Monday, April 20, 2009

Pretty Clown, Ugly Clown

In the last thirty years, studio bosses have had the idea that a comedy film can only bring in maximum profits if it has a good-looking leading man. This idea probably started with the Chevy Chase comedy Foul Play (1978). Chase was seen as combining the klutziness of Jerry Lewis and the sex appeal of Cary Grant. Men, who found Chase to be goofy, came for the slapstick while women, who found him to be sexy, came for the romance. I, myself, was happy to stay home.
The poster for Foul Play said it all. Goldie Hawn cannot keep her hands off Chase, who is responding to Hawn's caresses by firing off a gun in the pocket of his trenchcoat. That serves to extend the sexual innuendo of Mae West's "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" The gun barrel, poking through a gaping bullethole, is no doubt meant to symbolize Chase's sexual potency. Do I got that right, Sigmund?

"You are correct, my boy!"

I get satisfaction from the fact that the movie Foul Play has largely been forgotten while The Bad News Bears (1976), a comedy starring the homely Walter Matthau, stands as a beloved classic of that same era.

Yet, while memory of Foul Play faded, the pretty comedy star rule persisted. This trend continued in 1980s and 1990s with Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey. John Belushi tried unsuccessfully to shed his "Bluto" Animal House image by slimming down and starring in the romantic comedy Continental Divide (1981). Eddie Murphy worked hard to cultivate a sex symbol image. He actually thought he looked sexy in that tight red leather outfit he wore in Delirious. Producers acted as if less than glamorous comedians like the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello and the Three Stooges had never existed. Let's go back seventy years. Then, we had Jimmy Durante. Now, we have Vince Vaughn. Then, we had W. C. Fields. Now, we have Owen Wilson.

In 2007, critics were shocked when Judd Apatow cast Seth Rogen as the lead in the romantic comedy Knocked Up. Apatow failed to see why a comedy needed conventionally good-looking leads. Since his early days as a producer, he had asked casting directors to find him actors who were very much unconventional. He told them to keep in mind Jack Klugman. The term "Jack Klugman" eventually became a code used by Apatow's casting people. Columnist Jefferey Wells, in a highly uncomplimentary article, described Apatow's leading men as "doughy-bodied dorks." Critic Jim Emerson referred to this particular brand of leading man as "the Apatow schlub." Apatow responded that it wasn't the difference between ugly and handsome but the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish.

The question remains if Rogen, whether he looks Jewish or not, was meant by Apatow to look funnier, though not necessarily uglier, than the usual comedy star. Mike Nichols faced a Jewish versus non-Jewish casting choice when he had to decide between Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman for the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967). In the end, Nichols rejected Redford in favor of Hoffman because he thought that Hoffman, a short Jewish actor with a large nose, would be more credible and comical as the sexually awkward Braddock. I cannot imagine anyone who would disagree with Nichol's decision.

Personally, I am more likely to laugh at a homely comedian than a handsome comedian, but I generally find funny to be funny regardless to how the comedian looks. I have to add, though, that I see great beauty in Laurel & Hardy, who were no alluring specimens of masculinity. I see beauty in Harpo Marx. I even see beauty in Ben Turpin. Funny can be beautiful. Of course, Oliver Hardy never flaunted unsightly back hair as Rogen has and Stan Laurel never went around shaking man-boobs at the camera like Segel has. Rogen and Segel are purposely going out of their way to gross out audiences.

I wonder what current-day producers would do with Shemp Howard, inarguably the ugliest comedian in the history of motion pictures. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should establish a special award for ugly comedians called the Shemp Howard Uglitarian Award. Shemp makes Jack Klugman look like George Clooney. No offense, Shemp, I love you.

It's time to let go of the guilt. I want the visitors to this blog to know that they are in an environment of acceptance. It is perfectly alright to enjoy the comedy stylings of Shemp.

Shemp steals the show in Sony's new DVD release The Three Stooges Collection, Vol. 5: 1946-1948. The earlier volumes showcased Moe, Larry and Curly as the slapstick Stooges but Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, at which time Shemp was brought in as a replacement.

