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  • Shut Your Yap
  • Tony Osborne
Peter Seely and Gail W. Pieper. Stoogeology: Essays on the Three Stooges. McFarland, 2007. 280 pages $35.00.

That the Three Stooges’ lowbrow antics often veil layers of depth is an irony not lost on highbrow aficionados. Take the linguistic richness of Larry’s punch line to Moe (who’s going to a pawnshop): “While you’re there, hock me a tshaynik.” Tshaynik means teakettle, explains Michael Wex, in his book on Yiddish culture, Born to Kvetch, while “hock” is a pun on hak, meaning to knock; thus, metaphorically, Larry is telling Moe, “Stop rattling like a kettle,” or in a lower register, “shut your yap.”

This gag recalls the trio’s early stage roots and hints at the influence of Yiddish theatre. Like many stars of the early Talkies, the bothers Moe and Curly Howard and their sidekick, Larry Fine, honed their skills on the vaudeville circuit, where their shtick was slapstick, observes Faye Ringel, in “Slap-shtick: The Three Stooges in the Context of Jewish Humor and Vaudeville,” one of nineteen scholarly essays constituting Stoogeology.

The better essays reveal details about the Stooges’ scripts, directors, and Columbia Pictures’ penny-pinching, or about popular culture and history. Ringel, for example, notes the etymological distinctions between “shtick” and “slapstick,” which are often used imprecisely. Shtick derives from stuck, Yiddish/German for “piece” or “play.” Hence, shtick came to mean “stage dialogue” or “gag,” and finally “comic bit.” In contrast, slapstick is as old as Roman comedy and refers to two flat pieces of wood slapped together to feign the sound of violence (129). Ringel delineates historical examples of Jewish slapstick, or “physical” humor, in a quest to save the tradition from oblivion. Because the Stooges were assimilated into nonethnic mainstream American culture, she notes, they “did not register as Jewish with most audiences” (133). But the ethnic roots of their humor are illuminating.

A good many of Stoogeology’s essays blanket the lads in the de rigueur academic concerns of our day—race, ethnicity, gender—promising, at first glance, forced, predictable, ponderous, and decidedly un-fun reading. But this isn’t always quite the case. In “Europeans and the Stooges: The Other ‘Other,’” Peter Seely suggests that stereotypical portrayals of Europeans often slip through unchecked because the Euros “are without a lobby to protest” (217). Sadly, the Three Stooges are not above exploiting the “lingering stereotype of the Scot as cheap.” In The Hot Scots (1948) and its remake, Scotched in Scotland (1954), an earl offers the Stooges a “wee snifter” but “merely allows them to sniff the cork” (219).

Then there is “Deconstructing the Three Stooges: Freud’s Concept of the Id, Ego, and Superego,” by Tim Snyder, who believes the Three Stooges harbor a latent death wish. He discovers abundant evidence of this in their films. The Stooges appear to be driven by Thanatos, the so-called death instinct that is a powerful undercurrent in the personality. The Stooges consistently put themselves in positions that are not only stupid but life-threatening. The Thanatos drive in their characters appears to override the life instincts, which push for the preservation of the individual (96). But perhaps another drive is at play in the Stooges’ shtick, one that Freud would also doubtless call instinctual—the need to eat.

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From 1934 to 1958 the Three Stooges made 190 short films for Columbia. It was said that in twenty-four years they never got a raise. This was essentially true. After the first few years, the Stooges earned approximately $2,000—which they always split in three—for each short or two-reeler, a 15-minute filler that preceded the feature film. Although the Stooges made millions for Columbia, especially in later syndication revenues, neither the Stooges nor their heirs got another penny. (The Stooges supplemented their film income with live appearances.)

Notorious for its tight-fisted ways, Columbia frequently recycled usable footage. For example, the burlesque sketch the Stooges performed in Gents Without Cents [End Page 87] (1944) was shot for, and cut from, the low-budget musical comedy Good Luck, Mr. Yates (1943). This nice piece of detective...


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