IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE, but 40 years ago the playgrounds of New Jersey elementary schools resembled martial arts academies, where boys honed skills learned from their slapstick masters, Curly, Larry, and Moe. The eye-poke, head-butt, and assorted slaps ventured out of a TV land of Three Stooges shorts and into a storm of parental oversight (in both senses of this abused term). Camps divided. Kids were either allowed or forbidden to watch the wacky mayhem, but the biggest division seemed to be simply a matter of gender: Boys loved them because they were violent, girls didn't.

Variety reporter Michael Fleming's recent "official and authorized" illustrated history of the Three Stooges endorses this primal explanation for their appeal, and knocks around a few other theories as well. In a short chapter wedged between a longer biographical section and an extended appendix with capsule summaries of the shorts, Hollywood luminaries testify to the Stooge influence. Mel Gibson (who duplicates his observations made in the book's introduction), Quentin Tarantino, and Mel Brooks are among the faithful.

In the biographical section, Moe himself supplies what strikes me as a more credible analysis when he discusses the disciplines of pie-throwing: "We specialize in upsetting dignity. We only throw pies at guys wearing top hats -- obviously high-class people. We never throw pies at old ladies." Although rich old ladies certainly suffer at least collateral damage as the food flies, this association with a populist audience carried the Stooges from vaudeville into the 1950s, when age and sickness, rather than a stodgy zeitgeist, proved to be their undoing. It's an old story and an ordinary one, told competently but with such delicacy that it almost seems dignified.

Another generation. When Moe's daughter Joan and her husband Norman set (or, upset) the record straight with The Three Stooges Book of Scripts Volume II, they created what a postmodern reader bent on recuperation might think of as an unintentional masterpiece, a multivalent celebration of forms which, had it been fiction, would bear comparison to Nabokov's Pale Fire or Richard Grossman's The Book of Lazarus. The interplay of photos, history, and commentary by the daughter, introduction by Whoopi Goldberg, and photocopied reproduction of typed scripts makes The Book of Scripts an absolute must-find for anyone within 10 miles of a used-book store. These days, 12 years after the book's copyright date, such a generous inclusion of scripts is inconceivable thanks to current applications of copyright law.

One of the strangest aspects of the project is the question of Joan Howard Maurer's authority. Although she has much more of a claim than Fleming to the role of official and authorized historian of her father's life and troupe, hers is far from a circumspect, ass-covering account. It isn't just her access to memorabilia that strengthens the book, but her personal stake in Moe's legacy, professional and otherwise, which drives her to assertions that a co-author other than her husband might have advised against. The book ends with her pushing for a Three Stooges commemorative postage stamp. After all, she reasons, Laurel and Hardy got a stamp. When she writes, "I defy you to go out on the street and take a poll of those persons who are currently watching the Stooges and those who are currently watching the 'classic comedians,' such as Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers, and see what the answer will be," the question shifts from "Shouldn't they get a stamp?" to "Aren't they the greatest of all?"

How great were they and what does it matter? This is the question that trumps all other aesthetic concerns when it comes to books, movies, and postage stamps. And yet, the act of reading about the lives of dead comedians is substantially different from the act of watching them beat each others' brains out in televised old films. For fans, any collection of information may be collectable and even readable. Fleming's book is nice. The Maurer thing is a monster, a creature capable of standing and raging apart from its creators, as if even the Three Stooges themselves were an invention, hardly believable but integral to the book that would tell their story.

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