"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Shemp Howard was everyman, overachiever

"Shemp" of the Three Stooges laughed out loud when reading "the funnies."
The comic section stays alive in newspapers even as newspapers themselves fade. Papers have been tossing out a lot of dead weight but the funnies seem secure. Papers will stick to whatever works and not be embarrassed about those decisions. They are supposed to have such a lofty purpose in society, and I suspect there was a time when this perception was justified.
Today "the press" is everywhere. But it needn't manifest itself on paper. We are inundated with reporting and expression online through a dizzying array of sources. The sheer quantity has been an impediment for a time.
But the online world gets over every hurdle it confronts; it just takes time sometimes. Systems for the organization of online material, so we can find what we want and depend on it, are still being tweaked. Does anyone doubt we will reach the desired destination? The Internet has flexed its muscles unimpeded, mainly because those who might have a self-interest in stopping it cannot find a way.
Politics and big business have cowered in its presence. The media landscape has been flattened. The process of democratization has been fascinating. The meritocracy of the web has pushed aside that "velvet rope" that journalists once had to be let through, to reach an audience.
I almost have to pinch myself to see if I'm dreaming.
But I can't just mention Shemp (Shemp Howard, in photo) without elaborating further on that comedy. Shemp had the no-win task of filling Curly's shoes when the one-of-a-kind latter became handicapped by the effects of a stroke. I wish medical science could have prolonged Curly's prime. But life went on and the chemistry of the Three Stooges had to be kept intact.
The basic chemistry did in fact survive even if "the third Stooge" wasn't the total crowd-pleaser that his predecessor was.
Let's back up: The Three Stooges didn't become a household name just through impulsive, slapstick jabs at comedy. As one critic once put it, "there was a lot more to The Three Stooges than violence."
The Stooge characters, of course, didn't want to hurt anybody. They connected with people on the most primal level. They seemed happy just to greet each new day with something to do, never mind that they'd make a mess of it. They were undaunted. They weren't crestfallen by their failures.
They moved on to the next challenge. In this sense they reflected the American spirit - the spirit that developed a continent.
Shemp was a trooper in how he filled that void caused by Curly's premature retirement. He knew the Stooges' shtick even though he couldn't bring the laughs like his predecessor. Curly just had that talent i.e. the intangibles, like Don Knotts in the 1960s in "Mayberry."
Knotts had his own successor when he moved on (to movies), and there's no way I could come up with the name of that successor. The new deputy exuded a comic type of air but he wasn't even a shadow of Knotts with his impact on the TV screen (no disrespect intended).
Shemp laughed at the "funnies" during a classic Stooges short called "Sing a Song of Six Pants." They tried making pancakes on an ironing board in that one.
I can't think of Shemp Howard without remembering the movie "Private Buckaroo." I first came upon that 1942 movie during late-night TV many years ago, probably in the early days of many-channel TV (when the movie "It's a Wonderful Live" became a classic because of its availability in the public domain, i.e. through economics).
Watching "Buckaroo," I at first thought "oh, this is another one of those World War II period movies, encapsulating the period for us." But as I watched further, I got kind of an uncomfortable feeling - an eerie type of feeling that there were subtleties projected below the surface.
The movie really wasn't so innocuous. Granted, it was vital for the U.S. to mobilize a fighting force at that time, but this movie was propaganda. It was benevolent propaganda but it was propaganda. As one online observer puts it, "The Army looks like a really fun place in this movie."
Shemp Howard, trumpeter Harry James, the Andrews Sisters and Joe E. Lewis were among the top-billed actors. "Private Buckaroo" was crafted to get young men in America enthused about joining the military.
Shemp seemed a rather odd choice for his role but he performed it like a trooper. Maybe the idea was to make this obviously ungraceful, rather homely man look like he could step into heroic shoes in the military. . .so anyone could! Hollywood isn't stupid.
We can laud Shemp Howard as perhaps the classic overachiever, a guy with limited ability to make you laugh but with perseverance in his craft. Then again, I remember someone once writing of Larry Fine: "You know, Larry was never really very funny (in the Three Stooges) but it wouldn't have been the same without him."
We can argue that the childlike Curly was never truly replaced. Most fans figure that the closest we got to that was a guy named Joe DeRita at the end of the Stooges' long run. There's truth to that. I was always bothered by the fact that Joe DeRita bore a physical resemblance to Curly but was surely no substitute. DeRita got a thumbs-up from fans because he loved the role and was a proven comedic craftsman. In the final analysis his only real shortcoming was that he wasn't Curly!
The Three Stooges were lovable with their innocence, their innate caring attitude toward "real" people and their undaunted, unfazed approach to life - so truly American. Shemp is a model for people who might feel inadequate with their own talents or attributes. He worked hard and achieved enough fame that I'm writing about him today. His legacy is that he's the guy who picked up the torch from a one-of-a-kind comic and kept the comic engine running.
The Stooges were one of the longest running comedy acts ever.
America might have expected the Stooges to fade at one point. But then something unexpected happened: the new medium, television, those glowing boxes in the living rooms of middle Americans, blossomed!
Kids shows like "Casey Jones" cropped up in late afternoon hours. I remember "Captain Eleven" out of Garden City, South Dakota. These shows had time to fill. Ergo, how about old comedy shorts? The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and others gained fame that leaped beyond the boundaries of their heyday when they were current.
The Stooges were tapped for movies. "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" was a major Hollywood accomplishment because it was cheap to make but did boffo box office. We learned that the Stooges' formula was timeless. And it was so much more than violence.
The Stooges' incompetence made us laugh at our own potential for incompetence in our daily lives.
Some people have always hated The Three Stooges. My old boss, Jim Morrison, is in this group and he wasn't amused when watching Three Stooges films (from an old-fashioned "projector") at the Morris Lions Club-sponsored Halloween parties. I always tease him by giving him a heads-up when a Three Stooges "marathon" is coming up on cable TV. But I don't think Jim has cable TV anyway.
I have read that women tend to hate the Three Stooges. Perhaps the thought of such irresponsible men terrifies them. Or the thought of three men living together? Would two be more appropriate? The Monkees in the 1960s was a show about four guys living together. The original concept for the Monkees worked but the show deteriorated, probably because America wasn't ready for it yet.
The Three Stooges with Shemp stayed viable even with Curly departed, even though the humor was dispensed in a little different fashion. The concept of the Stooges still worked and the concept was the most important part. There was craftsmanship there that the average viewer couldn't readily appreciate. It wasn't just three stumblebums.
A close analysis shows Shemp to have been very gifted comedically and in the Stooges' mold 100 percent. He was a trooper both in this ensemble and in Private Buckaroo, the latter helping build the war effort, so he deserves nothing but posthumous admiration.
Shemp Howard, RIP.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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