Making peace with Larry, Moe and Curly

OK, readers, I’m going to tell you something, but I need you to keep it quiet, got it?

Here’s the thing: Next month, I am going to lead a writers workshop about humor in memoir and fiction – plenty of slots still open, by the way. But if it gets out that I’m a fan of the Three Stooges … well, bye bye credibility. It would be like signing up for a class in organic vegetarian cuisine and then finding the instructor of the class in some darkened back seat eating that horrifying new pizza with hot dogs in the crust.

So, having admitted that secret shame, I am now obliged to state for the record that my workshop will not include eye-gouging, noggin-conking or open-handed battery of any kind – except maybe during the critique sessions, but that’s normal.

The cultural re-appraisal of the Stooges is at hand, thanks to the much-advertised new Farrelly brothers’ film, which I saw one recent weekday afternoon, alone, slouched in my seat, my ballcap pulled down over my head in the universally recognized posture that says “Man, I wish they’d go ahead and invent the invisibility cloak already.”

Why the shame? I’m not quite sure myself. Back when I was a 10-year-old kid, yes, we’d riff in the schoolyard about what Chevy Chase and Belushi did on “SNL,” but once the hipness pecking order had been established, we’d always default to Larry, Moe and Curly – and sometimes Shemp; people always forget Shemp.

This was back in the ’70s, mind you, when “contusions and lacerations” were merely bumps and bruises, when you’d pass the time by building plywood ramps and leap over the prone bodies of your buddies on your banana-seat bike with no personal-injury attorneys within sight, when you generally didn’t make it to adulthood without a broken arm somewhere along the way, when pinning your kid brother to the ground and forcing a handful of grass into his mouth was just what you did during a suburban sandlot baseball game – I think it was even in the rule book.

So, of course, we loved the Three Stooges, even though the shorts we saw on TV were already 40 or 50 years old by that time. The Stooges tapped into a prepubescent boy’s sense of humor. Noel Coward didn’t exactly mesh well with Cap’n Crunch.

But today, the Stooges are wildly out of sync with the times, not only for their merry brand of mayhem but for their broad, creaky vaudeville delivery. The new movie is not very good – but Stooges fans will delight that the Farrellys are paying homage to the Stooges more than exploiting them. The actors playing the Stooges are doing the kind of spot-on impersonations that will bring a shiver, or a slap, of recognition to devotees.

Still, the Three Stooges present a vexing problem for many allegedly sophisticated people who have a vested interest in hiding from the world their more cretinous interests, particularly someone like myself who has – no lie – a bobblehead of Curly Howard on his desk at this very moment.

I mean, I laughed at the Stooges’ antics but was appalled by them at the same time. Is this what insanity feels like? When Moe took a chain saw to Curly’s bald skull, it reminded me of that time when I … OK, I’m going to stop there. I know, it sounds bad when I say it but … oh, never mind.

Of course, you know the cultural stereotype – women don’t like the Three Stooges. Supposedly, they’re mystified how anyone could find humor in such crude, idiotic violence. There is no documented instance of a man ever getting a second date by talking about the sublime choreography of the double eye poke on a first date. You might as well brag about your ability at launching snot rockets.

It is more permissible in mixed company to swoon over the Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton, in the same way it’s better to geek out on European soccer than professional wrestling. The Stooges are decidedly downmarket. It is seen as something you outgrow, like “Scooby Doo.”

But what most folks don’t quite get is that dudes of my generation generally loved the Three Stooges because of their loyalty to each other. Neither Larry nor Curly took it personally when Moe slapped them, even if that slap sounded like a thunderclap. To these guys, a double slap was a group hug, and 10-year-old boys – and the men they become – understand that.

When two old male friends see each other on the street, “You get uglier every time I see you” translates as “I love you, man.” When a dad puts his son in a headlock and calls him a “knothead” as my own dad used to do, that’s a kiss on the cheek. It’s the guy code.

And who better to emulate in navigating this cruel old world than Curly? Abused and knocked around, he’s still able to express joy and good cheer. He’s a 10-year-old boy’s idea of the Dalai Lama.
Wait, maybe this is what insanity feels like.

For details on Wallace Baine’s “Throw Cliché Under the Bus” workshop on May 19 at the Capitola Book Café, go to www.memoirjournal.com.

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