The Genius of Curly
By Marty Wombacher

From Gadfly July/August 2000


An Introduction
He was born in 1903 and named Jerome Horowitz, but his older brothers Shemp and Moe called him Babe. You know him as Curly—the hefty, high-pitched whooping, cue ball-domed, shoulder spinning on the floor like a side of beef marinated in methamphetamine, barking like a dog, knuckle-shuffling, finger popping Stooge.


A Really Brief Bit of History
Although Curly was an original, he wasn't an original Stooge. The original Three Stooges were his brothers Shemp and Moe and comedic vaudevillian actor Larry Fine. In the beginning, the trio started out with vaudevillian Ted Healy, who took the major portion of the money they earned and was also prone to drinking benders. But history can be boring, and none of this really matters much.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

Something That Matters
This matters: Sometime around 1933, Shemp wanted to quit the Stooges and pursue a solo acting career but was reluctant to leave Moe and Larry with only two-thirds of a Three Stooges act. Moe told him not to worry, they'd bring in younger brother Babe to be the third Stooge. Like I said, this really matters.

"Hey Moe, hey Larry, get me out of here, I'm stuck."
—Curly in Cactus Makes Perfect (1942)

The Hair
Moe had Beatle bangs that predated the Fab Four by at least 30 years. His hair was longish for those days, and he wore it straight down, cut in soup bowl-over-the-head fashion. Larry was going bald, but his curly anywhichway frizzball hair jutted out to the sides like coiling rattlesnakes ready to strike. (The unique Larry hairstyle would later influence both Bozo the Clown and Art Garfunkel the singer.)

Babe had wavy brown hair that was most unStoogelike. The women liked it, but would the Stooge fans understand? No, they wouldn't. Something had to happen.

So, after Moe and Larry approached him about becoming a Stooge, Babe told them he'd be back shortly. When he returned, he was wearing a hat. While his soon-to-be-fellow-Stooges watched, Babe whipped it off and presented his new chrome-domed coif to the shocked Stooges.

He was no longer Babe; he was Curly. And Moe, Larry and Curly were now The Three Stooges. Cue up "Three Blind Mice."

"That's no lump, that's my head!"
—Curly in Gents Without Cents (1944)

A Theory on Curly and The Three Stooges' Wall of Comedy
To me, The Three Stooges were a precursory comedic version of legendary rock 'n' roll producer Phil Spector's wall of sound. Spector, who produced the Ronettes, Crystals, Righteous Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, John Lennon and George Harrison, to name just a few, created what would be called "a wall of sound" in his recordings.

Without getting too technical (because I'm not really a technical guy), the wall of sound was a driving drum beat that sounded like 27 drummers pounding on kettle drums with sticks the size of oak trees, lots of percussion and a heavy bass sound. Spector then added guitars, strings, pianos, harps, horns and a smorgasbord of other instruments. On top of that, he added heavenly soaring vocals and lush, creamy-smooth harmonies.

This wall of sound can be compared to a layering of fabrics. The drums and percussion are blue jeans, the guitars, flutes, pianos, etc. are akin to warm, thick corduroy and the vocals sound like miles of piles of fine expensive silk. That's the wall of sound: blue jeans, corduroy and silk.

When you watch The Three Stooges in action, you'll see the same kind of multi-layering, but instead of music it's comedic layering. Moe is the drums and bass, the blue jean material, all boom boom boom THWACK! Larry's the corduroy, the sweet sounding instruments in the middle, running around like a fuzzy-topped sperm in a fun house petri dish. And then along comes Curly, the silk. A man-child. All WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP! to Moe's boom boom boom THWACK! Together these elements create a perfect wall of comedy to inflict a HA HA HA sensory overload on even the most serious, tight-lipped Stooge viewer.

While The Three Stooges were always funny with Curly replacements in later years, they were never able to recreate this staggering, booming wall of comedy. The WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP! was gone from the equation, and nobody could replace it.

Without Curly, it was all blue jeans and corduroy. The silk was gone, and it didn't come back.

To "Er" is Human, To "Oi" is Divine
In addition to the spinning, the belly thumping, the nyuks and the whoops, the words "Soitenly" (certainly) and "Poifictly" (perfectly) are still other Curlyisms. But then you already knew that, didn't you?

The Shorts, Part One
The Three Stooges are most famous for their two-reel films they did for Columbia, starting with Woman Haters in 1934 and ending 190 films and 24 years later in 1958 with Sappy Bullfighters. These films, or "shorts" as they were known back then, are the black and white programs you've seen on TV.

The Curly-era Three Stooges filmed 97 shorts, the last one being Half-Wits' Holiday in 1947. During filming, Curly suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital. After that, Shemp returned to the fold. But we're not here to talk about Shemp. And we're certainly not here to discuss Joe Besser, much less Curly Joe DeRita, now are we?

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!

The Shorts, Part Two
It's easy to reduce the memories of The Three Stooges' films to all eye pokes, slaps, kicking, running, screaming, biting, pie throwing, nostril pulling, pipes exploding and, of course, Curly spinning on the floor like a human top gone frightfully berserk.

But as you watch the shorts, you'll see that it's not just all slapstick and broad comedy strokes. Rebellion, satire, political commentary and social statements are intertwined with the eye poking and pie throwing. And, of course, a nyuk nyuk here and a WHOOP WHOOP! there.

In the 1946 short Beer Barrel Polecats, the Stooges attack the Prohibition Era by brewing their own beer. Curly gets clipped while selling a bottle to a Fed, and the Stooges end up in jail. However, the crafty Curly sneaks in a keg of beer to quench their thirst during their stay in stir. Ultimately it blows up, covering the cops in a river of beer foam. In this short, the Stooges rail against ridiculous governmental culture, interloping in much the same way that Cheech and Chong later did in their own brand of stoned-style slapstick in the '70s.

