Awww...dammit. It’s Joe Besser.
Whenever anyone hunkers down for a nice long Three Stooges marathon, there’s always that sense of anticipation as to who the third Stooge will be in the next short. Will it star Curly and amuse us with his child-like innocence and gift for physical comedy? Or will it be Shemp, with his gruff voice and willingness to stand up to Moe and pay the consequences? Either one usually means comedy gold.
But sometimes there is an anomaly in this comedic smorgasbord. An obscure face appearing in the opening credits that is cursed by Stooge fans everywhere. The face of Joe Besser.
Joe Besser was born on August 17, 1907 in St. Louis, Missouri. As a child he immediately started working in show business by becoming a song-plugger for a sheet music store and distributing handbills for a local theatre company. At age 13 he decided to become a professional magician, just like his idol Howard Thurston. After pestering Thurston to let him join the act, Besser finally stowed away on the train with Thurston's act on board, heading for Michigan. The following morning, as the train pulled into Detroit, Thurston and his manager found him fast asleep on top of the lion's cage. They wired Joe’s parents to tell them where he was and from that day on he was part of the act.
In 1928, Joe left the act to strike out on his own as a solo comedian. He toured around the country on the vaudeville circuit, building his fame and renown as one of the top comedians in the United States. He quickly became known for his portrayals of effeminate, whining, man-child type characters who would exclaim, “Oooohhh, you’re crazy!” with a wave of his hand.
Upon seeing his stage act, he was signed to an exclusive deal with Columbia Pictures where he was cast in both full-length movies and the studio’s comedic shorts. Soon radio comedians like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor and Milton Berle were all clamoring to have him on their shows. Besser made frequent appearances on all of their shows, most famously as the delirious character Mr. Know It All on “Let Yourself Go”, starring Milton Berle from 1945 to 1949. His television debut came on the variety series “Hour Glass”, the first live, hour-long entertainment series of any kind produced for network television. It aired on NBC on May 9, 1946. Joe was also featured on The Abbot and Costello Show as the duo’s arch-nemesis Stinky (essentially playing Newman to Abbot and Costello’s Jerry and George).
After the sudden death of Shemp in 1956, Moe and Larry needed to find a third Stooge for their act. They had worked with Joe during their vaudeville days, and since he was now one of the top comedians in the country, it seemed like a massive coup that they managed to get him to join on. Unfortunately, Joe had it written into his contract that he couldn’t be hit, which forced Larry to take the brunt of Moe’s aggression and totally threw off the team’s comedic timing. Joe’s man-child routine also didn’t gel with the styles of Moe and Larry and it quickly became annoying. As a result, the 16 Stooge shorts that starred Joe are considered to be some of the worst in the lot and are generally hated by Stooge fans everywhere.
Joe left team in 1958 in order to care for his sick wife. He continued to appear in television and movies throughout the 1960s, including a long-running stint on The Joey Bishop Show, guest shots on shows like That Girl and Love, American Style, and voicing several characters in Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
Joe retired to his home in Hollywood, California in 1980 and spent his time gardening and making toys for neighborhood children. He eventually succumbed to heart failure on March 1, 1988 at the age of 81. It’s unfortunate that a man with such a long and distinguished career in comedy seems to only be remembered as the Stooge that nobody likes.