By Greg Lenburg

Before Besser replaced one of his closest friends, Shemp
Howard, as the third stooge in the Three Stooges, he
ironically co-starred opposite him in the 1949 Abbott and
Costello film, Africa Screams.
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. 

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.

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.  Although Joe did take his share, as


his performance in the shorts will bear out.

For over 30 years, since vaudeville, Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp were known for their violent antics. But, by the time Joe 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?

Some fans think that the Stooges shorts with Besser are the weaker ones. Some have even labelled 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.