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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.

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The Three Stooges (Will Sasso, left, Chris Diamantopoulos, and Sean Hayes). (Peter Iovino/Twentieth Century Fox)

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 ( 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.


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NxtYrInJersalem says:

OK. Not sure what your article is getting at exactly. Are you finally PRO or ANTI “3 Stooges”…and I’m not talkng about the movie. Who cares about THAT dreck? The Farrellys are stupid, and worse…not funny. All of their movies are total cr-ap. Gibson, like him or not, IS a very creative guy and would have treated the Stooges with real respect and honor. This movie is an abomination. It’s a lie. Why make a movie about real people when it’s a fiction? I have corresponded with Paul Howard, son of Moe Howard, and Paul said his Dad was a good father and husband…and a complex man. Curly was about the nicest guy in Hollywood. Larry was an extroverted fun-loving guy and a faithful husband. A great story could have been told about all three men. Instead, we have a bad caricature…a stupid cartoon.  These good men, these comedy geniuses, deserve much better. Finally, the Jews of Hollywood should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this foul movie to be made. A pox…. 

    churchill49 says:

    With regard to your first question, you’re obviously not familiar with J. Hoberman’s writing. What does it matter anyway? Can’t you make up your own mind?
    Personally, I find the Farrellys stupid AND funny. (Do you consider the Stooges “smart?”) And I don’t know what YOU’RE getting at exactly, but the movie was never supposed to be about “real people.” It’s about the characters of The Three Stooges. I don’t see any reason why the movie you want can’t still be made, considering it’s nothing like this one.

    You seem to be misunderstanding that Mel Gibson was once attached to play a role in this exact same project — the Farrellys’ Three Stooges. So I’m not sure how much more “respect and honor” he would have been able to bring to it.

      NxtYrInJersalem says:

      I believe that Gibson (or someone w/ his creativity and stature) should have directed and produced THE Stooges movie…on his own. I believe the Stooges story, a biography, in the right hands, could be as good or better than “Chaplin”… the award-winning film w/ Robert Downey Jr. from 20 yrs ago. I saw Moe Howard at my college in the mid 70’s and he talked extensively about the guys.  It was a fascinating lecture. He sobbed uncontrollably when he spoke about Curly. His story was important. I believe there is real heroism is in trying to make people laugh. To make a movie no different than The Addams Family or Beverly Hillbillys movies is to dishonor the genius and humanity of real men. I hope one day someone will try to tell their story. The real story.

         “The Eddie Cantor Story” is better than Attenbore’s “Chaplin.”

        RockPesc says:

        No offense, NxtYr, but you appear (at least in writing) to be as thick-skulled as the Stooges are knuckleheaded. For crying out loud, IT’S NOT A BIOGRAPHICAL FILM! It doesn’t have to be (for obvious reasons since the Howards made their mark on the world via stage and screen) and, therefore, it ISN’T a biography.

        Allow me to elaborate, since you didn’t seem to hear churchill49’s response to your original post. The film is NOT intended, nor is required to be, a “heroic” story about the REAL LIVES of Moe and Curly Howard, and Larry Fine, because the Farrelly Brothers are rightfully focused on what made these guys FAMOUS. And what made them famous? A FICTIONAL act about three idiots and their nonsensical, slapsticky exploits in a FICTIONAL world, an act intended for a viewing audience and whose SOLE purpose was to generate laughter. Why there’s any story AT ALL is due simply to the Howards’ (and Fine’s) Vaudeville-turned-TV act known as the “Three Stooges.” (FYI The quotes signifies the FICTIONAL nature of the characters.) Again, they were PLAYING idiots and this — and this alone! — is what made them famous. It’s why we’re even talking about them.

        And if you think eye-poking and head-hammering is somehow representative of the REAL men who played the idiots on screen, you fail heroically in DISASSOCIATING play from reality. As I kid, I revered the REAL men (I owned and treated like a bible Moe Howard’s pictorial biography “Moe Howard and the 3 Stooges”) because of how different  — intelligent, caring, peaceful, traditional, real (!) — they were from the FICTIONAL ones they played on screen — stupid, violent, provocative, incredible (!) — and I could easily distinguish between the two. I didn’t expect their fictional and real-life characters to be at all similar because of the requisite disassociation that most people are able to make between TV and real life.

        The Farrellys and their movie are concerned only with the FICTIONAL characters, because, again, that’s what’s funny and that’s why we even know about the Howard family and Mr. Fine. Just as we only know about Mel Gibson and Jim Carrey and Russell Crowe. Do we want or need to see biographical films about those guys?

