On February 24, 1998, comedian Henny Youngman – “King of the one-liners,” as columnist Walter Winchell had dubbed him – died, at the age of 91.
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Youngman had been in the business for so long – some 60 years – that his very name became something of a one-liner itself. Today, Henny Youngman is remembered as an unsophisticated comic, whose most famous joke, “Take my wife please,” is typical of a generation of male performers who made the generic “wife” the butt of their humor. But there is also something innocent and unthreatening about his jokes. They’re not political, they’re not scatological, they’re certainly not personal in any profound way – yet it’s hard not to laugh at them.
Yonkel Yungman, his father, was a hatmaker who had been born in Friedrichstadt, in the Russian Empire (today Jaungjelgava, Latvia), and emigrated to the United States by way of Paris and London, changing his name to Jacob Youngman along the way. Henny’s mother, the former Olga Chetkin, was a Riga native who had also emigrated to New York.
They went to London after their wedding because that’s where Olga’s parents were then living, and wound up staying for a year and a half, until they had saved enough money for the voyage back to New York.
That’s why Henry Youngman was born in London – on March 16, 1906.
Candy shop comedian
Henry grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge. An indifferent student, Henry was expelled from the Manual Training High School for his frequent truancy, as he skipped class regularly to attend local vaudeville shows. He would learn the jokes recited by the pros on stage, and then repeat them to his friends at a local candy shop.
Hen, as he was then called (once he began performing professionally, it occurred to him that “hens lay eggs,” and he began going by the name Henny), had also studied the violin, at his father’s insistence, and organized a small combo called the Swanee Syncopaters, among other names. Youngman’s violin remained a staple of his performances throughout his career – he called it his “Stradivaricose” – serving for a brief musical interlude between jokes.
He was still in high school when he had his first appearance as a comic, at Brooklyn’s 16th Street Theater – on Yom Kippur. When Jake Youngman heard that his son was performing on the holiest day of the Jewish year, he showed up with a policeman and removed his son from the stage.
Falling for the eternal butt of his jokes
Youngman learned the printing trade, and bought himself a portable press, with which he went around town offering to print up business cards for people. During a spell at Kresge’s department store, in Brooklyn, he fell for a young red-haired woman who was selling sheet music. That was Sadie Cohen, his wife, from 1928 until her death, in 1987 – and the eternal butt of his jokes.
His big break came in 1937, with an appearance on Kate Smith’s radio show. Over the course of 10 minutes, Youngman shot off 100 jokes. It was his entire inventory, but he was so well-received that he became a regular on the program.
Henny Youngman would perform for anyone, anytime. He kept himself listed in the phone directory, so that he could be easily found. (When the William Morris talent agency opened an office across from his Manhattan apartment, he put a sign in the window that read, “Book thy neighbor”). He never took days off, and if he happened to be passing through a hotel where, say, a wedding or bar mitzvah party was taking place, he did not hesitate to approach the host and offer to deliver five minutes of jokes for a few hundred dollars in cash.
His advice to all young comics who asked for it was always the same: “Nem di gelt,” “take the money” in Yiddish.
Youngman died after coming down with pneumonia, after returning from a series of shows, two a night, in San Francisco at the end of 1997. At his funeral, on February 27, he was celebrated by many of his comic friends. Explained Alan King, a co-founder with Youngman of the Friars Club, “Henny couldn’t be cremated [by Jewish law], so he wanted to be roasted instead.”