Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Most Valuable Stooge (10/5/09)

Larry Fine looking stunned, undoubtedly by some
unexpected turn of events

People who work in comedy know the "Rule of Three." That is, when writing jokes or creating a comedic movie, TV show, play, or even a sketch, writers know how to establish a situation, confirm it, and then overturn it. If you look for it, you'll see it all the time: "A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar ... "; "an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman were arguing ... "; "a genie grants a man three wishes ... "

With that rule so well-known, it makes us wonder why there are so few three-man comedy teams. There's the Ritz Brothers (whom few remember nowadays), the Marx Brothers (who originally were a quartet), the Three Stooges - and that’s about it.

We were reminded of this apparent paradox today in noting that October 5 marks the birthday of our favorite Stooge, Larry Fine. Every Stooge fan has his favorite. (We use the pronoun "his" deliberately here, since it's well known that women just don't get - or even like the Stooges.) Some prefer the outright lunacy of Curly; some think Shemp is the ne plus ultra of wackiness; there are undoubtedly those who think the antics of Joe or Curly Joe cannot be bettered; and we're sure Moe brings delight to many for his attempts to bring order out of chaos.

But Larry is, for us, the essential Stooge. His "normalcy" (at least in terms of Stoogedom) provides the necessary grounding between Moe's masochism and Curly's flights of fancy. The Trinity of Stooges has been compared to Sigmund Freud's theory of the unconscious (no, honestly), what with Moe's controlling force representing the ego, Curly the uncontrollable id, and Larry, the super-ego that strives for organization and peace.

Larry Fine himself was an unassuming man. He was born Louis Feinberg in Philadelphia in 1902, and after a childhood accident (he burned his arm with acid), he took up the violin, a choice that led to a career in vaudeville, where a chance meeting with comedian Ted Healy (who had originally hired the Howard Brothers - Moe, Shemp, and Curly - to accompany him on stage) led him to join Healy's act as the third Stooge, a role he would hold for the next four decades until a debilitating stroke forced him to retire.

Larry's contribution to the act is invaluable. He provides an entry point for the viewer, allowing us to put Moe's harshness and Curly's craziness into context. Without him, Stooge fanatics would be left with only an authoritarian beating up on a lunatic. And every so often, Larry will say or do something so off the wall that it confirms his own existence as a Stooge.

Director Peter Farrelly threatened for years to make a new "Three Stooges" movie While it may not have seemed a good idea at first blush (Benicio Del Toro as Moe? Sean Penn as Larry?), his views on Mr. Fine give Larry-philes reason for hope (while also providing a fine epitaph): "Growing up, first you watched Curly, then Moe, and then your eyes got to Larry. He's the reactor, the most vulnerable. Five to fourteen, Curly; fourteen to twenty-one, Moe. Anyone out of college, if you're not looking at Larry, you don’t have a good brain."

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Land of the Giants (3/26/10)

Crystal City's statue of Popeye: It doesn't really look like him,
but it's the thought that counts

In looking for today's Spark topic, we were interested to see that on March 26, 1937, Crystal City, Texas erected a statue in honor of Popeye the Sailor. This struck us as odd, seeing as how we had visited Chester, Illinois last year, specifically to see their statues of Popeye and J. Wellington Wimpy. "Surely," we thought, "there couldn't be two. Popeye's well-known, but he's not that popular, is he?"

Imagine our surprise to find that there are not just two statues of the cycloptic sailor, but four, with Alma, Arkansas and Springdale, Arkansas joining the fun (though, personally, we think the Alma statue looks more like Mr. Clean than Popeye). The whole thing got us to wondering what other wonders we'd been missing in this great land of ours.

We knew about - and have even visited - the giant statue of Superman in Metropolis, Illinois, but we didn't realize that Metropolis (a community of only 6,500) also boasts a giant statue of a grocery bagger as well as the grave of Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." 

We'd also visited Collinsville, Illinois to see the world's largest bottle of ketchup (though we were mighty disappointed to find there was no gift shop. What’s up with that, Collinsville?). What we didn't realize was that Illinois must be suffering from some sort of inferiority complex, as it's also home to the world's largest statue of local-boy-made-good Abraham Lincoln, a giant generic guy in a bathing suit, and "the tallest totem pole east of the Rockies."

Of course, the Land of Lincoln isn't the only home of "what the hell is that?" attractions. There are the dinosaurs in Cabazon, California (made famous in "Pee-wee’s Big Adventure"); the Mother Goose House in Hazard, Kentucky; the five-story-tall muskie that houses the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Hayward, Wisconsin; the Big Duck of Flanders, New York; and Lucy the Elephant in Margate, New Jersey - a monument that used to be a hotel. (And need we mention the late, lamented Bull Dog CafĂ© in Los Angeles?)

Not all the monuments are animals, though. There's the aforementioned ketchup bottle, but there's also the "Shoe House" in Hellam, Pennsylvania (and, yes, an old woman did live there); the Castroville, California artichoke; a giant baked potato in Blackfoot, Idaho; an office chair in Anniston, Alabama; a chest of drawers in High Point, North Carolina; a milk bottle in New Bedford, Connecticut, and a paper airplane in Mukilteo, Washington. There's also a penny in Woodruff, Wisconsin that claims to be the world's biggest, but Batman might disagree.

Some folks plan their vacations around seeing such sights (not us, of course ... ), but it's just as delightful (if not terrifying) to stumble across Mickey Rooney's giant head unexpectedly. We don’t know what it is in the American character that makes us want to eat in a giant hat or go gawk at a giant orange, but it's a treat to find a town or a company that commemorates something in that way. Dr. Freud might have something to say about this quest for size, but sometimes a giant ear of corn is just a giant ear of corn.
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