        But this is your real winning statement: “To make a movie no different than The Addams Family or Beverly Hillbillys movies is to dishonor the genius and humanity of real men.” Honestly, this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. So the Addams Family and Beverly Hillbilly’s should ALSO have been about the REAL people who made those forms of HIGH CULTURE? And to not do so is to “dishonor the genius and humanity of real men”, aye? If low-brow, laugh-track-aided comedy represents “genius and humanity,” you really need to turn off the TV. For good. You’ve become addled via that brain-sucking mechanism.

          For starters, ass-wagon….where do you get off calling me names? The conversation was amiable til now…where you start with your condescending cr-p. Anyway…

           I am hardly the only person commenting here who thinks this movie stinks and is an insult to the memory of some very talented men. Their work speaks for itself and has a revered place in “Entertainment” history. So for two  coin-operated slobs (the Farrelly brothers)… whose big contribution film- comedy is “Ben Stiller’s semen in Cameron Diaz’ hair”… to treat  the Stooges like so many characters  in a bad MAD TV “bit”…yeah, is a big disappointent to true 3 Stooges fans. And yeah, I do believe that , like “Chaplin,”  a 3S film done with as much skill would be a heck of a lot better than what the F’s have shovelled us. End of story.

          So move on, Skippy. Yr boring and soul-less. 

          RockPesc says:

          My apologies, Kurt. Seriously. I should have been more careful with my words. No point in stirring up emotions, especially over something so ultimately meaningless as a movie. And, actually, after thinking about it, I agree that perhaps a biopic could/should be done about the Stooges…by someone else besides the Farrellys, of course. I’d certainly watch it. But since the Farrellys had for a long time wanted to do a movie on the Stooges — and, since, no one else had done one — their version here is still an homage of sorts to the slapstick hilarity that was the Three Stooges. Despite its inaccuracies (the Catholic thing, as you mention), it’s 21st century settings and situations, and the gross-out humor, it — via the actors — does a surprisingly good imitation of the characters and their antics. In that sense, it’s an accurate representation of the Stooges on stage and screen. Remember: the Stooges in their TV act were just doing extreme slapstick (to slaphappy results) in unreal comedic situations and certainly weren’t making any references to their real lives. No one would have expected them to. And that’s all the Farrellys are doing here.

it is anti semitic to make the Jewish stooges into goyim

    AllenLowe says:

    no one’s  mentioned the most salient fact – that you don’t assign someone to review a movie who hates the subjects!  I love the Stooges, but the point is that Hoberman had obviously already made up his mind. And, btw, Sister Mary Mengele has gotta be one of the funniest names I’ve heard in years.

The original Three Stooges are as American as apple pie, which must be why this writer hates them so much. For generations countless boys have imitated their antics in the give and take of growing up on neighborhood streets and playgrounds, the surest form of flattery. I even know a Gentile doctor in Chicago who still keeps the famous “Golf With Your Friends” image of the Stooges in a frame on the wall in one of his exam rooms. Hoberman obviously didn’t think too hard about writing this piece. Curly died in 1952, not 1947. And $20,000 a year in the 1950s hardly constitutes poverty wages. Newly minted Harvard PhD’s in the humanities in the early 1960s were lucky to get $6,000 a year at places such as USC.   

The whole goy/convent angle was lifted from landsman John Landis’ “The Blues Brothers.” Doesn’t that count for something?

    iyar says:

    but the Blues Brothers were goyim.

      That was my first reaction, when I read this piece.  In fact, if you re-look at Blues Brothers, there are a number of “Stoogish” bits, particularly re: the orphanage scenes.

      BTW, Apparently, Michael Wex sees a Yiddishness in the Stooges, if you read “Born to Kvetch.”

“Historical note: The Stooges revival is a later Boomer phenomenon that actually began in the what-me-worry Reagan-era 1980s. ”  WRONG!!!  The Stooges revival occurred in the early 1960s, when the theatrical shorts were sold for television.  They became so popular again, they were revived in several feature films. Thus, the addition of Curly Joe DeRita as well as the new theatrical feature films “Snow White and the Three Stooges”, “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules”, “The Three Stooges in Orbit” and “The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze”, not to mention appearances in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, “4 For Texas” and “The Outlaws Are Coming”.  Please do some research if you are going to talk about Stooge history.

Not only is John Schultz correct in his assertion that the Stooges phenomenon began when the shorts were sold to television, there are a few other factual errors that as a staunch Stoogiologist it’s my duty (and humanity) to point out. The last Stooges short (“Sappy Bullfighters”) was released in 1959, not 1956. Curly had his heart attack in 1947, but didn’t die until 1952. And the boys made 190 shorts for Columbia, not 174.

So if the new Three Stooges were running around with peyot/peyas flapping in the wind, occasionally calling each other “schmuck” or “shlemiel”, would the author have liked the film better?  I really do not get the point of this review/column.  I’d like the 2-3 minutes of my life back that it took to read it.

