Joe Besser: The Right Third Stooge at the Right Time

With Shemp Howard in Africa Screams (1949).
By Greg Lenburg

For six decades he made people laugh: In vaudeville. On radio. In the movies, including in starring feature films and solo short subjects for Columbia Pictures. On the stage and Broadway shows. On television. And, even by doing Saturday morning cartoon voice overs.

He was comic Joe Besser.

In November of 1955, Shemp Howard, one of Joe's dearest friends who replaced his brother Curly in 1947 as the third stooge in The Three Stooges, died suddenly of a heart attack. The Stooges had four shorts remaining to be produced for 1956. Instead of replacing Shemp as the third stooge, Columbia remade four Three Stooges shorts featuring Shemp and filmed new footage using an obvious double for him in some scenes.

But, for the 1957 production year, it was obvious if Columbia wanted to continue to produce Three Stooges shorts, it needed a new third stooge. That's where Besser came in. And that's what this story is about: why Joe Besser was the right third stooge at the right time.

Around Christmas of 1956, studio President Harry Cohn approached Besser, who was under contract with the studio, about replacing Shemp. By this time, Besser was already very popular with radio, movie, and television audiences. Besser had already made three starring features and 11 short-subjects in the 1940-1950s for the studio.

Standing up to Moe in Sappy Bullfighters (1959).
Like Curly, Besser's character was childlike, with hand waving mannerisms and funny expressions.  His character was a childlike sissy who brandished his foils with a flick of the wrist and with such hilarious verbal assaults as “Ooh, you cr-a-a-z-y you!” and “Not so f-a-a-s-t!” He was rotund and bald. Like the third stooges that preceded him, he was unreal. (His character, developed in vaudeville, wasn’t gay, nor was he in real life.)

The Stooges had a two-year contract to film 16 additional short subjects to be released from 1957-1959.

Besser was more than happy to join the Stooges. He was agreeable as long as he could play his own famous character and did not have to be on the receiving end of the team's violent antics. Frankly, he was afraid of being hurt. His concern was definitely a real one. Both Moe and Larry, in interviews, on many occasions, talked about the numerous times they had been hurt while making their films. Particularly, Besser was concerned about Moe hurting his eyes when he did his famous eye poke. 

For the eye poke, Moe would aim above the eyelids. But, according to Moe, on many occasions, he missed and hit his Stooge partners directly in the eyes. Further, Moe was developing glaucoma. As he got older, his eyesight worsened, which made it increasingly difficult for him to see to hit the right mark.

The Stooges, particularly Moe, the team's leader in real life and who had final say on who was to be hired to be the third stooge, was agreeable to Joe's terms. White also wholeheartedly endorsed Besser, believing he would fit in well with the team. Larry offered to take the slaps, pokes and knocks in place of Joe. However, as Joe became more comfortable with the boys' antics, he did take his share, as his performance in the shorts will bear out.

Taking a licking in Guns A Poppin! (1957).
For over 30 years, since vaudeville, Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp were known for their violent antics.But, by the time Besser joined the team, Moe was almost 60. Larry was 55. So, at this stage in the Stooges' career, was it truly safe or healthy for them to continue with their violent trademark brand of humor?

In reality, Besser did Moe and Larry a favor. When the Stooges shorts were released to television in 1958, they were an instant hit with children and the Stooges were back in demand. But, to appeal to a major concern of parents and parent-teacher groups, who were extremely upset and worried about children imitating the trio’s violent antics, the team had to tone down their act considerably. They were now a kiddie attraction. And the situation would have been the same if Besser was able to continue with the team.

There were a couple of things that hurt many of the shorts during the Besser period: low budgets and weak stories. 

While the Stooges, including Joe, ad-libbed a lot and were spontaneous as much as they could in every short,  each film needed a structure: a good storyline.

Some fans think that the Stooges shorts with Besser are the weaker ones. Some have even labeled him as the worst stooge, a label that would have deeply hurt Joe in real life if he had lived to hear or learn this. What's weird: When he was alive, Joe received hundreds of letters from adoring Stooges fans each week. He also received a huge ovation from more than 3,000 fans at the 1983 Hollywood Walk of Fame Three Stooges Star unveiling ceremony. 

Reaching new heights in Oil's Well That Ends
And, at "A Star for the Stooges Film Festival" held in Hollywood, prior to the Stooges receiving their long over due star, the Three Stooges short, Oil's Well That Ends Well (1959), with Joe as the third stooge, was screened. The audience laughed - even howled- from start to finish. It just proved that when the Stooges, including Joe, had a solid platform such as a great storyline, they could provide the dressing: laughs, and plenty of them.

By the Besser period, White continued the trend of remaking many of the shorts, with new footage which only took one day to shoot, to save money.  

Of the 16 shorts with Besser as the third stooge, seven were remakes or reworkings of previous Stooges comedies with stock footage. It wasn’t Joe's nor Moe and Larry's fault that the storylines for many of the shorts were not up to par with many of Curly’s or Shemp’s best nor that budgets were low, or that some of the remakes, which included stock footage, weren’t of a few of the team’s best shorts. 

The Stooges weren't the only comedy team during this period to have some films that suffered from weak stories. Abbott and Costello did, too. Was it the team’s fault? Certainly not. Did they write the scripts? Set the budget? Hire the directors? Of course not.

Also, when making the remakes, the Stooges, including Joe, were under other constraints. Take for example in Pies and Guys, a remake of Half Wits Holiday, the Stooges, including Joe, were locked in to following the script.

Under those circumstances, Besser and the boys did the best they could.  

And, unlike his third stooge predecessors, in Besser’s defense, which most fans don’t realize, while Joe was familiar with the Stooges’ antics, having worked with them in vaudeville with their mentor Ted Healy, he was literally pressed into service without having the luxury of rehearsing with the team.

Classic pose from A Merry Mix Up I(1957).

Who knows what would have happened if the Stooges and Besser would have continued to make short subjects for Columbia or if Joe was able to stay with the Stooges and appear with them in their feature films of the 1960s?

Was Joe Besser really the worst stooge? No. A fairer assessment would be who was fans' favorite Stooge? That wouldn't make any of the four third stooges the worst. Everyone has their favorites. Take for example, The Beatles. If fans liked John over the others, does that make one of the others the worst? Absolutely not.

One thing is for sure: As the third stooge, Joe Besser made us laugh.  He deserves our recognition for his contribution to Three Stooges history. 

Thanks to his contribution to the Stooges, although brief, Joe Besser brought new vitality, new energy to the team at a time when they sorely needed it. He was indeed the right third stooge at the right time.

As Columbia Pictures advertising department said when they advertised Besser joining the Stooges: they said he would add a “brand new sparkle” to the team.

Indeed, he did. 

(Greg Lenburg is a Three Stooges author, historian and authority. He is co-author of The Three Stooges Scrapbook - Updated Edition, considered to be the Three Stooges fan's bible, and Stooge Joe Besser's updated and enlarged autobiography, Once a Stooge, Always a Stooge.)