There are, on occasion, people and things within the scope of our collective cultural reference that loom so large that they become an omnipresent, subliminal spirit of their essence that infuses and informs everything that comes after them. The Three Stooges were just such a phenomenon. Even if you’re not a fan, or have never seen one of their films, the slapstick and goofiness of what would eventually be 6 men are immediately recognizable whenever they are referenced, invoked, or otherwise drawn from. It seems timely, as a writer’s strike is going strong while I write this, to note that the iconic buffoons were never really adequately compensated- even though the Boys became Avatars of Cosmic Silliness in our collective psyche, inspiring joy for nearly a century, they were also victims of the Hollywood machine.
I could easily write about my appreciation for Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, and to a lesser extent Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita, in a very straightforward way. I would go on for pages and pages with little factoids and pick apart precisely how funny they all were, and how much it has meant to me in my life. I could do this, but it would be betraying the stated goal of weirdness that this blog is designed for. Besides, I would be derelict in my duties as a Master of Mystical Flapdoodle and as a Certified Kook if I didn’t share with you much wilder ideas – the Esoteric Secrets of the Three Stooges.
This concept has been with me for quite a while. In a former life, I was known for performing music and poetry, and one of my earliest poetic efforts was a piece called The Tao of Curly. I have revisited this work and made a video for your enjoyment here:
(Note: the following poem contains quotes from the Stooges’ short Men in Black (1934). The high strangeness folks may raise an eyebrow at the title, as it seemingly references those shadowy figures who intimidate UFO witnesses. It’s actually a send-up of a title from a popular film at the time called Men in White, which came out the same year. In a synchromystic sense it’s worth noting that one of the first books to mention MiB was Albert Bender’s Flying Saucers and the Three Men.)
The above poem gives some idea of what I mean when I refer to Mystical Stooge-ism. The Eternal Stooge is within us all, and channeling that Stooge energy may well be a missing and necessary element of your own occult practices. I do not mean to imply that any of the funnymen were occultists or mystics themselves, at least not intentionally- in my years of watching them and reading about their lives I’ve never come across anything that would suggest such a thing. What I will lay out is that humor itself is among the most powerful forms of magic, and that these knuckleheads unknowingly tapped into a current of esoteric power that still can be felt and employed decades after they each took a pratfall off of this mortal coil. Like a well-thrown pie, the insights to be gleaned from these Masters hit home in surprising ways, and it can get a bit messy. So spread out! Let’s get going!
We’ll begin with the 1935 short Hoi Polloi. The premise of this film was suggested by Moe’s wife Helen, and is similar to the play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. The title of the play refers to a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, about a king who is disgusted by humanity and becomes a sculptor, eventually falling in love with a statue of an ideal woman he created. The woman is granted life through the magic of the gods, and the name “Pygmalion” has become synonymous with transformation in storytelling. In the Stooges short, two professors enter into a spirited debate about nature versus nurture- with one insisting that environment is the determining factor in how someone turns out, and the other arguing that it’s purely hereditary. A wager is set, and upon discovering Moe, Larry, and Curly, who are working as trash collectors, the subjects for such an experiment are found- the professor must turn the three uncouth slobs into gentleman in order to win the bet. Of course, hilarity ensues- but hidden amongst the puns, slaps, and eye-gouges the ideas of personal transformation offer glimpses of accidental profundity.
