MOM never let us watch the Three Stooges on television at our house, so we went next door to Tommy's house and watched. Tommy's mother allowed him to see Superman and Batman, too. If our mom had her way, we'd have watched nothing but ``Romberg Rabbit'' and ``Captain Kangaroo.'' She also forbade all the programs we considered worthwhile, the ones with pie-throwing, Good versus Evil, guns, and rudeness.
It wasn't clear to Mom that we knew the difference between sophisticated vaudevillian humor - the Three Stooges - and actual abhorrent behavior. She thought we would use Moe's manners on each other, that we would slap each other around, call each other ``numbskull'' in polite company, or imitate Curly's hoots when Gramma came over. We loved the Three Stooges because they flaunted Orc-like behavior in the face of adult standards. I believe now that most adults harbor a Moe, Larry, or Curly alter ego within. Everyone has a secret desire to throw pies in polite company or at board meetings.
Since we watched Superman as well as the Three Stooges, we knew about alter egos and how to be the right person at the right time. We practiced every day around the neighborhood and at school. For some parents we were Clark Kent; for others we could be Superman or even Moe. At school we could only be Moe behind the teacher's back; but Moe had taught us how to be obsequious and fawning when the authority figures were around. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck!
On occasion, however, alter egos can get out of balance. I remember one night around the dinner table when Dad was away and we kids went too far. Why is it so much fun to be silly at dinner? From my present perspective, as an adult with three children, it's clear that the dinner table is the place which concentrates every adult compunction about manners. It is fraught with the fear of either being out of control or of not having control. That's why the Three Stooges were such a panic: they always mocked the adult compunctions - with pie-throwing.
Anyway, one night at dinner we got too silly. We were not in control of our alter egos and things were heading toward that delirious moment in the Three Stooges when the first pie gets thrown. We loved it when the women in ball gowns got smacked in the face with the cream pie; even better when the ladies started throwing 'em.
Mom dropped two stern warnings. It was a pivotal moment since she had to maintain her own alter ego, Adult Authority Figure, and not give way to the Orc/children. But then my brother started using The Silly Voices, in the presence of which Mom couldn't, and still can't, hold onto her Voice of Authority. She started to giggle, then cry with laughter. The tears rolled - she was losing it and we knew this was the verge of delirium. A moment of helplessness had crossed over into what she most feared: imitating television. Even the Three Stooges could happen now!
I picked up some mashed potatoes in my fingers and smooshed them in Mom's face. The lady had ``cream pie'' on her ball gown, would she return fire?
A 12-year-old takes a risk when he pushes mashed potatoes into the face of parental authority; but, comedy is risky, as Moe, Larry, and Curly had taught us. Mom hung fire but kept laughing; my allowance seemed safe. Then she regained control with a startling suggestion: ``Let's make some real cream pies to smoosh in one another's face.'' I didn't know where I stood now, but I liked it. Tommy's mother would never have said that.
In a few weeks, Mom and I faced off with big, gooey chocolate and whipped cream pies. I went first, affectionately push-ing my pie into her face. Then she got me back. It was poetic parenting. It was Moe, Larry, Curly ... Mom.
My own kids don't know about the Three Stooges. Of course we do face the dinner table dilemmas. I feel some compunction when my son uses his green beans for fangs. And sometimes our kids gang up and make us giddy just when we want to be making them less impish. They can get my wife to stick brownies on her front teeth and make a ghoulish black space. When Hilary, age 4, opens her mouth full of food to show me ``a train wreck,'' I have a hard time being Adult Authority Figure.
``There's a time and a place for that kind of fooling around,'' I am obliged to say. ``It's not polite to play with food. The dinner table is not a place for silliness!'' I'm even worried that they might do it when Gramma comes to visit. I'm trying to uphold the standards my parents passed along. Even authority figures have alter egos. See, the dinner table is fraught.
Oh, the kids are calling. They say I can come back to the table now. If I eat another bite of broccoli I can have dessert. Then I might get to watch television. I think ``you know what'' is on.