Pvt. Joe Bowers: Why me? Every time Metsler says, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” I get out of the way.
Sgt. Keller: Yeah, when he says that, you’re not supposed to choose “get out of the way.” It’s supposed to embarrass you into leading – or at least following.
Pvt. Joe Bowers: That doesn’t embarrass me.
— Luke Wilson and Robert Musgrave, “Idiocracy”
The Farrelly Brothers’ recent attempt at a Three Stooges reboot got me going back through the trio’s old short subjects all over again… something about them remains endlessly appealing to males. Especially their inner children. I always thought this had something to do with the essential maleness (not to be confused with manliness) of their shtick — not just their ultra-violent version of slapstick, but the day-to-day experience of being a man, especially back in the day when gender roles were incredibly rigid. The Three Stooges document, to a horrifying degree, what it’s like to be male: running from the cops, trying to find some food, constantly in debt, moving in and out of various jobs, and always, always trying to fix some broken shit and not having very much luck with it.
Then again, maybe it is just the slapstick. My ten-year-old nephew somehow discovered the original shorts on his own, and he thinks they’re hilarious. So who knows? No one’s arguing that the Stooges’ brand of comedy isn’t lowbrow, silly, redundant, and even (consciously) stupid, but it does have a timeless appeal. So much so, in fact, that they seem to have created their own template for trios, especially comedy trios, in American society.
The influence goes all the way back to their very name. In vaudeville parlance, a “stooge” was a fake heckler planted in the audience to help deflect the real ones: the comic in question would let the stooge mock him, then bring him up on stage and make him the butt of his routine. Eventually, this developed into the idea of the “straight man,” someone to play the everyman for the audience’s sake and react to the silliness. Costello had Abbott, for example: a voice of reason flummoxed by some wackiness, or, alternately, a sucker getting played. The Marx Brothers were so brilliant they could change their own dynamic at will: sometimes a character actor stooged for Groucho, or Chico, or Harpo, but just as often Groucho would get played by the other two working together, and at least once a film Chico would play straight man to Harpo. Or they’d all go crazy together, and let the world figure it out.
The Three Stooges began as actual small-s stooges for one Ted Healy, a vaudeville vet who billed them as “Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen” or “…his Three Lost Souls.” Never would they be billed as stooges, for that would give the game away. Yet when Healy, a drunken and abusive man by many accounts, drove his comic foils away, Moe Howard took over. Curly and Larry would play off of Moe, who more or less assumed Ted’s original leadership role. Yet there was a twist: Moe was only slightly smarter than the other two. The world was their straight man. Hence, three stooges.
This presented an interesting dynamic. Curly Howard,Moe’s brother and just about everyone’s favorite Stooge, didn’t have much training but soon proved a natural at being silly, what with his exaggerated physical comedy, array of goofy noises (“nyuck nyuck nyuck!”) and penchant to go rogue. Moe assumed the leadership role, and Curly was the berserker.
So why a Larry?
Larry was the unsung middleman, the relatively ordinary one, the glue that kept the trio together, often reacting to jokes, accidentally getting caught up in Moe and Curly’s interplay, and setting up punchlines. He was naturally funny, but Larry Fine played the everyman more than Moe — you often felt, when watching him, that his ability to fade into a scene was allowing him to stand in for you, allowing you to enter the Stooges’ strange little world. Thus, appreciating the Larryness of Larry is reserved for comedy experts only. To quote one of the Farrellys who orchestrated that recent movie reboot:
Growing up, first you watched Curly, then Moe, and then your eyes got to Larry. He’s the reactor, the most vulnerable. Five to fourteen, Curly; fourteen to twenty-one, Moe. Anyone out of college, if you’re not looking at Larry, you don’t have a good brain.
The use of three idiots and no straight man created a perfect comedic balance that allowed — insisted, really — that all three stooges be involved. It utilized a template that had only before been seen in the world of circus clowns, and never in American film comedy. There’s the Leader, who dishes out punishment and hatches schemes, the Berserker, the one with the strongest personality and often the one who creates the most trouble, and the Larry, who holds it all together. Observe:
LEADER / BERSERKER / LARRY
Scarecrow/Cowardly Lion/Tin Man
However, I maintain that the trio dynamic is a durable comic construction specifically because it comes from the natural inclination of people, characters, and institutions to assume these roles when in groups of three, and that you can find The Larry in just about any trio, whether comic or not. Observe:
The Good/The Ugly/The Bad
So the next time you see someone hanging back around two outsize personalities — or if you find yourself forced into that role — remember that it’s the Larrys who restore harmonious balance, allowing the blustery Moes and Curlys of this world to exist. S0metimes, there’s a certain quiet honor and even dignity in getting out of the way. (Porcupine.)