    SuraWeiss says:

    Maybe to warn us not to bother to take ourselves or our kids to see the movie?  I thought I had liked the Stooges as a kid (false memory), so I took my daughter (then aged 14ish) to a revival at a primo revival theatre in Glendale.  I didn’t care for them, and neither did she.  Maybe it’s a boy’s thing?

PhillipNagle says:

I must also take issue with the authors yiddish.  “Goyeshe kop” ie the brains of a gentile merely meant stupid.  Don’t be too shocked with “The Three Stooges”, remember what they did with the  “Private Benjamin” TV show. 

Tinteardrop says:

“Jews, at least in my experience, were funny; the
Three Stooges,…were not.”

Actually, they were and still are.  I can’t makes heads or tails of the reasoning put forward in the piece and only know one thing…they made us laugh.  

Although you couldn’t pay me to go see this new movie

Maybe I have a blind spot, not being Jewish myself, but although the actors who were “The Stooges” for most of their history (not sure is Joe De Rita was Jewish), I never perceived the act as Jewish. Their comedy, while informed by their background and upbringing,  ethnic or cultural identity didn’t seem to be the point. They were just 3 very stupid guys — dumb buddies.

roadog66 says:

I must speak up – It’s simply blasphemy to remake the Three Stooges.  A Boomer phenom?  I couldn’t wait until Captain Tug (elementary school) or Captain Chesapeake (college days) ran a Three Stooges short to restore some sanity to the world.  (Now I can watch instantly for my fix.)  It helped that the Stooges were real  “outsiders” in  the 30’s (during the Great Depression) and 40’s high society they inevitably  encountered as hired help or as frauds.  The Jewish Stooges were helped by their fellow travelers (fellow straight Stooges really) Vernon Dent and Christine McIntyre in their brilliant satires of “high society”, Nazis, or whatever in their films.

Perhaps I am reading too much into the Stooges, but this was brilliant social commentary that makes me laugh to this day.  You loved them or hated them.  Or if you feel the need to remake them, you didn’t get them.

They may have been screwed by Columbia, but they will endure longer than Gone with the Wind.

 Always thought the Stooges shorts were too violent but enjoyed and watched them anyhow. This movie was a major surprise for me from beginning to end and even through the credits.
 Laughed until I cried and then kept laughing. My companion, a movie expert with high standards, agreed that the Farrelly brothers’ film is as good as Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles!

NxtYrInJersalem says:

ps…It was rediculous to make the Stooges Catholic.  It’s a sign of laziness and disrespect. What’s next….a Polish George Carlin? An Eskimo Bernie Mac?  A gay “Martin and Lewis?” Furthermore Churchill, you assert there is  such a thing as “…the characters of the 3 Stooges.” That is wrong. It’s either “the Stooges” (2 or more real men)…or it’s something that IS NOT “the Stooges.” Is there a character of “George Washington?” “FDR?”

    churchill49 says:

    Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Curly Howard were actors. They weren’t playing themselves; they were playing three idiot characters. George Washington and FDR were not characters in comedy acts. The difference is pretty obvious.

    Chana Siegel says:

    Listen, Mongoose, they made the Stooges Catholic because then they could play against nuns. Sister Mary Mengele was *funny*. Nuns in general play funny, most especially to non-Catholics.

      Check it out ya yenta cow…if you think naming good, decent women after some f-cking Nazi maniac is funny….then you single-handedly are setting back the Jewish people a 1000 years. I’m Jewish and personally would like to kick yr fat chazer tuchus all over the room for thinking that’s even remotely funny. But if you’re one of those moronic MOT’s who finds the likes of  Adam Sandler are Pauly Shore funny, then I understand and kinda feel sorry for you. PS…the Stooges definitely would have thought the Farrelly “Mengele nun-shtick” total BS and would have never condoned it.

Loved the words and never saw them as Jews. 
But all these years I DID think “gonef” was spelled with an i.Perhaps allatime was projecting as a lying thieving Jew, which I was as a youth, andwhen I reached stooge-age I lied about the things I stole…

Loved the words and never saw them as Jews. 
But all these years I DID think “gonef” was spelled with an i.Perhaps allatime was projecting as a lying thieving Jew, which I was as a youth, andwhen I reached stooge-age I lied about the things I stole…

FrankNormal says:

Really ! This is a Farlley Bros movie and you know how to tune into dumbass 12yo mode if you reference Adam Sandler and Larry David.

Give it a rest Jews like all immigrants worked hard and didn’t get paid enough and got taken advantage but to become world famous or ditch diggers building this country slow your race and creed rant because heir were plenty of poor of all backgrounds and beliefs working hard in factories and vaudeville.

This movie was a simple and silly and decent mimic of the Stooges

I honestly couldn’t tell if you liked the movie or were more concerned about a documentary back story regard how 3 men in 3% of he population may not be perceived as Eiestein


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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.