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.
The movie is that, although somewhat downscaled in the absence of name talent. (The Stooges are played by Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso, who does a credible Curly imitation.) The Three Stooges is also a recognizable Farrelly joint, replete with elaborately tasteless gags as when the Stooges wield newborn infants as weapons in a pissing contest or when a peanut lodged in a dolphin’s blow-hole is expelled with such force that it winds up in a lion’s keester and … Somehow they got Bob Dylan to lease them the first few lines of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” (Was he a Stooges fan, too?) There are even a few political digs. A villainous bimbo is shown in bed reading The Weekly Standard (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk), and the Stooge mayhem occasions a plug for universal health care. A closing disclaimer, supposedly featuring the filmmakers themselves, warns against eye pokes, but the movie’s most radical idea is that the contemporary equivalent of the Stooges is the reality TV show Jersey Shore. (Imagine a super-simulation of that.)
Not that I much care but the Farrelly film isn’t a desecration. (That would be the Woody Allen story “This Nib For Hire,” which turns the Stooges into Beckett characters: “Calmly and for no apparent reason the dark-haired man took the nose of the bald man in his right hand and slowly twisted it in a long counterclockwise circle.”) Rather, The Three Stooges is what son-of-Brooklyn Curly might have called a “con-voy-shun.” The Stooge impersonators are no more witless than the originals but they are different.
As reconfigured by the Farrellys (and part of their concept from the script’s first draft), Curly, Larry, and Moe are the products of a Catholic orphanage and, to the degree that the movie has a narrative, it concerns their good-hearted, knuckle-headed, amply violent attempts to save the institution from being sold. In his recently published The New Jew in Film, Nathan Abrams ascribes specifically Jewish content to the Farrellys’ 1998 classic There’s Something About Mary in the grotesque schlemielishness of Ben Stiller zippering a bit of his scrotum. But the Farrelly Stooges are positively not Jewish—although there is a vestigial trace. The meanest nun in the orphanage, Sister Mary Mengele [sic], is played in drag by Larry David (the Farrellys’ original choice for Larry) as a de facto fourth Stooge.
So, are these universalized or at least deracinated Stooges a liberation? Not entirely.
I couldn’t at age 10 but I now embrace my inner Stoogishness. The guys may not make me laugh but I do feel a connection. Angry Moe suggests a tyrannical, frustrated immigrant father; the spectacle of dysfunctional brothers squabbling their way through one failed enterprise after another is a nightmare of non-adaptation. Moreover, their shorts do shout out with gratuitous snatches of Yiddish. The best-known occurs in Mutts to You (1938) where Larry, supposedly speaking Chinese, tells a cop to bug off in fluent, idiomatic Yinglish: “Hak mir nisht ayn tshaynik [don’t rattle my tea-pot] and I don’t mean efsha [maybe]!” And, no efsha about it, the Stooges did make a prematurely anti-fascist movie, albeit one so lowbrow as to have escaped the scrutiny of the 1941 Senate hearings that investigated Hollywood for its supposedly war-mongering anti-German movie propaganda.
This notable achievement is You Nazty Spy!in which, wearing an oversized military great coat and combing his hair to one side of his forehead, Moe plays the dictator of Moronika with Curly and Larry his Field Marshal and Minister of Propaganda. The movie was released in January 1940, nine months in advance of Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Additionally striking are the ways in which the Stooges foreground themselves as Jews, shouting “Sholom Aleichem” in unison in their first scene, expressing an irrational love of blintzes and sour cream in another. The sequel I’ll Never Heil Again (1941) is borderline blasphemous including “Yom Kippers” as a country that Moronika plans to conquer.
Mike Gold wrote Jews Without Money; the Stooges are Jews Who Aren’t Funny. Most of their jobs are menial, and there’s a poignant quality to their gross travesties of respected “Jewish” roles (doctors, movie moguls, comics). In 1949, the same year that the Stooges appeared in Vagabond Loafers, Harold Rosenberg published an essay called “The Pathos of the Proletariat.” The Stooges embody another pathos—that of the half-Americanized, lumpen proletariat prosteh yid. Stunted, exploited, self-brutalized, they enact and reenact and re-reenact the trauma of those wretched refuseniks who never recovered from steerage. Taken as a single, monstrous 174-part movie, you could say that’s the Jewish epic that they made.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.