Peter Farrelly caught me at home making lunch for my kids. I’d been expecting his call, had the recorder set up by the speaker phone, which was charged. Good to go. And of course, when he called, I was right in the middle of lunch. There’s something appropriate about the chaos of the conversation we ended up having for the next half-hour, because as long as I’ve known the Farrellys, they’ve been at the center of some storm or the other.
This time around, the storm is of their own making. Specifically, they’ve stepped out onto holy ground for many film fans, and they’ve made a Three Stooges movie. It’s not a biography. It’s not a behind-the-scenes story. It’s just a movie starring The Three Stooges. The characters, not the people.
And since the Three Stooges were really people (a whole lot more than three of them over the years, to be fair), there are film fans who feel that no one else has the right to play them. That’s certainly a fair position to take. I have no idea what I’ll make of the film itself, which I’ll see soon. But in the thirteen years since I first met Peter and Bobby Farrelly, there are a few things they’ve always been passionate about. Family. These are big family guys from Rhode Island, and as set in their family roots as possible. Big silly comedy. And a few titles in particular. “The Heartbreak Kid” and The Three Stooges.
These films are certainly big commercial corporate properties, but the Farrellys come to them as comedy nerds, through and through. I’ve sat in the room with them and with the writers they’ve used on their films over the years, and I’ve heard the way they approach building their scenes and their characters. They are comedy nerds the way some of my friends are horror nerds or James Bond nerds or comic book nerds. And for them, The Three Stooges were DNA-level programming. They saw them on TV the way kids today see “Spongebob Square Pants.” And they watched as the Stooges receded from pop culture, to such a near-complete degree that they eventually reasoned that making a movie that is a series of three complete short Stooges films would be a way of introducing the characters of Moe, Larry, and Curly to little kids.
They’re right. Adult Stooge fans can get angry all they want, but in my house, Fox’s campaign worked brilliantly on the intended victims. When my four-year-old son saw the first trailer…
… he lost his damn fool mind. LOST IT. BOOM. MIND BLOWN. And in particular, one joke. Larry with the lobster down his pants.
And you can debate the artistic ethics of making movies in which dead real people are now characters all day long, and this year in particular, we’ve got Abe Lincoln hunting vampires and The Stooges slap-fighting again, and it’s worth a conversation with the people behind that. It’s worth hearing what the Farrellys have to say about the film. I mean, direct hit, that trailer sank my little boy’s Battleship. HILARIOUS. He’s convinced the Stooges are the greatest invention of cinema, the raison d’être. And who am I to tell him he’s wrong? What I did since he had that reaction was I got out a few of the Stooges collections that SPHE put out on DVD, and we decided to watch some Larry, Moe, and Curly episodes.
I think we’ll save conversations about Shemp until the boys are older.
So there I was in the kitchen, the boys home for the week on Spring Break, playing in the kitchen cabinets we have that are big enough for them to use as hiding places. Yelling. Chasing. Me cooking. And on the phone, Pete Farrelly, asking me how Kevin Biegel’s doing. Biegel, one of the creators of ABC’s “Cougar Town,” and a dead-funny comedy writer who’s worked on “Scrubs” and “South Park,” got some of his earliest professional comedy work doing round-table rewrites on several of the Farrelly films. Before that, he worked for them, a relationship that stretched back to when we published an early review of a test screening of “There’s Something About Mary” that Biegel wrote. The Farrellys read that review and reached out to the site to get in touch with him, and that started a relationship that pretty much changed Biegel’s life.
After we talked about Biegel and what he’s up to and the fate of “Cougar Town” (between us, at least eight fingers were crossed), we talked about the way my kids have been reacting to the trailers. Farrelly seemed pleased to hear that the ads had convinced the boys, and I brought up the way this project took a long roundabout method to make it to the screen. “The reason we did it now is because, frankly, the studio finally put up the money,” he said. “We’ve been developing this for 13 years. That’s how long we’ve had the idea of taking these characters who are seventy-something years old and putting them in a modern setting. Even back then, even when we were coming off of ‘Mary’ and we couldn’t have been hotter, people were like ‘I don’t know.’ We always believed it was worth doing. Too many kids don’t know the Stooges today. To us, they were the funniest guys in our lifetime, our personal favorites, and it seemed wrong that they were going away.”
