Who Would Have Thought Academics Would Indulge in ... : Stooge Studies?

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Jon Solomon, respected scholar, professor of the classics, is sitting in his finely appointed living room discussing the Curly Shuffle.

It was a sort of moonwalk dance performed by Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, a staple of his physical comedy. It's impossible to describe, even harder to pull off.

"I just can't do the Curly Shuffle," Solomon says. Then he pauses and his face brightens: "But I can do this."

He snaps his fingers while slapping one fist into his palm, then uses his fingers to play a little riff on his chin.

Such foolery is tricky stuff for an academic of Solomon's credentials. He's written three books and translated two. He's won numerous teaching awards at the University of Arizona. His first specialty is the music of ancient Greece.

The second is the Stooges. He studies Moe, Larry and Curly. He pores over their films and writes erudite papers explaining how there's really more to them than woob-woobing and eye-gouging.

What's more, he bears a strong resemblance to Larry. The similarity doesn't bother him a bit.

"Why should it?" he asks. "Only my hair doesn't clump out on the sides the way Larry's does."

Stooge Studies have become a kind of cottage specialty among academics. Cottage is the right word, because the number of professors who do it could fit into one. There are about 10 nationwide.

It's not hard to figure out why. Professors are supposed to delve into weightier subjects. The more inaccessible and the less popular, the better.

Chaucer beats Curly. Mao tops Moe. Larry isn't even on the map. What is there to study about a guy whose nickname is "Porcupine"?

"This isn't something I talk about a lot. I rarely put it on my resume," Solomon says. (He furthered his renegade image in February by appearing on "60 Minutes" and criticizing the University of Arizona for not requiring professors to teach more.)

Another Stooge expert--Don Morlan, communications professor at the University of Dayton--says the sidelong glances of colleagues aren't as obvious for scholars who manage to link their Moe, Larry and Curly research with serious academics.

"I study their World War II-era shorts as propaganda films," he says. "That carries a lot more weight than looking at belly-poking."

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All of this started five years ago at a meeting of the Popular Culture Assn., a scholarly 3,500-member organization based at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Solomon was about to deliver a paper on alien language in films, such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," when the group's president remarked that she hated science fiction.

"You either love it or hate it," Solomon responded. "It's like the Stooges." In unison, everyone on the room said, "I love the Stooges," or "I hate the Stooges."

The strong reaction convinced Solomon that the Stooges were fertile ground, and ever since he's been encouraging other association scholars to look at them from an historical and cultural perspective.

"Until the association was formed, it wasn't acceptable for academics to study popular culture," Solomon says. "But over the past 20 years it's become clear that America's contribution to the arts is popular culture. It's being studied in that context more and more."

In one paper, he argued that Stooges' shorts provide a good window on the times in which they were made--from vaudeville to the Great Depression and World War II, to resettling and getting married after the war and the economic boom of the late '40s and '50s.

In the Stooges' Depression-era films, for instance, Moe, Larry and Curly always represented the downtrodden against the wealthy. "They'd go into an aristocrat's home to exterminate bugs or something and wind up trashing the place," Solomon notes.

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Ever since he broke the ice, other scholars have come out of the shadows with papers of their own.

Last year Morlan picked up on the Stooges versus the rich theme with a paper on how pie fights improved American spirits during the Depression and contributed to anti-aristocracy sentiment.

His work on the Stooges' propaganda films was groundbreaking. He was the first to show that their anti-Hitler shorts predated Charlie Chaplin's much-studied work, "The Great Dictator."

In January, 1940, the Stooges came out with "You Nazty Spy," beating Chaplin by nine months. Then in July, 1941, they released "I'll Never Heil Again," a more pointed jab at Hitler. At that time, making Hitler look bad was highly controversial.

"All the Stooges were Jewish and they were sensitive to what was going on in Europe," Morlan says.

Other Stooge papers delivered at past association meetings include one from Jason Danielian, an assistant state prosecutor in Illinois, analyzing their courtroom scenes.

Today, at this year's three-day Popular Culture Assn. meeting in Philadelphia, a three-hour session on Moe, Larry and Curly will be held--that's twice as long as any other.

Among the presentations will be a videotaped analysis by Danielian of shorts in which the Stooges perform as musicians. He's calling it "Songs in the Key of Moe."

"The musical episodes just show how multifaceted they were," Danielian says. "Not many people realize that Larry trained as a concert violinist and was very talented."

Kathleen Chamberlain, an English professor at Virginia's Emory & Henry College, will speak on the trio's portrayal of women.

They were usually shown as caricatures, such as the snooty dowager or the damsel in distress, and always as foils to highlight the Stooges' antics, says Chamberlain, a rare female Stooge fan.

"For example, when Curly is trying to pawn off a fat girl on Moe, he calls him up and says, 'Moe, you'd better get over here, you're missing the biggest thing of your life.' There's nothing politically correct about them," says Chamberlain, who says that as a kid, she and her sister had permission to drop everything, including the phone, and come running whenever anyone in their house hollered, "Curly's on!"

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All of those presenting papers to the association grew up watching the Stooges, either in their original films or on syndicated TV. Except for Chamberlain, they are all male and, except for Danielian, they're all academics.

Solomon says that occasionally someone will refer to a distinguished colleague as a knucklehead. And in signing off correspondence, they might skip "sincerely," and write "nyuck, nyuck, nyuck" instead.

"Other than that, it's a pretty academic atmosphere," Solomon says. He adds that he won't be able to attend this year's conference, explaining how hard it is to persuade deans to pay for Stooge-related travel.

But Stooge professors share another characteristic: Their affection for individual Stooges changed as they aged and followed the same progression--starting with Curly, then going to Larry, then Moe. (Even Shemp, Moe's mop-headed real-life brother who was often maligned in comparison to Curly, gets good marks for his physical skills.)

Solomon, 45, grew up in Philadelphia, and says that as the youngest of three brothers, he felt obligated to be a Curly man. "I'd get up during dinner and run out to the foyer and do Curly's chicken-with-his-head-cut-off," Solomon recalls.

He'd get down on the floor on his side, kicking his legs in such a way that it propelled him around and around in circles. He did it so often in college that he wore a hole in the shoulder of his jacket.

"My Curly phase lasted a long time," he says.

Sometime in his 30s, he came to appreciate Larry's subtleties. Then he moved into his Moe phase. He's still in it. A few years ago at an association meeting, Solomon met Moe's sister, Joan Maurer, and the two had a heart to heart.

"She was very helpful to me in understanding what Moe was all about," he says. "He was a kind man who looked after the other Stooges, studied their contracts to make sure they were getting what they deserved, and he was a great pie thrower."

As for the Curly Shuffle, prosecutor Danielian says he does it in the office all the time, and he has a tip for Solomon:

"When you flip your left leg back, you use that momentum to slide the right foot back along on the floor. That's the key, the momentum. But it takes practice."

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