Easily one of the most bizarre comedians to infiltrate the annals of comedy, Joe (“Ooooooo, cut it out!) Besser (born this day in 1907) is also (though many people don’t know his name) one of the most recognizable. Short and rotund, with a whiny effeminate manner and petulant, infantile disposition he was a natural for one-offs and guest shots on tv sit-coms and variety shows in the 1950s and 60s, which I imagine is where most people have seen him. Comedy fans know him from his two major recurring comedy gigs: 1) as the third-tier Stooge who replaced Shemp after Shemp replaced Curly (who had earlier replaced Shemp) in the Three Stooges; 2) and as “Stinky” the exceptionally weird middle-age, lollipop-licking brat in the Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit in the Abbott and Costello tv show. But for somebody who never managed to crack the highest levels of stardom he certainly made enviable success in practically every branch of show business — vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, and television.
He grew up in St. Louis, with eight older siblings who all but guaranteed his career choice. His brother Manny was a burlesque comic. His seven older sisters were…well, seven older sisters. At 13, he ran away and became an audience plant for magic acts, first Thurston for three years, then Madam Herrman for two more. But he clearly had a knack for comedy. In 1926, he went to work as a stooge for the comedy team of Alexander and Olsen, the latter of whom was the brother of Olsen and Johnson’s Ole Olsen (a relationship that would stand him in good stead in later years). Soon he began working with a succession of partners in his own teams, during which time he developed the comic character he became known for. This led to voice work on the top comedy shows of the radio era, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, and many others. He became part of Olsen and Johnson’s crazy Broadway stock company; the show he was in, Sons o’ Fun ran from 1941 through 1943. The following year, he went out to Hollywood to work as a contract player for Columbia Pictures. With the exception of 1949’s Africa Screams with Abbott and Costello, most of the pictures were forgettable. TV called next with a regular spot on Ken Murray’s variety series in 1950, followed by his 1952 stint on The Abbott and Costello Show.
In 1956,he was hired on to replace the recently deceased Shemp Howard (whom he’d worked with in the past) in several Three Stooges shorts. (Most casual viewers hate these late films, feeling shortchanged by the absence of Curly or Shemp. I’m of the opposite opinion. At this stage, the presence of Joe Besser is the most interesting thing in those films, which are generally remakes of earlier shorts made by the team when they were younger, fresher and better budgeted). Besser continued to do guest spots on tv, with diminishing frequency, through the 1970s. He also became a familiar voice on children’s cartoons. He passed away in 1988 — and gave St. Peter such a pinch!
Here he is in the role of Stinky on The Abbott and Costello Show:
To learn more about slapstick comedy, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.