Shemp had become a familiar personality while starring in short subjects for Vitaphone and Columbia and performing supporting roles in features starring W. C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and Olsen & Johnson. The Shemp to which audiences had become accustomed is evident in the opening scene of the Stooges' All Gummed Up (1947), where the actor is attempting to sell a man a fishing pole. Shemp is crusty and cocky as he touts the quality of the fishing rod. Then, he casts out the line and gets it hooked on a woman's dress, which is torn off as he reels the line back in. He laughs rudely as the woman screams and runs off. Curly would have been frightened and embarrassed in the same situation. He would have smacked his face and sputtered, groaned or squealed. The problem with Shemp being crusty, rude and cocky was that the Stooges already had Moe, who was crusty, rude and cocky, and it upset the chemistry of the team to have two Stooges who were so much alike.

Shemp, as it turned out, was encouraged to be more like Curly. He was even made to recreate a number of Curly's old jokes and routines. Moe asks Shemp what his watch says and he replies "Tick. Tick. Tick." Curly, who was charming and childlike, could be funny with a silly joke like that. The joke, though, doesn't work so well with Shemp.

In the end, Shemp worked hard to find a balance between copying Curly and bringing his own established personality to the team. Shemp put every muscle into being funny. He had a seemingly endless supply of funny walks and funny faces. He worked with his face, his arms, his legs, his shoulders and just about everything else he had to get a laugh. He could even get his hair to do funny things. Moe would slap him and his hair would fly around wildly. It was pretty funny to see this. Further, I challenge you to show me a comedian who could do a better spit-take than Shemp. And, of course, Shemp's trademark "eeb-bee-bee" cry is classic comedy. Shemp likely came up with this vocal expression to satisfy fans who had been fond of Curly's "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk" and "woo-woo-woo." The only modern performer who shares Curly and Shemp's creativity making sounds is Hilary Duff, who can squeak, gasp, squeal and hiccup the word "Oh!" to express surprise, delight, anger, disappointment, or any number of feelings. Too bad this range of sound effects is the extent of Duff's acting ability.

I want to describe my favorite Shemp scenes from the DVD collection.

Shemp was given center stage for his debut in the series. This premier showcase for Shemp, Fright Night, opens with the Stooges in a gym training a dimwitted boxer. The trio, who had previously worked together between 1925 and 1932, had no trouble operating as a team in this film. Shemp fell back into the act as if he had never been away. Within the first few minutes, Shemp shows off some funny dance steps while taking jabs at a boxing dummy. Four months later, Shemp was to display even funnier and more elaborate footwork while boxing with a crooked investment broker in Hold that Lion. Unfortunately, the broker responds to all of Shemp's fancy moves by giving him one hard punch, which knocks him flat.

For years, I remembered a scene from Sing a Song of Six Pants where Shemp gets hung up on a dry cleaner's carousel by a surly gangster and gets swung in circles as a gangster punches him. I have no idea why this particular scene stayed in my head but I was definitely pleased to see it turn up in this collection.

Out West finds the Stooges pitted against outlaws in the old west. Shemp joins the outlaws in a poker game, sitting between chief villain Doc Barker (Jack Norman) and Barker henchman Quirt (George Chesebro). Shemp removes his boots as his feet are bothering him. When he crosses his legs, he reveals his toes sticking through a hole in his sock. Quirt reaches under the table to hand Barker an ace, but he ends up sticking the card between Shemp's toes instead. Shemp removes the card from his toes and adds it to his hand. Quirt continues to reach under the table and insert cards between Shemp's toes until Shemp ends up with four aces in his hand.

In Squareheads of the Round Table, Shemp is enlisted by Cedric the blacksmith to help him to elope with the princess. Shemp, intending to fetch the princess for Cedric, climbs into the wrong window in the palace and ends up in the king's bedroom. He sees that someone is asleep in bed. The camera, which is positioned on the opposite side of the bed, reveals the king awake under the covers and none too happy about having an intruder in his room. Shemp, assuming that it is the princess in bed, nudges the king and explains that he has come to bring her to Cedric. "The king ain't gonna push us around, no sir," says Shemp. "Say, how come a nice kid like you has such an old sourpuss for a pappy? He sure is a mean old galoot. He has a puss like a snapping turtle. Yeah, like a snapping turtle with a bellyache." He is so amused by what he has just said that he lets out a cackle and slaps the king on the back. The king lunges after him and, through the ensuing tussle, the bed gets turned upside down.

Fiddlers Three features the Stooges as fiddlers in charge of entertaining Old King Cole. An evil magician abducts the princess intending to force her to marry him. Shemp gets a surge of bravery when he hears of the princess' abduction. "Let me at 'em," he cries, "I'll tear them limb from limb! Let me at 'em!" "What's stopping you?" asks Moe. "Me," Shemp meekly replies.