This particular story always stuck out to me because of a scene where Moe, in his newly established gentleman-hood at a high society affair, is conversing with a woman on a couch. He nervously pokes his finger down into the cushion as she speaks to him, seemingly seeing in his rough hewn Stooge face a guru of prodigious knowledge. “When I gaze into your burning eyes, I know that you have studied the mystic powers of Brahma, and that some day you will find the Eternal Spring!” “Find it?” Moe replies, his finger caught in a literal spring he has now pulled from the couch- “Lady, I’ve got it!” This bit of dialogue seems to exist purely as a way to introduce the spring, which gets stuck to Curly’s rear-end upon Moe’s discarding it. The liminal, expository nature of the scene allows for a peak into the magic of Moe. Perhaps the woman was meant to be a send-up of high society flakes who had a vague interest in occultism, but whatever the case it’s oddly incongruent with what one expects to find in a Three Stooges short. Moe Howard, in real life and in the schtick, was the leader and the enforcer imposing order in the chaos. His attempts to keep the other two in line, in tandem with his own stupidity, belied a delicate dynamic that always seemed to work so well- at inspiring laughter, anyway. The fact that they were a trio is significant in a metaphysical sense, in that the number three has since ancient times been considered a perfect number. Referring back to Ovid, for instance, the number three is always associated with magic in the old Greek myths. In the Western Hermetic traditions, much is derived from Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-great Hermes”. Hecate has three faces, and moving forward through all manner of religious and magical ideologies the Trinity appears time and again. Calling to mind the Three Wise Men, we might just as well refer to the boys as the Three Wiseguys. Moe was always the leader, Larry was the connective tissue that held everything together, and Curly- later replaced by his brother Shemp, was the overgrown man-child and blissful fool. In this way they illustrate the three-fold nature of man- Moe, as the brains of the operation, representing the Spirit; Larry, the mediating force carrying the team along, the Body; and the ever-changing third spot representing the Soul of the trio.
The unintended effects of the bet between the professors culminate in the transformation of all of the high society party-goers into Stooges themselves. Transformation can be gradual, as it was when the boys were taught etiquette, or it can be sudden and dramatic. Neither environment or heredity determines the outcome, but rather a random catalyst that no one would have seen coming. The creative and destructive influence of Moe, Larry, and Curly left all who encountered them different people than they had been prior.
Hoi Polloi is significant in this respect because the basic plot was one that the Stooges would return to twice- first, with Curly’s final appearance in the trio, 1947’s Half-Wits Holiday, and again later with Joe Besser in Curly’s spot for 1958’s Pies and Guys. This gets us into a thread of metaphysics related to death and transmigration; as previously mentioned, Moe and Larry were the two who stuck together and found a third to complete the team three times. They represent a misleading kind of duality, that needs a third to complete them forming a numinous whole entity as the Three Stooges. There is something unnerving about watching Joe do the same bits Curly did in Pies and Guys. The script is almost exactly the same, and they even cut in footage from the Curly original. Curly was conspicuously absent during the crescendo of Half-Wits Holiday, which is that most sublime of comedic turns, the Pie Fight. He was in poor health by then and a series of strokes eventually side-lined him permanently. Larry and Moe are very good in their dual aspect, each slapping pastry against the other’s face, but it seems hollow without Curly there. Joe gets hit with a single pie in his version, the new footage jarringly cut in with some from 1947. Besser was a funny man, and a friend of Shemp’s, having appeared with him in Abbott and Costello movies. He was good, but nowhere near the level of his predecessors. He does however figure prominently into our exploration of the afterlife in the Esoterica of Stoogedom.
Reincarnation struck me as a weird idea for old comedies to play around with. An examination of afterlife depictions in early cinema would be a fascinating rabbit hole to dive into, but that is beyond the scope of this post. In 1957’s Hoofs and Goofs, our boy Joe Besser becomes very interested in the subject. He misses his sister Birdie, who had passed away, and is obsessed with the idea of discovering her in her transmigrated form.
This is contrasted by the depiction of the afterlife shown in the 1948 Shemp picture Heavenly Daze. Shemp dies, which is quite a dark premise for something as silly and fun as these old films- but that event merely sets the plot. Shemp goes to Heaven, where he confronts his Uncle Mortimer (played by Moe), acting as something of a Saint Peter at the Gates of Paradise. He informs Shemp that he must return to Earth and reform his brothers Moe and Larry before he can enter into eternity. The film was remade in 1955 and called Bedlam in Paradise, using footage from the original. Incidentally 1955 was the year Shemp died in real life of a sudden heart attack. The Stooges needed several films in order to fulfill their contract when Shemp unexpectedly died, which caused them to reuse previous footage and develop a concept informally called the “Fake Shemp”. Longtime bit player Joe Palma would stand in for Shemp, shot from behind or otherwise hiding his face to give the illusion that Shemp was in the scene. The term “Fake Shemp” came to be used for any such body doubles.
