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Sunday, July 19, 2015

There’s Something (Fine) About Larry (Fine)

Oh, no thanks. I don't wear hats. Why would I with a head of hair like this? (Larry Fine)

For many of us, there is a hierarchy of Stoogedom. You may be one of those high-minded types who don't like the Three Stooges and that is your prerogative (though I can’t help wishing a bear driving a car would run over your foot). It’s an acquired taste some never acquire, like crunchy peanut butter.

At the top of my Stooge hierarchy is Curly (Jerome), youngest of the three Howard (Horwitz) brothers. I know it's obvious but I make no apology for it. If you want to make an issue of it I’ll command a mollusk to rise from your soup and clamp onto your nose. After that there’s Shemp (Samuel). He was the first Third Stooge and jumped in again after his brother Curly stepped down. Shemp had his moments but he was no Curly. If you disagree we can step outside (well, I’ll stay inside and lock the door after you step out).


No disrespect intended, but let's also agree that Joe Besser and Joe DeRita were the least of the Third Stooges. Besser took over after Shemp’s passing, at a time when the Stooge magic was fading. DeRita was the last Third Stooge, unless you want to get technical about it. I don’t. Go look it up if you need to (and watch out for that paint bucket).

If I had to choose a Stooge for the bottom spot it would be Besser, who was whiny and didn’t seem to have the Stooge thing down. But Curly Joe wasn't much better and so that’s putting a fine point on it, like comparing an eye poke to having your beak tweaked. Or a saw raked over your head vs. being clanked with a steel bar (that bends to conform to the shape of your head).

Then there’s Moe (Moses), who got his start with vaudevillian Ted Healy before the Stooges existed and who was the first Stooge. Though he acted like an older brother (a magnificently ill-tempered and violent older brother) Moe was a few years younger than Shemp. You could say that Moe was the foundation stone of the mighty edifice that was the Stooges. Without a Moe figure there wouldn’t have been anyone to wreak mayhem and so there would have been no reason for the Stooges to exist. But you can't really rank Moe in the hierarchy or admire him. At least no more than you’d gather around a building and marvel at its foundation (and make sure no one walks by and brains you with a long plank).

Which brings us to Larry Fine (Louis Feinberg). The only Stooge without a shared surname, unless you count Joe or Curly Joe. I don't. Like Moe, he was a fixture throughout the Stooges' career (and had a younger brother nicknamed Moe, trivia fans). Like Moe, he was overshadowed by the Third Stooges and also languished in the shadow of Moe himself. But the Stooges were The Three Stooges, after all. One can’t imagine Moe and Curly or Moe and Shemp as a comedy duo any more than you can imagine Groucho and Harpo without Chico – the Larry Fine of the Marx Brothers.

I’ve come to appreciate Larry's Larryness more these days. Though I don’t watch nearly as much of the Stooges. By which I mean not even a tiny fraction as much as I did when they aired for an hour every weekday afternoon, at the time I arrived home from school and languished on the couch.

When my few Stooge-obsessed friends and I did impersonations our focus – naturally – was on Curly, with a smattering of Shemp. But we never impersonated Moe. Why would you? Well, maybe if you had some unresolved issues with aggression. Ditto for Larry. How would you? For all of my Stoogeaphilia and the trillions of man hours spent watching Stooges shorts, I can’t recall many Larryisms.

Like Harpo and Chico Marx, Larry sometimes used his musical talent to comedic effect. His preferred instrument, the violin, which he took up to strengthen an arm injured during childhood. He learned to play it well enough to take part in a children’s concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra and considered a career as a serious musician. Perhaps more useful, he was a boxer in his younger days, something that presumably taught him how to take a punch.

Then there's the hair. Let's restate the obvious. Howard, Howard, Howard and Fine each had a very distinctive hairstyle. There was Curly’s minimal do, Moe’s bowl cut, Shemp’s unruly mop, slicked down and parted in the middle. Best of all was Larry “Porcupine” Fine, with that absurdly unkempt tangle of hair antennae that predated Bozo the Clown.

This spectacular hair malfunction first cropped up in the Healy years, when Larry’s boss spied his just washed, uncombed hair and told him to leave it alone. It was fortuitous for Moe, giving him an convenient handhold when he needed to wreak mayhem on Larry, sometimes yanking out a handful or two, with sound effects that elicited a cringe.

But Larry’s signature move was the Cossack dance. A misnomer, it's actually a Ukrainian folk dance. But let’s not quibble. You know what I mean. Cross your arms, squat into a sitting position and dance, you fool – while your heart and knees explode. In Stoogedom, this move was trotted out whenever someone got a mouse down their back (happens to me all the time) or whatnot and began to flail around in a dancey sort of way. The boys would get into the act and Larry would assume the position. Pre-Stooge photos show him doing it while he played the violin (and with a full head of wavy hair, it should be noted). Combined with a healthy dose of the Curly Shuffle it was comedic gold. No, platinum.

So let’s agree to agree that Curly is the pinnacle of Stoogedom and be done with it (I got a big pair of pliers aimed at the honker of them that says otherwise). Maybe there are Shemp fans in the Stoogiverse and maybe even a Moe fan or two, though it's hard to imagine. As for Larry, his understated talents have not gone totally unnoticed.

Penn Jillette (whose silent partner Teller is a native Philadelphian, like Larry and Joe DeRita) acknowledged the mastery of Curly but cast a vote for the offbeat stylings of Larry, “possibly the most skilled and most eccentric of the Stooges.” Farrelly brother Peter once put forth the theory that true appreciation of Larry’s essential Larryness comes later in life. Maybe I can buy that.

Billy West, who voiced the role of Stimpy on The Ren & Simpy Show, was known for his impersonations of Larry and supposedly summoned his inner Larryness when playing Stimpy. And, of course, the Farrellys teamed up in 2012 for The Three Stooges, a big-budget flick that starred three actors I don't really know. Except for Sean Hayes, the Will & Grace guy. Seems Sean Penn was also being considered for this role at some point. Which might have been interesting but not enough to entice me to watch it. If I've got 90 minutes of Stooge time I'll not be squandering it on false Stooges, thank you.
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