Dumb, Dumberer, and Dumberest
In their new yuk-fest The Three Stooges, the Farrelly Brothers deracinate a Jewish classic. But the brutish schtick got old a long time ago.
Some people think Ebenezer Scrooge is—
Well, he’s not. But guess who is …
All Three Stooges!
—Adam Sandler, “The Chanukkah Song” (1996)
Personally, I’ve yet to meet anyone who mistook Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge for a Jew, but I get Adam Sandler’s point.
A rich miser (who abhors Christmas), Scrooge embodies one sort of Jewish stereotype and, by not being a Jew, renders it universal. But what about the other half of Sandler’s stanza? “Guess who is,” he triumphantly riddles as, sensing the impending rhyme, the college audience starts to cheer. The Three Stooges, revived after a fashion in the new Farrelly Brothers movie of the same title, embody a particular sort of non-Jewish stereotype, which is to say—they’re idiots.
The Queens neighborhood in which I grew up was divided between Jews and Catholics (Irish and Italians), although the public schools I attended were almost entirely Jewish. I consequently picked up a lot of Yiddish or Yinglish words and expressions as a kid without any idea that they were Yiddish. They were just words. One of the first Yiddish expressions that I understood was Yiddish, which is to say something that Jews might use only among themselves, was goyishe kop. To say someone had a “goyishe kop” meant that they were willfully, even belligerently, idiotic.
A Jew could be a shlemiel, a shlemazl, a shmo, a shmegegge, a shlepper, a shnorrer, a shtarker, a zhlub, a nudnik, a gonef, or a shmuck. Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, and, especially, the Marx Brothers were, at various points, all these things. But a Jew by definition could not possibly be as stupid, ignorant, or mindlessly violent as a gentile, which may be why Adam Sandler loved the Stooges and I couldn’t stand them. (Historical note: The Stooges revival is a later Boomer phenomenon that actually began in the what-me-worry Reagan-era 1980s. Further fun fact: Mel Gibson, who co-produced the 2000 made-for-TV bio-pic, The Three Stooges, is also a big fan. Did he identify with them? Or was it something else?)
Jews, at least in my experience, were funny; the Three Stooges, whose ancient two-reel comedies replaced those of Spanky and Our Gang (aka the Little Rascals) as weekday afternoon TV fodder around the time I entered fifth grade and had no small impact on the schoolyard culture at PS 26, were not. They were idiots—although the gibbering, finger-fluttering man-child Curly was weird enough to at least seem a genuine idiot. (I’ve heard that he particularly impressed Michael Jackson. Some even think he inspired Jackson’s Moon Walk.) Moe was a mean guy and a hitter. Larry looked like a poor excuse for a Marx brother.
Larry’s mock Einstein Jewfro made him seem the most ethnic Stooge, but really they all were. The original Stooges were the Besonhurst-born sons of Litvish immigrants Jennie and Solomon Horwitz. Solomon was a garment-cutter, but he had once been a yeshiva student, in Vilna no less. The three youngest Horwitz sons, Harry Moses, Samuel, and Jerome, were gung-ho Americans, changing their surname to Howard and knocking around vaudeville—sometimes as Jolson-imitating blackface mammy-singers—before they were out of their teens. Moe began as single act, then teamed with brother Shemp in 1916; six years later, the Howard boys joined Ted Healy as his Two Stooges. Shemp left the act to go solo and was replaced by kid brother Curly, nicknamed for his shaven kop.
Healy recruited a third Stooge in the Philadelphia song-and-dance man Larry Fine (né Louis Feinberg), a bit more cultured than the Howards in that he could play the violin. Healy and his Stooges graduated from vaudeville to Broadway—leaving New York for Hollywood in the post-Jazz Singer talkie stampede. They made a short at Fox (the studio that, mutatis mutandis, would produce the Farrellys’ film), went to MGM, and then, cutting loose from Healy, landed at Columbia, the most frugal of the majors, where between 1934 and 1956 they would grind out 174 two-reel comedies. (The machine kept rolling. When Curly died of a heart attack in 1947, he was replaced by Shemp.) No longer Healy’s Stooges, they were now, in effect, Columbia boss Harry Cohn’s. In their decades at the studio, the Stooges worked for sweatshop wages, never earning more than $20,000 each per annum. When the comedy unit was disbanded in 1956, Moe was hired by the studio as a messenger. And then, the shorts were sold to TV.
This is more or less the show biz saga told by the 2000 TV bio-pic. The yuk and yuck meisters Peter and Bobby Farrelly had something else in mind. A decade in the making, their project was, at various times, mentioned as a vehicle for stars or name actors Russell Crowe, Jim Carrey (who sported a modified Moe bowl-cut in Dumb and Dumber, the 1994 gross-out comedy that made the Farrellys’ reputation), Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Paul Giamatti, and even (too much to hope for) Mel Gibson. The Farrelly movie would not be “The Three Stooges Story” but rather a Three Stooges story—a wide-screen, color, all-star production designed to super-simulate the Stooges, the way that Chinatown super-simulated old-school film noir.
In Damsels in Distress, preppy auteur Whit Stillman fetishizes a world of limits, quite contrary to the Jewish director to whom he’s often compared