He talked about how much people have been set against the idea, and mentioned Howard Stern in particular as a superfan who was openly skeptical of it. “So if my kids fall in love with the Stooges, you’ve done what you set out to do?”
“God’s honest truth, we knew the pressure of making this film. Stern kept saying ‘This doesn’t sound right.’ We had a lot to live up to and a lot to prove. And it was worth it to us, because we believe we were doing the right thing, and every day, in the morning, we’d say a prayer. ‘Moe, Larry, Curly, come help us out, because we’re doing this for you.'”
I asked him if there was any surprise once they got into the shoot, if there was anything about shooting Stooges material that he didn’t expect. “The thing that surprised me is how this is exactly what I had hoped it would be. Once we got on set and we started shooting, it felt right, and right away.”
I asked him how you build slapstick on the page, and then on set, and how much of it has to be between the actors once they’re in the space. “We worked a lot of it out in our heads, and we had storyboards. Even when you first see the actors, though, you’re not seeing much hitting. It’s hard to start out with guys just hitting each other. You basically… we believed that they had to be exactly Moe, Larry, and Curly. We didn’t want someone to come in and do their own take. We wanted them to be those characters. We wanted Moe to be Moe. That made it hard to cast, but once you get the right Moe, Larry, and Curly, then it comes down to luck. You have to hope you’re not going to get a guy who doesn’t like to get hit or who’s not particularly athletic or he’s slower than the others. That didn’t happen. These guys rehearsed for four to six weeks beforehand, and it was like with baseball. First they rehearsed the moves in slow-motion, then they moved up to half-speed, and by the time they were on-set, these guys were throwing fastballs.”
I talked to Peter about how much I’ve loved Larry Fine since I was a kid, and how my appreciation for him grew over the years. In particular, I love how it always feels like Larry is in his own movie, looking at something different than everyone else. I talked about how it felt like in many ways, Sean Hayes had the hardest job of the three guys hired to bring the Stooges to life. “That was the hardest role to cast. When I was growing up, there were ten kids in the schoolyard who could do Curly, and a few people could do Moe, but no one did Larry. The first one I ever heard was Billy West, and he actually came on as a consultant for us. He worked with Sean to get the exact tones down. And when Sean came in, he was already right there, doing it pretty well. A few weeks with Billy West, and it just got so it was perfect. And it’s hard, because Larry is a reactor.”
When i asked him about returning to “Dumb and Dumber,” the film that broke them and gave them the rest of their career, he told me that he was definitely excited. “And listen, this may sound corny, but I’ve had a ball on every film we’ve ever made. And I have real soft spot for ‘Dumb and Dumber.’ That was our first movie, and we didn’t know what the f**k we were doing. Thankfully, we had these two guys, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, who were both infinitely talented and infinitely patient with these guys who had no idea what they were doing. We were just figuring out what a boom mic is. I can’t wait to do it. I really love those guys and that film. The sad thing about our business is that it’s sort of like you’re a carney. You go town to town and you change crews and actors move on, and you never quite get the whole gang together again. It’ll be like our high school reunion doing this.”
I know “The Three Stooges” has already become a cultural punching bag, but in talking with the Farrellys and in talking with some of the actors playing the Stooges (those reviews will go up soon), what’s apparent to me is that you can’t fault them for enthusiasm or for a genuine love of the Stooges. Whatever else you want to say about the film, it’s being made from a place of really wanting to make Moe, Larry, and Curly part of the pop culture again.
Will it work? We’ll see next week, when “The Three Stooges” opens on April 13.