CURLY V. SHEMP

I came late to The Stooges. As a kid, their charm escaped me. Not that I wasn’t a fan of “old time comedy”. I loved Laurel & Hardy more than life itself. I found Abbott & Costello hilarious. I laughed at the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. The Li’l Rascals, I adored. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin filled me with joy.

But somehow the Stooges eluded me. I found the violence of their humor off-putting. I just saw them as somehow “silly” and not in a good way.

Maybe I wasn’t enough of a kid as a kid to enjoy them.

Lately, I’ve come around. Friday or Saturday nights, I get together with a few close friends and we watch “weird” or “cult” movies. (I don’t call them “bad” movies – every movie has something in it to be cherished.) I purchased a mind-bogglingly complete DVD collection of The Stooges for my friend Mark Jordan Legan and we’ve been slowly watching it.

This has been a revelation for me. And the revelation is called Curly.

Curly – the youngest Howard brother. Moe was the one who started the act. Shemp was the one who followed him. Larry Fine was the one who joined them. Curly was the after-thought.

Moe teamed up with Ted Healy (a childhood friend and established star, though every Stooges fan seems to hate him now), brought Shemp and Larry and Curly in and became Ted Healey’s Stooges. Curly was the one with no performing experience – he just joined in as a lark and left quickly.

Ted Healey and His Stooges kept performing. And Shemp hated Ted Healey as much as later film fans did. So he left the group just as they were started to hit it big. In desperation, Moe turned to his brother Curly (then called Jerry) to fill the bill. Ted Healey wasn’t sure. With his luxurious red hair and bushy mustache, Jerry didn’t look funny. He looked handsome.

So Jerry went off, shaved his head completely, and became Curly.

A star was born.

He was wild. He was untamed. He went “nyuk, nyuk.” He took comedian Hugh Hubert’s trademark “hoo-hoo” (watch him sometime, it’s an education) and turned into “woob-woob-woob.’ He said “soitenly.”

He was a f*$king genius.

True, he wasn’t skilled. True, he couldn’t remember his lines. But he was undeniably FUNNY in a way that no one had been before and no one (despite countless imitations) would be again.

Together, The Stooges made over hundred shorts with Curly.

But he sadly and at an incredible young age, suffered a stroke. I know little bit about those. After that he was never the same. He was forced to bow out of the act.

And Moe turned to his brother Shemp. Shemp had gone on to a successful career as character actor on his own, appearing with W. C. Fields and Abbott & Costello and even in “The Thin Man” movies. He was a bit reluctant to join his brother’s act. Not the least because he looked a lot like Moe. So he slicked his hair down in an attempt to make it look different from Moe’s bowl-cut and gave it a try.

The act was a success. They went on to make over seventy more shorts.

Shemp was a polished, skilled comedian. Far more so than Curly. He knew his lines. He could tell a story. Only one thing – he wasn’t as funny as Curly.

From that day to this, the controversy has raged. Who’s better, Curly or Shemp?

Three things you don’t bring up at Thanksgiving dinner; Politics, Relgion and Curly V. Shemp.

I posed this question on my Facebook page and got a slew of responses. Most were for Curly. A paltry few were for Shemp.

Michael Schlesinger put it best for the Shemp camp: “I like Curly, but he was a one-note comic. Shemp was endlessly inventive, and the smart directors let the camera roll and allowed him to ad-lib. Pound for pound he was arguably the finest natural comedian ever, and–let’s not forget–the only original Stooge who had a successful solo career.”

Jayne Osler Sutton put it best for Curly:  “Old Barney Miller episode: Dietrich is talking with one of the other detectives about a Three Stooges Film Festival. The other detective says something like ‘oh yeah, I really like Shemp.’ Dietrich replies, ‘I don’t think we have anything more to talk about,’ and walks away.”

Curly was one in a million. The only comic I can equate him with is Harpo Marx and that’s high praise. Like Harpo, he was an insane sprite – a force of nature who could barely be contained by his bulging body.

I like Shemp. I love Curly. Indubitably.

Phoef Sutton

Phoef Sutton

Published novelist - living in South Pasadena, California with his wife Dawn and his daughters Skylar and Celia.
Phoef Sutton