They're no Stooges Heirs: Comedy III, inspired by Disney, Warner Bros. and an undying love for the three comics, puts funny men back in the public eye.

January 08, 1998|By Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- The Three Stooges, one of the best-known comedy teams of Hollywood's bygone era, are getting their act together again.

Larry, Moe and Curly died long ago, but the trio -- whose eye-poking, face-slapping routines still attract legions of fans -- are staging a comeback, thanks to a marketing campaign launched by their heirs.

After winning a much-publicized 1994 court battle to retrieve worldwide rights to the Stooges' legacy, a company called Comedy III Productions now has grand designs to turn the slapstick comedians into a high-powered business enterprise in the same way that the Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. exploit animated characters from their film libraries.

Encouraged by the popularity of Hollywood icons, the Stooges' heirs are already mapping plans to aggressively push the comedy team's image in movies, television, commercials and retail merchandising.

In movies, Comedy III is working with Interscope Communications to develop a "Stooges in the '90s" film for Columbia Pictures.

"Don't be surprised if you see the Stooges tearing up the Super Bowl," said Earl Benjamin, a stepson of Joe "Curly Joe" DeRita.

One of the key questions facing producers, Benjamin said, is whether the script -- being developed by Danny Jacobson, co-creator of the NBC sitcom "Mad About You" -- will become a vehicle for established comedians or whether a nationwide search should be undertaken to find the next generation of Stooges.

In either case, Benjamin said, there is "tremendous difficulty" coming up with the right kind of movie.

"Larry, Moe and Curly are icons, they're legends," he said. "Finding and casting is one thing, but also writing it and making sure that even if you have the right people, can they really do the shtick, because if you don't do it right, it's going to be a disaster."

The Stooges made 190 film shorts for Columbia Pictures from the 1930s to the 1950s, and six full-length feature films in the 1960s.

Comedy III is also pushing the Stooges on television. Last year, the Family Channel received strong ratings when it carried vintage Stooges shorts. Comedy III also helped produce an ABC special last May in which comedian Martin Short performed classic Stooges routines. In another venture, Comedy III now has the rights to place clips from the Stooges short films in TV commercials and print advertising.

But perhaps the biggest business venture by the Stooges' heirs is the launching of a Stooges-anchored specialty store called Knuckleheads, which opened last November in Glendale.

With life-size replicas of the Stooges greeting shoppers, the store raises the question: Is America ready for a line of talking golf club head-covers shaped like Larry, Moe and Curly? (Squeeze Moe's hand and he barks: "Hey, back off, you imbecile! Let me show you how it's done!") Or a battery-activated "talking T-shirt" that, when pressed, utters such famous lines as, "Hey, hiya, toots!"?

The store itself features "talking stars" embedded in the floor. Step on one and you're likely to hear Curly exclaim, "Why, soitenly!"

The 3,300-square-foot Knuckleheads is the first in what Comedy III hopes will be a string of Stooges-themed stores in malls across America.

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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