Three Stooges study more than pie in sky

December 22, 1995

For a scholar contracted to write two books on The Three Stooges, the epitome of slapstick comedy, Jon Solomon has a surprisingly pessimistic view of cultural life in the United States, writes Tim Cornwell.

Academics' growing interest in the study of cartoons, newspapers, toys and fashion, he suggests, is because "they are becoming painfully aware that our culture is not producing much in the line of operas, symphonies, paintings and so on. We really live in a society where the popular dominates".

Professor Solomon, a professor of classics at the University of Arizona, is the leading figure among a cluster of United States academics who grew up with The Three Stooges and have returned to them in scholarly middle-age, concluding there is much more to Larry, Moe, and Curly than a custard pie in the face.

"They are a phenomenon of popular culture, and popular culture is going to be one of the most noted contributions of American civilisation," he said. "When you take a look at the film productions of this century, they are the longest running, most influential and certainly most enduring comedy team."

No one is known to be actually teaching The Three Stooges as an independent subject - yet. But Professor Solomon is contemplating establishing a voluntary seminar, and there is talk of a book of Stooge papers published by a university press. At the annual meetings of the Popular Culture Association, which has done much to promote the serious study of popular art, the Stooges have their own panel, a rare honour.

The original Stooges were Curly Howard, Moe Howard, and Larry Fine. From a "post-Vaudevillian" team of comics, they moved into film in the early days of the "talkies", then to television as that medium became popular. Their total of 200 films and television shorts over 24 years, it is said, hold up a comic mirror to US society from the Depression to the postwar and early Eisenhower years.

In the typical plot they are mistakenly hired for a job by a desperate or confused member of the upper classes. They carry it out energetically and incompetently, and usually triumph over their social betters. The stories are littered with bad puns, belly laughs and pie fights. Professor Solomon, who teaches Latin and Greek and has won numerous teaching awards, has edited books on the god Apollo and also on the use of computers in teaching the classics. He is the author of The Ancient World in the Cinema and Ancient Roman Feast and Recipes.

But his library contains every Stooges film, and his newest project is a Stooges companion for the company that won modern royalty rights after a bitter and well-publicised court fight.

Don Morlan, professor of communications at the University of Dayton, Ohio, meanwhile, watched the Stooges as a child and then crossed paths with them again in his research on propaganda films. At a time of strong isolationist sentiment in the US, the Stooges were among the first to satirise Hitler and the Axis powers in the short You Nazty Spy. And The Yolks on Me, where one dramatic device is an ostrich egg from a bird that has been eating gunpowder, plays out against the controversial wartime internment of Japanese-American citizens.

Some people have also compared them to Comedia Del Arte, with the simple common man beating the aristocracy. "Almost every pie fight occurred in a formal aristocratic setting, a dinner party or cocktail party. They end up walking out leaving rich people throwing pies," said Professor Morlan.

"If you had mentioned this ten years ago you would have been laughed at," said Peter Seely, a professor in the communications and literature department at Illinois Benedictine College, with 2,300 students and affiliated with the Benedictine monastic order.

Professor Seely has already delivered two Stooges papers at the Popular Culture Association, on the images of African-Americans in their films, and the use of puns and plays on words, and is preparing a third. Professor Seely, who teaches a class in television and script writing, says some colleagues are a little wary of his interest. He insists the Stooges had a "tremendous influence" in early television but admits: "The pie fights never really did a whole lot for me."

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