The most underrated Howard brother, Shemp could easily roll with Moe’s rapid fire slaps and perform improvised routines, such as ironing a pair of pants on a board that refuses to stay stationary from 1948’s Sing a Song of Six Pants or nearly going bonkers opening the legs of a stubborn folding table in 1949’s Hokus Pokus.

Shemp was also well-known for his fighting — while simultaneously dancing — routine, along with a high-pitched “Meep-meep-meep-meep!” yelp. As the weakling of the team, Shemp’s trademark unkempt long hair would fall down over his craggy, self-professed ugly face. In Corny Casanovas [1952], a cat actually shrieked and ran away after seeing his portrait. Shemp was predestined for comedy.

With Curly’s stroke, Shemp’s untimely passing, and Joe Besser spending only two years with the team tying up loose ends of their Columbia contract, the line-up was obviously fluid. However, Moe and Larry were always there. In real life, Moe was the middle Howard brother, and he in turn managed and took care of the team. Onscreen, his gruff, “I’m the boss” take-no-prisoners demeanor was well-honed, and his straight, bowl-cut hair became an iconic image.

Moe kept the other boys in line starting in vaudeville as part of Ted Healy and his Stooges in 1922, whether an eye-poke, slap to the face, or a pull on the ear, even though he tended to be just as silly and genuinely curious as the rest. Moe was also perhaps the greatest pie-thrower in film, which he was still demonstrating in the early ’70s during a Mike Douglas appearance.

Larry was the middle Stooge. His frizzy, disheveled red hair wound up being pulled out in clumps by an enraged Moe, who appropriately nicknamed him “Porcupine.” Possessing a dexterity for playing violin on and off-screen, Larry found himself on the receiving end of Moe’s terrific, sometimes brutal slaps. Larry developed a callous on one side of his face after years of enduring the wrath of Moe.

Larry was the glue in the Three Stooges, although he could just as easily slip into absurdity — witness his Tarzan yell from 1936’s “Disorder in the Court.” Without Larry, the three Stooges would have been severely deficient, and he is vastly underrated as a comedic actor. If not for a severe stroke in January 1970, the team would have probably kept making personal appearances until they dropped.

So why are the three Stooges still relevant over 50 years since their ultimate film The Outlaws Is Coming! trotted onto drive-in screens? They were pretty damn funny, having spent years perfecting their timing and comedic rhythm. Their shorts were bursts of energy clocking at under 20 minutes, without extraneous scenes that plagued the films of protégés Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers.

The team subverted authority figures and hoity-toity society, and they never strayed too far from their role as average Joe’s with little income seeking — and inadvertently causing — mischief and mayhem. Dismissed as juvenile by their detractors, the antics of the Three Stooges lead audiences of all ages to laugh uncontrollably. Sounds like an air tight legacy.

AMC airs several shorts on most weekday mornings during the 5 a.m. hour and then again during the 9 a.m. EST hour. Annoyingly they severely chop up the shorts if a five or ten-minute programming slot after a long movie needs filling. Formerly known as the Independent Film Channel but acquired by AMC Networks and rebranded with an “Always On. Slightly Off” moniker, IFC prefers the same early morning format but fortunately has room to broadcast more Stooge shorts — up to four hours worth. Use the “search” function on your TiVo or DVR to make sure you don’t miss an episode. The reviled 1957–1959 Besser shorts remain in mothballs.

So, if you’re having a bad day or in need of a hearty chuckle, tune into the Three Stooges on AMC or IFC. And in case you don’t have the channels, check out complete episodes on YouTube or head on over to Amazon where you can purchase most anything Stooge-related.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2010, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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