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During their 23 years at Columbia Pictures, the Stooges were never completely aware of their extreme popularity

Goran Blazeski

Although it’s been over nine decades since the Three Stooges started their career they still remain an American comedy institution and the world’s best-loved comedy team.

Few are those who have never heard of Moe, Larry, and Curly and most of us know Shemp, Joe Besser, and Curly Joe. These six men form the most popular and influential American comedy team known as the Three Stooges.

The stories regarding the origin of the Three Stooges vary but it is said that a man named Ted Healy was the one responsible for the creation of the famous comedy team.

Reportedly, the vaudevillian Ted Healy, who knew Moe and Shemp Horwitz from their early years, organized a show in 1922, but unfortunately for him, some of the acrobats he was working with walked out just before the start of the show, so he asked Moe and Shemp to fill in. The three of them started improvising on stage and the audience seemed to really like their performance so “Ted Healy and his Stooges” were born.

Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Curly Howard in ‘Disorder in the Court’ (1936).

Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Curly Howard in ‘Disorder in the Court’ (1936).

In 1925, the trio started looking for another member, and when they met Larry Fine they simply knew that he was the right man for the job, so he became the third Stooge. Next thing you know “Ted Healy and His Stooges” were on their way to becoming the most popular comedy trio in the United States.

The Stooges with Shemp (center) from 1949’s ‘Malice in the Palace’.

The Stooges with Shemp (center) from 1949’s ‘Malice in the Palace’.

They made one feature film, Soup to Nuts, before Shemp left to pursue a solo career in 1931 and was replaced by his younger brother, Jerry, known as “Curly”. Three years later, the trio left Healy after a bitter dispute and they signed their own contract with Columbia Pictures and the Three Stooges were born.

Over the next 12 years, the Three Stooges produced nearly one hundred short films for Columbia but then, in 1946, Curly suffered a stroke, at which point Shemp returned to replace him. They continued appearing in many more short films but on November 22, 1955, Shemp died of a heart attack. He was replaced by Joe Besser for the next two years until he quit to nurse his ailing wife and was replaced by Joe DeRita who became “Curly Joe”, in 1958. However, the deaths of both Moe Howard and Larry Fine, who died in 1975, marked the end of the Three Stooges as well.

The Three Stooges were at the peak of their popularity during the first 12 years after they signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. However, the Stooges were never aware of exactly how popular they were. Columbia Pictures used their popularity to sell some of their mediocre B movies to exhibitors. Reportedly, they refused to supply them with the Stooges’ shorts unless they booked some of their mediocre B movies.

Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn never informed the trio of their true popularity and at one stage even told them that comedy shorts were not as popular as they had been in the past. At the peak of their popularity, the Three Stooges were afraid that their days were numbered and they never asked for a better contract or salary increase.

Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe in a 1962 TV ad promoting their earlier short subjects, though DeRita never appeared in any.

Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe in a 1962 TV ad promoting their earlier short subjects, though DeRita never appeared in any.

For 23 years these rather strange tactics worked for Columbia Pictures and Harry Cohn, who managed to convince them that the market for comedy shorts was “dying out”.  The Three Stooges brought millions to Columbia Pictures while remaining totally unaware of how popular they were.

Read another story from us: Chaplin’s The Great Dictator might be the most popular, but it was The Three Stooges who first openly mocked Hitler on film

It was during this period that the Three Stooges became one of the best-loved comedy teams of all time. The trio had an unrivaled career at Columbia and over the 23 years of collaboration, they made 190 short films that made the Three Stooges immortal comedy icons and the world’s favorite comedy team.