Later, Shemp gets caught in the magician's box and has to avoid sword blades being thrust into the box by the magician. Afterwards, Shemp tells the princess that the blades never touched him, but he then takes a drink of water and a long stream of water spurts out of his chest. "Get a plumber," he cries, "I think I sprung a leak!"

Larry usually acted scared with Moe and irritated with Curly, but he seemed to be happy working with Shemp. In I'm a Monkey's Uncle, Shemp sets out to make butter for breakfast. He starts out by pouring milk into a pouch. Then, he has Larry tickle him to get him to laugh, which makes him shake hard enough to churn the milk into a perfect stick of butter. Larry seems to be having a better time tickling Shemp than Shemp is having being tickled.

Shemp is always funny when it comes to eating or drinking things that a person probably shouldn't be eating or drinking. A shot of whiskey from a bottle labeled "Old Homicide" sends him into convulsions. In Shivering Sherlocks, he gets a shock drinking paint that Larry has put into a coffee cup. In All Gummed Up, he is forced to guzzle down an inky youth elixir that Moe has mixed up in an old hip boot. In this instance, the camera comes in tight to show Shemp displaying a series of facial tics. In the same film, Shemp goes to get a box of marshmallows to use as a topping for a cake but he mistakenly grabs a box of bubble gum instead. The bubble gum makes the cake so difficult to chew that Shemp has to grab his nose and jaw and pump them up and down to help grind down the pieces. He starts blowing bubbles while chewing the cake and, at the end, a large bubble inflates out of either ear.

In this collection, the best showcase for Shemp is Crime on their Hands. In the opening scene, a newspaper editor agrees to let the Stooges investigate a diamond robbery. Shemp is excited to become a reporter. "Tear out the front page!" he shouts. "Stand by for a scoop! Stop the presses! Copy boy, copy boy, stop the presses!!!!" Moe presses his face between two brass bookends. "Stop the presses," pleads Shemp. Later, at a gangsters hideout, Shemp unknowingly grabs a stolen diamond out of a mint bowl, pops it into his mouth, and gulps it down. Moe shoves ice tongs downs Shemp's throat to retrieve the diamond. He hooks onto something, which he believes to be Shemp's tonsils, and tugs hard thinking he can extract this thing and get it out of his way. When Moe's efforts fail, gangsters make use of a mallet and knife in their effort to rip the diamond out of Shemp's stomach. Shemp can be extremely funny when it comes to expressing pain and panic, which is a useful skill for a member of a group as battered and beleaguered as the Stooges.

Shivering Sherlocks climaxes with a ghoulish hunchback chasing Shemp with a meat cleaver. The hunchback swings the meat cleaver at Shemp's head but he misses Shemp and chops off the head of a dummy instead. Shemp sees the fake head drop to the floor and becomes hysterical thinking that this is his own head. Shemp seemed to have a phobia about losing his head. In Brideless Groom, he has a shaving mirror hanging up while he shaves himself with a straight razor. When the mirror gets turned around and he can no longer see his reflection, he panics thinking that the razor has slipped and sliced his head off. I am relieved that I have a fog-free suction shower mirror and can avoid horrible misunderstandings like that.

Wait, I can't hear that Talking Heads CD I put into my disc drive! I'M DEAF!!! I'M DEAF!!! Oh, gee, I just forgot to plug in the headphones. Sorry.

I now adjourn this meeting of the Shemp Appreciation Society.


  1. Further, I challenge you to show me a comedian who could do a better spit-take than Shemp.Danny Thomas.

    Nevertheless, I always appreciate reading an essay from a Shemp admirer. Consider me a member of the Shemp Appreciation Society as well.

  2. As a child it was no contest for me (I was born in 1967 and caught the Stooges during their popularity boom of the late 1970's) - Curly was EVERYONE'S favorite stooge. As an adult I can certainly appreciate Shemp more and I think I would also give him my vote.

  3. For future reference:
    Actors of fully Jewish background: -Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Julian Morris, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Marla Sokoloff, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Adam Brody, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Gabriel Macht, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Alden Ehrenreich.

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers -Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Emmy Rossum, Jennifer Connelly, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman.

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: -Andrew Garfield, Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Ben Foster, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism -Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.