Social hierarchy is a subject addressed in many Three Stooges shorts. In Termites of 1938, a wealthy woman needs an escort to take her to a high society dinner and instructs her black, Aunt Jemima-looking maid to call Acme Escorts. While the maid is dutifully looking up the number, the wealthy woman says, "I hope they're discriminating." Instantly the black maid's eyes get wide as she says, somewhat horrified, "Discriminating?" In this brief moment, the film addresses a real fear facing downtrodden minorities. It also reveals the fact that their wealthy bosses were either oblivious to their fears of being discriminated against or, if they weren't, they were apathetic at best to the plight facing the servants who toiled for them.

The maid is so distraught that she dials Acme Exterminators by mistake, and for her sins, the wealthy woman ends up with the Three Exterminating Stooges as her escorts. At the dinner, the Stooges proudly display their bad manners—olives are soon flying, peas are being eaten on knives with mashed potatoes and expensive cloth napkins are gleefully torn in half. Then the Stooges rip what's left of the stuffing from the shirts of the snooty crowd by playing an impromptu concert with Moe sawing a bass fiddle in half and Curly busting his flute into two pieces. This short alone could have influenced everything from the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to the food fight in Animal House to the Who smashing their instruments on stage.

The Stooges saved their sharpest commentary and satire for a political leader who really deserved the slicing: Adolf Hitler. 1940's You Nazty Spy! was the first of a trilogy addressing the horrors of Hitlerland. In this short, Moe ends up the king of a land called Moronica. With a Hitler-like mustache, he gives a speech, promising "to make the country safe for hypocrisy." Snakes on the country's flag are intertwined to form a swastika, books are burned and the poor are shunted to "concentrated camps." In the end, the Hitlerish Moe and the other two Stooges, who are his henchmen, are fed to the lions.

Three years later revealed the Stooges still hungry to lampoon the Hitler regime. In Back From the Front, the Stooges stow away on a Nazi freighter. The boys are discovered and considered spies by the Nazis. A battle begins, with the Stooges knocking one Nazi out after the other. Moe once again dons his Hitler suit and instructs the officers that if they can't catch the spies, they must blow their own brains out. With this, the captain sheepishly replies, "But we are Nazis, we have no brains."

The Stooge nose-thumbing-of-Hitler trilogy is completed with 1943's Higher Than a Kite. In this short, the boys end up in Nazi headquarters after stowing away in a bombshell. All three don Hitleresque uniforms and mustaches, and it's Curly who thwarts the Nazis and shows the world what they think of the barbaric German dictator.

When the Nazis attack, Curly turns his back on them to reveal a photo of Hitler taped appropriately enough to his well-endowed derriere. When the hapless Nazis see the photo, they have to halt their charge and salute while saying "Heil Hitler."

This type of political slapstick was a forerunner to Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Abbie Hoffman and the Yippees.

A Short List of People Influenced by Curly
Moe Howard always felt that Lou Costello, half of the comedy team of Abbott and Costello, "borrowed" a great deal of his character from Curly. In his 1977 pictorial autobiography Moe Howard and The Three Stooges, he voiced the following opinion: "I always felt there was much of Curly—his mannerisms and high-pitched voice—in Costello's act in feature films."

Of course, you'd be hard pressed to find any comedian or comedic actor who wasn't influenced by The Three Stooges. Here's a short list of funny guys guilty of acting under the influence of Curly: Jerry Lewis, John Belushi, Uncle Fester, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Michael Richards, Divine, Carroll O'Connor, Mel Gibson, Mel Brooks, Art Carney, Red Skelton, Barney Rubble, Albert Brooks, Bob Denver, Mickey Dolenz, Chris Farley, Harpo Marx, John Candy, Iggy and the Stooges and any wise-ass punk who has nyuk, nyuk, nyuked himself into detention hall.

"Oh boy, it's done. Look at all the beer we got!"
—Curly in Beer Barrel Polecats (1946)

The Drinking
Of all the Stooges, Curly was the one who liked to imbibe in all things liquid and alcoholic. Legend has it that when the Stooges were on the road, Moe would worry when Curly was out on the town carousing. It was only when Curly returned to the hotel and screamed "Swing It!" at the top of his lungs that big brother Moe would relax. He knew then that Curly had made it back in one piece.

Moe addressed Curly's drinking in his autobiography: "He drank far too much liquor and I knew the reason why. After his gun accident as a teenager, he was in quite a bit of pain when he stood too long. The fact that he had to shave his head for the act was also a factor: he felt that he had no longer any appeal for the fair sex. So he drank to give himself the courage to approach any young lady that appealed to him."

* * *

"Curly was easily my favorite Stooge. To me, Curly was magnetic, having something that none of the others had—an instinctive ability to make you laugh on command."
—Mel Gibson in the foreword to the book The Three Stooges, An Illustrated History by Michael Fleming

"To me he was the most delightful [Stooge]. He made you laugh."
—Lola Jensen, an actress in some of the Three Stooges films

"What my mother expressed to me was that he was deeper than a comedy clown. Not only was he a genius in his own right, but he had a lot more depth than a lot of people realize. He took his job very seriously."
—Janie Hanky, Curly's daughter

"I got something to do before I die."
—Curly in Rhythm and Weep (1946)

The End
After suffering through a series of strokes, Curly retired from The Three Stooges in 1947. He was replaced by Shemp, then Joe Besser and, in the end, Curly Joe DeRita.

Curly finally found happiness with his fourth wife, Valerie Newman, and their daughter Janie. But on January 18, 1952, at the age of 49, the strokes finally caught up with him and Curly died. With a full head of hair.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!