What made those original Stooges sound effects so funny? Where did they come from? Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt has been on the hunt for the originals since the 1970s.
“It’s a lost library,” he says. “Even back in the ‘70s, when I was looking, when Columbia still actually had some of its property in its vaults on the lot, it was not available.”
The effects likely come from the Stooges vaudeville days, Burtt surmises. “They were probably slapping each other around, and, most likely, the percussion guys in the orchestra pit were making these sounds to augment what they were doing,” he suggests. Once the team made it to the movies, “they caught onto the idea pretty quickly that they could use the sound department to emphasize all these things—and do it even more articulately. They could use bigger sounds, things you couldn’t sync up in a live performance.”
The team’s effects development paralleled that of animated cartoons, which was taking place at the same time in the early ‘30s. “Once you started having sound cartoons, Disney and Warner Bros., in particular, started developing the use of sound effects for comedy, which meant the exaggeration of events, portrayed with sounds. Somebody gets hit, something falls on your foot, somebody flies across the screen—all of these things could be given great emphasis with sound. It amped up the comedy.”
But the Stooges films had a different effect. “They were the same kinds of sounds, but it was the idea of the effects of those same things on people, because they were live action,” Burtt says. “If you took a cheese grater and ran it down Curly’s head, you could hear a scraping sound. If the sounds were real, it would probably just reveal the brutality of it. But putting these sounds in creates the illusion that it’s not real, that it’s for laughs. We laugh instead of cringe.”
No one knows who created or recorded the sounds, though Burtt conjectures that soundman (and later Stooges director) Ed Bernds likely had something to do with it. “He started out as a Columbia sound recordist, doing all the [Frank] Capra films. He was the major recordist on the set. He would have been there, recording the dialog, and he’d have to have been aware of it, because the whole picture was centered around sound.”
The effects were likely recorded on a soundstage similar in acoustics to the one used to film the action, he says. “They were likely miked from overhead, three or four feet away, with the mic on a boom, because you can hear a little of the roominess of those sounds, which is why they blended so well into the natural sounds of the production track. The sounds last a long time—like the pie hits, which sound to me like a gigantic wet mop full of liquid, slapped against something. The sound reverberates. The initial transients, the direct sound, are close in volume to the roominess,” which, he notes, also has to do with the optical recording technology.
“The optical systems had a natural limiting and compression which is completely unlike magnetic recording, and certainly digital recording,” Burtt concludes. “If you performed a slap or something that has a very high, loud wave front, followed by multiple reflections that are much lower in volume, in those old systems, all of that gets evened out. The spike of volume from the initial impact is compressed in volume, and the secondary reflections of the sound are relatively loud. You don’t hear it the way your ear hears it, but it’s the way the microphone and the recording system heard it. And I think that’s the quality of those sounds that is hard to reproduce.”