Today is National Shemp Day! (We wish.)
Okay, well, it’s not really. But if I had the power to declare such holidays, then June 16th would now and forever more be an American day of commemoration for the greatest of all Stooges, Shemp Howard.
For the past couple of years, Sony has been cranking out Three Stooges DVD box sets every few months or so — and there certainly seems to be a renewed interest in the Stooges thanks to a feature film in development, potentially starring Jim Carrey, Sean Penn, and Benicio del Toro. But it wasn’t until today’s release of The Three Stooges Collection, Vol. 6: 1949-1951 that we were treated to such a pure, heaping, unfiltered dose of Shemp — the most tragically overlooked of all Stooges.
I realize that Curly will always be the most popular and beloved Stooge to many. Heck, he even had a minor Top 40 splash back in 1983 with the homage novelty song, “The Curly Shuffle.” And his nyuck-nyuck, oh-a-wiseguy antics are certainly lovable. But he always seemed a little too desperate for a laugh for me. He was a cross between Baby Huey and a black velvet painting of a sad clown. On the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, was Moe, the sadistic ring leader who never met an eyeball he couldn’t poke. And then rounding out the troika was Larry, a.k.a. Porcupine, the sad-sack who always seemed to get caught between Moe’s knuckles and Curly’s mug. He was like the existential Stooge, the one who keeps trying to roll the cream pie up the hill only to have Moe push it back down to the bottom. In a way, he was always too tragic to be funny.
Enter Shemp Howard, born Samuel Horwitz, real-life older brother of Curly and Moe (the fact that he was the real-life brother of Moe makes all of those blows that landed on his melon from his sadist sibling all the more psychologically fraught, if you ask me, but I digress). Shemp was the third Stooge in the early years of the act, but gave way for Larry Fine. He would return in the late ’40s after Curly suffered a stroke. And what a return it was as the new Stooges’ box set makes crystal clear. Shemp had the face of a frying pan — a frying pan that had been hit in the face with a frying pan. On good days and after a visit to the makeup chair, it might upgrade to looking like a side of roast beef. Nervous as a jackrabbit and with an oil slick of hair parted down the middle, Shemp appeared in 73 Stooges shorts, a bunch of the best of which are included in Vol. 6
If you’ve never considered yourself a true Shemp fan, or if you always had a softer spot for Curly, Moe, Larry, or even Curly Joe, check out this classic clip from “Don’t Throw That Knife,” where the boys play census takers who show up at the apartment of a woman whose jealous husband just happens to be a knife-thrower. Classic.