The phrase—and others like “woo-woo-woo!,” “soitenly!” and the much loved dog bark—came from a variety of sources.
Curly borrowed and adapted comedian Hugh Herbert’s phrase “hoo-hoo-hoo.” Hebert was famous—first on vaudeville and later in films—for playing absent-minded characters, wringing his hands and mumbling, “hoo-hoo-hoo, wonderful, wonderful, hoo hoo hoo!” The rhythm of Herbert’s phrasing inspired Daffy Duck’s “hoo hoo, hoo hoo” line and Curly who changed the words to “woo woo woo” and exaggerated the delivery. In the 1940’s Herbert adopted “woo woo” as well.
Many of Curly’s other quirks came from working on stage as a stooge for a noted vaudeville comic.
“Catch phrases like, ‘Get outta here,’ and “Why, I outta…’ a lot of that originated in the earlier days at the time that they were in partnership with a very skilled Irish-American comic named Ted Healey,” says David J. Hogan, author of Three Stooges FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Eye-Poking, Face-Slapping, Head-Thumping Geniuses.
“The act was called Ted Healey and His Stooges and Healey was the chief antagonist and the three boys ended up as his stooges. It was a frankly antagonistic approach on stage. A lot of slapping and insults thrown back-and-forth and so after the boys went out on their own and joined Columbia in 1934 they simply took a lot of that with them.
Curly’s most famous line the three words most associated with Stoogedom—the onomatopoeic “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk”—are featured in many of the Stooges shorts, but rarely appeared in the scripts.
During their heyday the Stooges were under contact to work 40 weeks a year, making ten eighteen minutes shorts in that time. According to Hogan the shooting schedule for each of the films was only four days, “so a lot of usable footage had be done and put in the can every day. That’s a pretty blistering pace.”
He’s goes on to say that while the boys would show up knowing their lines and their blocking, occasionally due to the pace, a line would be forgotten. It was in those moments, the theory goes, when Curly created the distinctive Stooge “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” laugh.
“It’s often thought that the “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” was something that Curly resorted to if he forgot his lines,” says Hogan. “I guess he did that occasionally and he was quick enough that he could fill up that silence. In something similar, if he forgot a line he might drop to the floor and do that pivot on his shoulder in a circle. It was a time filler and it was something very funny. It worked.”