Ever since I wrote a Three Stooges biography that Pete and Bobby Farrelly liked, they’ve kept me up to speed through their long effort to make a feature that not only channeled the spirit of the troupe’s indelible repertoire of slaps, eye pokes and workplace mishaps, but that actually brought back Moe, Larry and Curly to dish them out for a new generation. The Farrellys sent me scripts–all were funny–and recently gave me an early peek at the finished film. Despite my reservations going in, I laughed hard and often at the trademark mayhem. And I was surprised they managed to keep things civil enough for a PG that opens the door to the same young age group that saved Stooges shorts from obscurity when they aired afternoons on TV in the 60s.
The Farrellys tell me they’ve gotten similarly encouraging reactions from Stooges fans like Howard Stern, who, with his sound effects-savvy producer Fred Norris, does as much to keep the spirit of The Stooges alive as anybody these days. Stern told his listeners that he was surprised how loud and how often he laughed. If you’re a Stooges guy, that’s how you respond to their gags, usually with a woman by your side, looking at you like you’re an idiot.
Still, I can’t for the life of me predict how this movie will fare when Fox releases it April 13. Cynicism is high in the internet age, but for this film, it’s hardly new. I devoted a chunk of my book to filmmakers influenced by the Stooges (Bob Zemeckis said when he and Bob Gale wrote laffers, they used the 1934 Stooges short Punch Drunks as the model for seamless comedy), Quentin Tarantino (who included Stooge sidekick Emil Sitka’s classic line ‘Hold Hands, You Love Birds’ right before John Travolta plunged an adrenaline needle into Uma Thurman heart in Pulp Fiction), and Mel Gibson (who incorporated Stooges mannerisms into his Lethal Weapon, Max Max and Payback performances). All had opinions on the merits of a Stooges film. Tarantino and the Zucker Brothers cried sacrilege; Mel Brooks actually tried making one, discovered he could not sustain the frantic pace for a feature, and turned it into 1976’s Silent Movie. I can also remember the passion from several filmmakers and especially the late Phil Hartman, whose dream was to play Moe, and who was sure a Stooges film would soar. Numerous attempts have been made at different studios dating back to the 1970s, so I give the Farrellys credit for getting this far. Now, can they make 2012 film audiences embrace comedy the Stooges first introduced in Columbia Pictures shorts in 1934?
PETE FARRELLY: There are hardcore Stooges fans out there who believe it is sacrilege to make this movie. But we think it is sacrilege that so many kids today do not even know about The Three Stooges. We grew up loving them, and consider them the all-time funniest guys. Nobody made us laugh harder. They never got the grade A first class treatment they deserved during their lives. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and The Marx Brothers made features and were considered a notch up. The Stooges made shorts that played before B movies, and never had the status. Taking nothing away from those others, The Stooges were the top dogs in our minds. And we don’t want them to go away.
DEADLINE: Knowing hardcore fans might cry blasphemy and young audiences might not know The Stooges at all, how hard was it to sell Fox?
BOBBY FARRELLY: Fox’s hesitation was, those guys started out in the 30s, ran through the 50s and there was something old fashioned about what they did. Their concern was, how would that play into today’s world? Pete and I didn’t have that reservation. We don’t think what they did has ever been duplicated. The physical humor, hitting each other at the slightest provocation, it keeps us laughing no matter how many times we watch it. The key for the studio was updating the movie to give you the feeling it could happen in this world, so today’s kids who don’t know The Three Stooges can relate to these guys. And we had Tom Rothman behind us.
PETE FARRELLY: A few years ago, there was a takeoff on The Marx Brothers’ Night At The Opera called Brain Donors. It didn’t do any business at all. We didn’t want to remake anything the Stooges did because we would not be able to duplicate it. So we wrote all new material. They look, act, talk and dress the same, the sound effects are the same, but they’re placed in the present. You might have noticed there is no pie fight. When the Stooges did pie fights, it was during the Depression. People were poor, they didn’t have enough food on the table. And here came the Stooges, crashing these highfalutin bashes, throwing pies. It was unbelievably crazy and wasteful and that was part of the humor.
DEADLINE: Movies that do slapstick well, from Dumb and Dumber to early Steve Martin comedies, never lose money. Why does slapstick feel like a lost art?
BOBBY FARRELLY: Maybe because it’s considered lowbrow, though we’ve never felt that way. Physical comedy ages the best of all comedy, and it travels well. If you look at The Three Stooges or any physical gag stuff from W.C. Fields to Charlie Chaplin, they are still hilarious to watch. Movies based on verbal repartee, good movies by the likes of Preston Sturges, don’t hold up as well because wordplay changes over generations. Of all our movies, the one that has held up best is Dumb and Dumber, because of the physicality.
PETE FARRELLY: Cheers was my favorite TV show of the 80s. When it came on reruns, I loved those, to a point. The Three Stooges never wore out their welcome with us, so we consider them the all-time best. Maybe the exception would be Larry David.
DEADLINE: Who wears a nun’s habit in your movie, goes by the name Sister Mary-Mengele, and is the butt of every joke…
PETE FARRELLY: Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm? I’d put Larry up there with The Stooges. The other is The Andy Griffith Show, because of Don Knotts’ Barney Fife. He had a facial expression for every line, he was clumsy, he was an idiot, and because of his physical comedy skills, it still holds up.
