The Kings of Lowbrow Comedy

If cloning Dolly the Sheep is morally questionable, what about cloning the Three Stooges?

Moe, Larry and Curly have been reborn in the persons of Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso, in the Farrelly Brothers' ("Dumb and Dumber") big screen update of "The Three Stooges," opening Friday.

"In a way it's a fit," says author Bernard F. Dick of Teaneck. "Because is there anybody today more lowbrow than the Farrelly brothers?"

Dick's book, "The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures," is a definitive study of the oft-derided "lowbrow" Hollywood studio whose most lowbrow product was its series of wildly popular "Three Stooges" shorts, produced from 1934 to 1957.

"I don't want to say that they acted like kids who failed kindergarten repeatedly, but you got that impression," Dick says.

To say that the Stooges - Moe Howard (of the violent temper and pre-Beatle bowl haircut), Larry Fine (the frizzy-haired patsy) and Curly Howard (the bald-headed lunatic, and Moe's real-life brother) - were not critical darlings is to be kind.

Each era has its lowest common denominator of comedy. Back in the day, intellectuals who praised Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers considered the Three Stooges the ultimate debasement of slapstick: crude, vulgar, violent. Which, of course, is exactly why kids loved them.

"It was just very lowbrow physical comedy, and that had an appeal to children," Dick says. "Because let's face it - children are naturally cruel people. But there was also an innocence about [the Stooges], too."

The new film by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, reportedly in "development hell" for more than 15 years due to repeated casting changes, sets the action in the present day. It introduces a back story about the Stooges' childhood in an orphanage and features walk- ons by reality show stars like "Jersey Shore's" Snooki and The Situation.

But mainly, these are the same old Stooges. Moe (Diamantopoulos) still clonks people over the head and pokes his fellow stooges in the eyes with two fingers. Larry (Hayes) still whines. Curly (Sasso) still barks like a dog and goes "Nyuk nyuk nyuk."

"I remember when they were first shown on television, there was a warning: Little boys, don't poke your sisters in the eyes," says Dick, professor emeritus at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

" 'The Three Stooges' had a kind of anarchic spirit, but isn't there violence in comedy to begin with?" he says.

The original star

Actually, as all fans know, there were at least six Stooges. There were Moe, Larry and Curly, sure, but after Curly's death in 1952 there were also his replacements Shemp (Moe and Curly's brother), Joe Besser and "Curly Joe" DeRita.

Less well known, these days, is the original star of the team. Just who were the Three Stooges stooges to? His name was Ted Healy - and he was star of the show when the act arrived in Hollywood from vaudeville in 1930, under the name Ted Healy and His Stooges. But since Healy was reportedly almost as abusive as the Three Stooges pretended to be onscreen - and notably less popular with audiences - he was soon left by the wayside.

In any event, the Stooges soon found an authority figure just as formidable: Columbia's head man, Harry Cohn.

Cohn, who was the model for the producer who gets a horse's head in his bed in "The Godfather," was widely regarded as the most awful of the Hollywood moguls. He is said to have kept the Stooges on tenterhooks for more than 20 years - telling them that the market for shorts was drying up, making them sweat over contracts that were not renewed until the very last minute. As a result the Stooges - among the most successful properties Columbia had - never got a raise in their entire career.

Which is not to say that Cohn, in his way, didn't have a soft spot for the threesome. He even gave them wholly inappropriate walk- ons in "prestige" features, like "My Sister Eileen." Maybe, Dick says, Cohn felt a personal connection.

"He was vulgar," Dick says. "I think they reminded him of himself."

Don't forget the original Stooges

After you see the rebooted - also re-slapped and re-poked - "Three Stooges" on the big screen, check out the originals on DVD.

* Original shorts and features: Eight volumes of shorts are available in two- and three-disc sets. "The Three Stooges Collections" for 1934-1936, 1937-1939, 1940-1942, 1943-1945, 1946- 1948, 1949-1951, 1952-1954 and 1955-1959 are all available from Sony. Additionally, specialty sets include things like "Curly Classics" and "Fancy Mixed Nyuks," as well as the team's late-era features, like "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" and "The Three Stooges in Orbit." At sonypictures.com.

* "Three Stooges" (2000): TV biopic stars Paul Ben-Victor as Moe, Evan Handler as Larry and "The Shield's" Michael Chiklis as Curly. At amazon.com.

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