Monday, March 24, 2008

The Three Jews

What's the difference between a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nebbish? The schlemiel spills the soup down the schlimazel's neck, and the nebbish has to clean up the mess.

That's my personal variation on Leo Rosten's version of an old Yiddish joke. A few years ago as I was watching The Three Stooges, it occurred to me that this joke provides a perfect description of Curly, Moe, and Larry.

Curly is the schlemiel, the clumsy oaf who always causes problems. Moe is the schlimazel, the guy who's always at the receiving end of bad luck. And Larry is the nebbish, the meek middleman who gets punished for Curly's mistakes.

The schlemiel/schlimazel distinction is played out throughout the series, as Curly is chronically stupid but not necessarily unlucky, while Moe is chronically unlucky but not quite as stupid as Curly. There is even an episode (I can't remember the title) in which Curly is blessed with good luck.

Would their fitting into classic Yiddish character types by any chance have something to do with the fact that the actors were Jewish? When I watched the films as a kid, at first I didn't know they were Jewish. And even when I found out, the fact didn't resonate with me. I didn't think of the jokes as "Jewish humor" per se. I perceived them as nothing more than slapstick by comedians who happened to be Jewish, and all that mattered to me was that they made me laugh.

Seeing the films as an adult, I was a little surprised that I still found them funny. But I began to notice things I hadn't noticed before, notably the Jewishness of the humor.

For starters, they use many Yiddish words, which may not have been known to general audiences at the time. It was like their personal inside jokes. I suspect that Larry grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household. When he disguises himself as a Chinese person, he simply speaks Yiddish in a stereotypical Chinese accent. And when he wants to be Indian, he dons a turban guessed it, speaks Yiddish with an Indian accent.

There are also some general Jewish jokes, as when the wind blows in a scrap of paper containing an advertisement for "O'Brien's Kosher Restaurant."

In 1940, they did an episode called You Nazty Spy! parodying Hitler and the Nazis several months before Charlie Chaplin did something similar in The Great Dictator. These films were significant, for they were the first time Hollywood took a stand against the Nazis, in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. And it's interesting to compare the perspectives of Jews and non-Jews, since Chaplin later regretted having made The Great Dictator, but the Stooges always considered You Nazty Spy! their best film.

They liked it so much they eventually made a sequel, I'll Never Heil Again. This one actually referenced The Great Dictator, parodying the scene where Chaplin dances with a balloon globe. In the Stooges' version, several world leaders are fighting over a beach ball globe, and suddenly it looks like they're playing football.

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