DEADLINE: In Dumb and Dumber, I always felt Jeff Daniels was channeling Larry Fine and that there was a bit of Curly’s childlike demeanor in Jim Carrey. You see the Stooges influence in some of your other early movies as well. Were you channeling the Stooges until you could finally get this movie made?
BOBBY FARRELLY: I’m not sure we realized it at the time, but after we made Dumb and Dumber, Pete mentioned it was a whole lot like what the Stooges did. You had these dumb guys, it’s physical, funny and at that point we thought, geez, maybe it’s time. Dumb and Dumber is pretty Stooge-esque.
PETE FARRELLY: Dumber and Dumber had this in common with the Stooges. When you watch the shorts and hopefully this movie, there are three movies going on. Sometimes you look at Curly, sometimes you look at Larry, and sometimes Moe, because they’re all doing different things at the same time. When I was a kid, I first gravitated to Curly. As I got a little older, I thought Moe was the catalyst, but over time, Larry became my favorite. He’s the reactor. If you look at his reaction to everything that’s going on, it’s funnier than what is actually going on. That’s what Jeff Daniels did for Jim Carrey, he took a very simple movie and gave it a whole other dimension by his reactions.
DEADLINE: So many people were rumored to play the trio over the years. You got very close to landing Benicio Del Toro for Moe, Sean Penn for Larry and Jim Carrey for Curly, until it fell apart when Sean took an acting sabbatical for personal reasons. You’ve cast relative unknowns. Are you better off not having the expectations big stars bring?
PETE FARRELLY: This movie couldn’t have been made any better with anyone else, the three we got are incredible. We’ve always been blessed to have people pass on us. We could sit here and say, it was a choice, but we couldn’t get anybody! People were scared to death to do this movie because of the criticism you see all over the internet and also because we were clear on one thing. We said, you’re not doing a version of Moe, Larry or Curly. You’re doing Moe, Larry and Curly, on the nose. This isn’t Batman, where different actors come in and do their thing. Nobody liked that. So we decided to cast the best Moe, Larry and Curly out there and these are the guys we came up with. We’ve always taken a Zen view of casting. If we had gotten the cast we originally wanted for Dumb and Dumber, you would never have heard of the movie. Jim Carrey was about the 150th guy offered it. Guys who had never done a movie, only commercials, passed. Every standup comedian passed. Jim said, I’ll do it. We fought to get Jeff in there after that, and it taught us. We’ve never really gotten who we wanted over the years, and we’ve always loved everybody we’ve gotten.
DEADLINE: The most recognizable participants in The Three Stooges might well be the gang from Jersey Shore. Vinny, Pauly and Deena are missing. Did you only have cash to get enough of them to make the point?
BOBBY FARRELLY: We didn’t have a huge budget. I think Pauly wanted too much money which was too bad because he’s also from Rhode Island. There were budgetary issues, but we did get enough of them to make our point. The Jersey Shore cast is one of the things that puts The Three Stooges in the modern world. The movie’s an hour and a half long and we split the Stooges up, because we didn’t want them hitting each other the whole time. Moe gets a part on a reality show, and that changed over the years. Originally, it was Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, then The Hills. When it came time to make the movie, Jersey Shore was the biggest thing going and so we put him on that.
DEADLINE: Big budgets make sequels difficult, but it seems this has been shrewdly constructed to make that possible. Explain how this was put together financially.
PETE FARRELLY: Our goal is never to hatch a franchise, but if there was ever a movie that could…We could have done There’s Something Else About Mary and didn’t. Dumb and Dumber will be our first sequel. We were having a hard time getting this made and loved it so much that we took a page out of Todd Phillips’ playbook for The Hangover. We said, we’ll do it for free, just give us a bigger back end. That got their attention.
BOBBY FARRELLY: We brought this in at $36 million. That included rights payments and the cost of moving from one studio to another over the years. The making of the movie was pretty low by today’s standards.
DEADLINE: I don’t think censors and even parents were watching back in the 60s when we discovered the Stooges shorts on TV. They dished out brutal beatings, treated women badly, and used dialogue that would be considered racist today, particularly in the WWII propaganda shorts done at the expense of Germans and Japanese. How did you get a PG rating?
BOBBY FARRELLY: We went to the MPAA, showed them the script and told them this would be in keeping with Three Stooges stuff. They came back and told us, do it with no swearing, no sex, drugs, and no blood, and it will be PG.
DEADLINE: Moe Howard struggled to keep the Stooges going as his brother Curly had a debilitating stroke and his brother Shemp dropped dead from a heart attack. Columbia boss Harry Cohn made them sweat out contract renewals with little or no raises and salaries well below what movie stars made. During the course of those twists and turns, the families of Larry Fine, Curly Howard and Shemp Howard signed deals years ago that excluded them from posthumous Stooges proceeds. I’ve heard you’ve made it possible for their heirs to take part in the film’s proceeds. True?
PETE FARRELLY: That’s a tricky question. We just did a big screening for the entire family, all the heirs came in. We’ve tried to include them as much as we could. We brought Curly’s relatives to the editing room and they were teary eyed. To answer your question, Bobby and I are donating a point of our back end to Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp’s families. But that’s personal and we’d rather keep it that way.
DEADLINE: Given how the Stooges were exploited through their careers, with Curly and Larry both suffering strokes that were probably related to all the punishment they absorbed for so many years, this is a nice gesture, whether you want to discuss it or not.
PETE FARRELLY: They never reached out and said, hey, we deserve a piece of this. We love The Three Stooges, and if this does well, we wanted everybody to be happy.