For a Stooge's birthday, a primer on the Zen of slapstick.
Larry Fine, that most mysteriously guileless of Stooges, was born 120 years ago today, and to honor the occasion, I’m reprinting one of my favorite Globe pieces, originally published on April 8, 2012, for paying subscribers. It’s rare that I get to address my love of movies and Zen practice in the same article, but this one — pegged to a big-screen Three Stooges bio-pic that came and went that year without so much as a splat — was too much fun to pass up: A treatise on the intersection of high religion and low comedy.
Moe Better Blues
A monk asked Hyakujō, “What is the most wonderful thing?” Jo said, “I sit alone on this Great Sublime Peak.” The monk made a bow. Jo struck him. (“The Blue Cliff Record,” Case 26)
Larry: “Where’s your dignity?” (Moe slaps him)
Moe: “There it is.”
(“Hoi Polloi,” 1935)
All great comedians are Buddhist monks in disguise. Look to the classic figures of 20th-century slapstick: Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton, the Marx Brothers, the young Jerry Lewis. They all used physical humor — the pratfall, the pie, the refusal of everyday objects to play nice — to monkey-wrench the audience’s minds and pull the rug out from under their dignity and ours. A good belly laugh can be an opened window to enlightenment: In the shock of the joke is the recognition that the world doesn’t behave according to our assumptions, that Meaning itself is suspect. Consider the way Groucho and Chico reduce the English language to rubble while Harpo plays Einsteinian physical games with reality. Look at how things transform in Chaplin’s hands while the universe bends around Buster.
In this spirit, I submit to you that the secret Zen masters of American pop culture are the Three Stooges.