Following Shemp’s death, getting back to Hoofs and Goofs, Joe does find his sister Birdie- who has reincarnated into a horse! In the end though, it turns out that it was all a dream- which is the same way Heavenly Daze resolves. Incidentally, the only short that has both Shemp and Curly in it is Hold That Lion! (1947), in which Curly appears as sleeping passenger on a train. For the position in the trio, there appears to be a somnambulist aspect tied to the astral realm, a fleetingness of material presence and a lasting impression in the psyche. It should also be noted, lest anyone think I don’t know my Stooge history, that Shemp had occupied that position before Curly, so that his appearance back with the team was actually a return. Digressions aside, “Fake Shemp” Joe Palma appears in Hoofs and Goofs, briefly, as well- this time standing in for Moe. Moe is in drag for this scene, playing their sister Birdie.
So with Shemp’s return to the act, they make a film in which he dies; they remake this film the year he actually did die; his sudden death necessitates the introduction of the Fake Shemp, who later appears as Moe in a short about reincarnation featuring Shemp’s replacement Joe Besser. It’s enough to make one’s head spin, or perhaps to cause one to make Shemp noises for a minute and a half straight:
I would also like to mention that some researchers claim to have discovered who the Stooges reincarnated as, and the conclusions may surprise you.
To wrap this up and get to the final punchline, I thought it pertinent to bring out an old tweet of mine which itself is a joke that is also kind of true:
I sometimes worry that there’s confusion about me and the type of magic and Occult practices I ascribe to, so I’ll take a moment to recognize a spiritual forefather to help clear things up: The Maharaja of Canarsie. pic.twitter.com/gZFU02w7ui
While Curly isn’t presented as a mystic in the short Three Little Pirates (1946), but he is in disguise as a stranger from a far-off magical place- the Islands of Coney and Long. He bears rare gifts through his interpreter, the Gin of Rummy (Moe) and the two engage in a hilarious conversation of gibberish and double-talk. They are ordinary things that the governor who would be keeping them prisoner finds enthralling- he thinks a big heart-shaped lollipop is a ruby. Curly breaks his doublespeak to say “It’s raspberry!” The governor is thrilled; he’s had many red rubies before, but, he says “never have I been given the raspberry!” I was curious to see who would catch the reference when I presented Curly as the Raja as a “spiritual forefather”, but as with most jokes there is a truth concealed there. I often come with rare gifts, which are in fact mundane things, but looked at as though through new eyes they become something marvelous and strange. Virtually everything I say is 75% joking around, 50% deadly serious, and 110% bad math. One could do worse than adopting a character who only existed as a ruse in a comedy film from 1946 as a source of spiritual and magical inspiration. When the governor in this scene dismisses our heroes, to procure some girls for him, he says “On your way, with winged feet!” Those mercurial feet, that shuffled and dragged- the feet of the Trickster.
Venturing to write this at all seems an exercise in stupidity, perhaps. I’ve long abandoned any pretense about being judged harshly for my silliness, and I take my silliness very seriously. I do wonder occasionally if, perhaps, this time I’ve gone too far. Time will tell, I suppose, and if I’m burnt at the stake for my ridiculousness I will have to accept that at the very least a hot stake is better than a cold chop. I do hope the reader has found some value in these words, and I can only recommend that you seek out some of those old movies and allow yourself to laugh fully while watching them. I will leave you with a drawing I made of Aleister Curly, who encourages you to Do as Thou woo woo woo woo woo woo!