Shemp is the thinking man’s Curly: Why the New Beatles is an idea dumb-and-dumber than the New Stooges

“My father? I never knew him. Never even seen a picture of him.” — Eminem
“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” — Paul Simon

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Beat the New Meatles: James, Sean, Dhani, Zak.
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Flashing gang signs, and in the '80s, yet: the New Monkees

It can’t be easy to try to follow in your ole pappy’s footsteps, as some big thinker, possibly Edgar Bronfman, Jnr., must have opined. That said, someone really needs to take charge and explain to the sons of John, Paul, Ringo and George what a alarmingly idiotic notion it is to consider forming a band called the New Beatles.

I’ve known a few scions of Great Men, here and there. True to the cliche, they have all had their issues. Even when the Austin Powers films, one after another, made devastating mockery of the next gen’s predictable insecurities (“Got issues? Here’s tissues!”), they pretended not to notice. They thought the planet would quite naturally take interest in their I-got-an-intimidating-daddy predicament. And then the planet was supposed to volunteer to help out, by going out of its planetary way to offer assistance. But the planet turns out to be not that much unlike me, which is to say, coldly indifferent to the imagined problems of rich, privileged whelps.

James McCartney, Sean Lennon, Dhani Harrison and Zak Starkey should know this. And yet, here is master James, settling into middle age at 34, telling the BBC: “I’d be up for [forming the New Beatles]… Sean seemed to be into it; Dhani seemed to be into it.”

Here’s who is not into it: anyone who wishes to avoid humiliation. “Beatles & Sons, Since 1962?” An abasement waiting to happen.

Honestly, if heredity counted for anything meaningful, George W. Bush would be something other than the chortling numbskull who spent eight years in the Oval Office repeatedly jabbing pushpins into light sockets, because he liked the bad smell and sizzling noises that followed.

These New Beatles are predestined to elicit the same response as Volkswagen’s New Beetle. That is, an initial cry of, “Aw, ain’t that cute?,” followed by the sound of no customers rushing to the dealership to demand a test-drive.

A new generation of rock stars, touring under a hallowed name: It isn’t as if this is anything other than a tried-and-failed formula, illustrated by two cautionary words. New Monkees.

The New Monkees were a footnote to a footnote. Twenty years after the formation of the original Monkees — and, yes, it is odd to use the words “original” and “Monkees” concurrently — Columbia Pictures thought they could get away with re-stocking the franchise with a quartet from central boy-band casting, and thus recapture the old magic. It probably made some economic sense when the idea occurred to the studio, in 1986. Pop music had eaten itself, MTV was beginning its long fade, MP3s were waiting to be born, and the iPod was still a loose brain-cell floating in Steve Jobs’ cranium. Colpix, the owners of the Monkees’ copyright and, ahem, intellectual property, saw a chance to snare a few loose coins from a nostalgia boomlet, while revivifying a once-profitable line item.

Hence: hey, hey, here come Jared, Dino, Marty and Larry in a New Monkees weekly TV show, accompanied by an exhilarating new album of sensational new material. Mighta worked, but didn’t. The old Monkees reappeared from obscurity, represented by legal counsel. Much more to the point, audiences paid no attention whatsoever to the new crew, and the New Monkees’ boob-tube extravaganza was euthanized 13 weeks into a planned 22-episode season. Don’t bother looking for a boxed set of DVDs, or a re-released CD to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 20th anniversary. Sony, the inheritor of the Colpix catalog, wants to bury this artifact alongside a case of Mr. Pibb, your mother’s orange Saturn, and other embarrassments of the period.

Not that the studios have entirely given up on turning old show-biz acts into the lumbering dead. Finally coming this week to a theatre near you: The Three Stooges, The Movie. The film-making Farrelly Brothers (“Dumb and Dumber”) have been trying for years, without success, to get this project lensed. A version starring Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro and Jim Carrey (as Curly) moved toward production until saner minds prevailed. The edition due for imminent release features B-listers Will Sasso, Sean Hayes, and Chris Diamantopoulos, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I have no clue if those individuals are professional actors, or talent-show contestants, or were previously employed as car-jockeys and lawn-boys by Brian Grazer. But the show goes on, alas. The movie also features Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino, from the “Jersey Shore” television program, starring as himself. Obviously, it takes a stooge to play a stooge-to-a-Stooge.

I’ve always maintained that you can tell a good deal about an individual by inquiring about the identity of their favorite Stooge: whether it is the sadistic and domineering Moe Howard, the damaged and oblivious Curly Howard, the lost and sweet-tempered Larry Fine. Personally, I’ve always been partial to Shemp Howard, the temporary Stooge, which places me in a minority. Shemp’s physical resemblance to the essayist H.L. Mencken has often been commented upon, and it’s true that he often came across as an ordinary citizen of his time who was pressed into service as a Stooge, potentially against his will, as a result of the incapacity of his brother, Jerome (Curly.)

Shemp was the epitome of Modern Stooge, a Howard who looked like a math teacher, literary agent, or police desk-sergeant. Jim Carrey reportedly shaved his head and gained 40 pounds in preparation for the role of Curly, which he ultimately abandoned — but the tragedy is that he might have played Shemp convincingly, without a schmear of makeup.

Shemp remains the thinking man’s Curly. He dared to be different, in the context of Stooge-dom, by appearing to be near-normal. He coined the Hee-bee-bee ululation, a tactful counterpoint to Curly’s “Woob-woob-woob.” When he died instantly in 1955 of a myocardial infarction (I am reminded through an e-mail from David Perry), it was in a cab, while lighting a cigar, after having just told a joke to a crony.

However, Columbia Pictures (yes, those swine, again) refused to allow Shemp to schlump off into that good night. Production had already begun on four more Stooges vehicles, and Shemp’s contract specifically called for four more appearances. This precedent of contractual law led to the phenomenon known as the “Fake Shemp,” whereby body-doubles, artful dialogue and other devices were utilized as Shemp-extenders, to ensure completion of the projects, despite the absence of one of the principals.

Moe: “I wonder what became of that Shemp?”
Larry: “You know, he went on deck to scout out some food.”

That is the inherent curse of the Fake Shemp — and you would have assumed that the sons of the Beatles would be more naturally attuned to the condition. Because from the very moment James, Sean, Dhani and Zak skip onstage in their collarless sport-coats, until the last, brisk Beatle-bow, every member of the pay-per-view audience will be thinking the same thought: “Those guys were okay. Say, I wonder what became of The Beatles?”

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