When I was young my father introduced me - in rapid succession - to the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello. (I discovered the Three Stooges on my own.) My fondness for these funny men has never waned, so much so that I must be careful not to clobber friends and acquaintances with my enthusiasm for their old films.
My children, however, are a different story, and at the appropriate time I seized the opportunity to pass on my legacy of appreciation for these comedy teams. When my son Alyosha was 8, I began the indoctrination. And what better introduction to the art of vintage comedy than to sit him down in front of the tube and pop in a video of the Marx Brothers masterpiece, "Duck Soup"?
This 1933 gem about two feuding nations ("Sylvania" and "Freedonia") shows the four brothers at the peak of their art, from Groucho's wooing of his eternal foil, the matronly Margaret Dumont, by asking for a lock of her hair ("A lock of my hair?" she echoes, dutifully flattered. "You're lucky," replies Groucho, "I was going to ask for the whole wig!"); to Chico's riotous cross-examination as an enemy of the state; to the achingly funny scene in which Harpo pretends to be Groucho's reflection in a mirror. Once my son got a handle on the egos of the characters, he was hooked.
Then came Laurel and Hardy. Less surreal than the Marx Brothers, they had their own antic style of humor, honed to a fine edge. Who can forget the "tickling" scene in "Way Out West," when a femme fatale up to no good tries to fish the deed to a gold mine out of Stan's shirt, sending him into paroxysms of hysteria? Not I. And neither can my son, who laughed himself breathless.
Abbott and Costello represented the next generation of classic comics, coming into their own after the Marx Brothers and Stan and Ollie had done their best work. Bud and Lou had special appeal for me as a kid because they had made the leap from big screen to television, which meant they were there to greet me whenever I returned home from school.
Because I saw them almost every day, I was able to commit several of their routines to memory, from minor bits like Bud's back-seat driving (Lou to Bud: "You want me to go left?" Bud to Lou: "That's right.") all the way up to the superlative "Who's on First?" which I performed in front of my class - in Spanish - when I was a senior in high school.
When I sat Alyosha down to watch "Who's on First?" he didn't quite get the idea right off (he was only 9). But steady repetition had him rolling on the floor by the fifth showing, at which point my work was done.
The time finally came when I felt Alyosha was old enough to appreciate the rarified talents of - who else? - The Three Stooges, the "high priests of low comedy" in the words of one reviewer, heroes to those of us who grew up in the '60s, when the Stooges were in rerun heaven. When Alyosha turned 10, my gift to him was a videocassette of "Curly Classics" (true Stooge aficionados sniff at the mention of Shemp and won't even discuss Curly Joe).
Unlike "Who's on First?" which requires a bit of orientation before a kid can settle into the rhythm and sense of the wordplay, there's nothing about the Stooges that isn't instantly accessible to anyone willing to watch. Think of Curly spying ants on a cake and exclaiming, "Oh! Poppy seeds!" Or Larry playing the violin and inadvertently removing a man's toupee with his bow. Or the ever exasperated Moe, threatening, "I'll squeeze the cider out of your Adam's apple!"
Alyosha took to them instantly, and I was particularly gratified one day when he brought several of his fellow munchkins to the house for a marathon showing of Stooge shorts. I looked on, aglow with pride, as he enumerated the characters for his callow friends and threw in dollops of the Stoogely trivia I had imparted to him, such as the fact that Moe's pet name for his kid brother Curly was "Babe."
Alyosha is 18 now, but he still has a well-developed appreciation for these classic comedy teams. Just the other day he approached me with a look of worry on his face and, wringing his hands, begged, "Dad, there's something I've been dying to ask you."
"What is it?" I said, with palpable concern. At which point my son wise-cracked, "Will you wash out a pair of socks for me?"
My response was immediate: "Groucho to Margaret Dumont in 'Animal Crackers.' "
Two years ago, another child entered our lives when we adopted 5-year-old Anton from Ukraine. By now, he's a thoroughly American boy, his English copious and unaccented, his ball cap squarely backward on his head. The picture, you might say, is complete.
Well, almost. Yesterday I sat down with him and started up a Marx Brothers video. As the grainy black-and-white image materialized, Alyosha came into the room. "Which one?" he asked. "Horse Feathers," I replied, at which Alyosha gave Anton the thumbs up.
The education begins anew.
First Moe Howard, then his brother Shemp performed with vaudevillian Ted Healy in his comedy act in the 1920s. Larry Fine joined them in 1925. At the time, Larry was an accomplished violinist who won first prizes at amateur talent nights. He was also making money as a light heavyweight boxer.
The foursome went to Hollywood to make 'Soup to Nuts' in 1930. But friction among them led to Shemp's leaving to pursue a solo career. Moe offered younger brother Jerome as a replacement. 'Babe' (as he was known) had curly brown hair and a mustache. He agreed to shave off both as a condition for joining the act as 'Curly.'
The Three Stooges emerged in 1934, when the trio split with Healy and signed a contract with Columbia Studios. Some 190 short films followed. Shemp rejoined the Stooges after Curly fell ill in 1946. Comedian Joe Besser replaced Shemp in 1956, but left in 1958.
That was a turnaround year for the group. Columbia closed its short-films department, ending the Stooges' contract. They thought they were finished. But that same year Columbia released the Stooges' features to television, where they found a vast new audience. Larry suggested they sign up 'Curly Joe' DeRita as the new third member. The Stooges' careers surged. They made feature films and numerous personal appearances until 1970.