Henry "Henny" Youngman (original Russian surname Yungman; March 16, 1906 – February 24, 1998) was a British-Americancomedian and violinist famous for "one-liners", short, simple jokes usually delivered rapid-fire. His best known one-liner was "Take my wife—please."
In a time when many comedians told elaborate anecdotes, Youngman's comedy routine consisted of telling simple one-liner jokes, occasionally with interludes of violin playing. These gags depicted simple, cartoon-like situations, eliminating lengthy build-ups and going straight to the punch line. He was known as the King of the One Liners, a title bestowed upon him by columnist Walter Winchell. A typical stage performance by Youngman lasted only fifteen to twenty minutes, but contained dozens of jokes, delivered in rapid-fire fashion.
Youngman was born to a Jewish family in Liverpool, England, and his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was young. He grew up in New York City, and his career as a comedian began after he had worked for a number of years at a print shop, where he penned and published a large number of "comedy cards"—cards containing one-line gags that were sold at the shop. The comedy cards were discovered by up-and-coming professional comedian Milton Berle, who encouraged Youngman and formed a close working friendship with him. Berle quipped about his friend, "The only thing funnier than Henny's jokes is his violin playing."
Encouraged by his family to learn the violin, Youngman's start in show business was as an orchestra musician. He led a small jazz band called the "Swanee Syncopaters", and during the band's performances, Youngman often told jokes to the audience. One night, the regular comedian didn't show for his performance, and the club owner asked Youngman to fill in. Youngman was a success, and he began a long career of stand-up, telling one-line jokes and honing his act to razor sharpness. His generally inoffensive, friendly style of comedy kept his audiences in stitches for decades. He started his career playing in clubs and speakeasies, but his big break came on the Kate Smith radio show in 1937. His manager, Ted Collins, booked him on the popular show, where he was a great success; he made many return appearances to the radio.
During the 1940s Youngman tried to break into the movies and become an actor, but he was unsuccessful in Hollywood. He returned to the nightclub scene and worked steadily with his stand-up act, performing as many as 200 shows a year. Working with writer/producer Danny Shapiro, Youngman recorded a "live" album for National Recording Corporationin 1959 at the Celebrity Club in St. Louis. The album is still popular today in CD, and is a frequent iTunes download.
Like many comedians, Henny Youngman treated his profession as a working job, one where it is difficult to make a living, and getting paid for the work is all-important. In numerous interviews, Youngman's advice to other entertainers was to "nem di gelt" (Yiddish for "take the money").
He was quoted in an interview with the Web-based magazine Eye: "I get on the plane. I go and do the job, grab the money and I come home and I keep it clean. Those are my rules. Sinatra does the same thing, only he has a helicopter waiting. That's the difference."
When the New York Telephone Company started its Dial-a-Joke line in 1974, over three million people called in one month to hear 30 seconds of Youngman's material—the most ever for a comedian.
Youngman never retired, and he performed his stage act in venues worldwide until his final days. As his fame passed into legendary status, he never considered himself aloof or above others, and he never refused to perform a show in a small venue or unknown club. In a tribute to Youngman, TV and animation producer Mark Evanier described Youngman in a way that emphasized both his money consciousness and his love of performing:
He would take his fiddle and go to some hotel that had banquet rooms. He'd consult the daily directory in the lobby and find a party—usually a Bar Mitzvah reception—and he would go up to the room and ask to speak to whoever was paying for the affair. "I'm Henny Youngman," he would tell that person. "I was playing a date in another banquet room here and one of the waiters suggested you might want to have me do my act for your gathering here." He would negotiate whatever price he could get—$200, $500, preferably in cash—and he would do his act for them.
Roger Ebert described a similar episode in a 2011 movie review:
I once observed Henny Youngman taping a TV show in the old NBC studios at the Merchandise Mart. We got into an elevator together. It stopped at the second floor, a private club. A wedding was under way. Youngman got off the elevator, asked to meet the father of the bride and said, "I'm Henny Youngman. I'll do 10 minutes for $100."
Youngman made numerous appearances on television, including a long-running stint on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. In 1955 he was host of a TV series titled The Henny and Rocky Show, appearing with champion boxer Rocky Graziano. He had cameo appearances in several movies, including History of the World, Part I and Goodfellas.
He had a larger role as the strip club owner in Herschell Gordon Lewis's The Gore Gore Girls, a fact he denied vehemently. He made a few recordings, most notablyThe Primitive Side of Henny Youngman, recorded "live" in St. Louis and released by National Recording Corporation on the NRC label. The CD is still in print.
His published autobiography is entitled Take My Life, Please!.
Youngman's last movie appearance before his death was in the Daniel Robert Cohn film Eyes Beyond Seeing, in which he has a cameo as a mental patient claiming to be Henny Youngman.
Youngman's wife, Sadie Cohen, was often the butt of his jokes ("My wife said to me, 'For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I've never been before.' I said, 'Try the kitchen!'", or "my wife's cooking is fit for a king. (gesturing as if feeding an invisible dog) Here King, here King!" Also, "Last night my wife said the weather outside was fit for neither man nor beast, so we both stayed home.") but in reality the two were very close, with Sadie often accompanying her husband on his tours. Youngman remained married for over sixty years until his wife's death in 1987, after a prolonged illness. While she was ill, Henny had an ICU built in their bedroom, so she could be taken care of at home, rather than in the hospital (Sadie was terrified of hospitals).
Henny explained the origin of his classic line "Take my wife, please" as a misinterpretation: in the mid-1930s he took his wife to a show and asked the usher to escort his wife to a seat. But his request was taken as a joke, and Youngman used the line countless times ever after.
Youngman had two children, son Gary and daughter Marilyn. Gary started his career screenwriting and directing, and thereafter continued to work in the film industry in various capacities. Gary is best known for his 1976 film Rush-It!, which introduced the filmgoing public to a number of soon to be very famous actors and actresses (John Heard, Jill Eikenberry, Tom Berenger [in his debut part], others). After Rush-It's lukewarm reception, Gary removed himself from the public eye—he then lived a quiet life in California.
Henny had a grandson of note: Lawrence ["Larry"] Michael Kelly. Kelly spent much of his youth with Henny on the road following the death of Larry's father at an early age. While Kelly tried for many years to follow in his grandfather's footsteps he never managed to attain a following. Kelly struggled with a severe weight problem for his entire life regularly fluctuating between 250 to over 500 pounds. Despite not achieving fame for himself, he was a very astute judge of talent in others, and through his connections in Henny's world, Kelly was able to help promote the early careers of Sam Kinison, Louie Anderson, Roseanne Barr, and several other notable personalities. Larry's numerous and ever changing enterprises included the running of one of the first computer bulletin boards in the world ("Modem Over Manhattan", a/k/a "M*O*M"), as well as obtaining Henny's partnership with the nascent [owner-profit shared] "Dial-A-Joke" telephone service. Kelly's last venture was a small banana bread business in Woodstock called "Top Banana". From 1992 until his death, Kelly co-hosted a local public-access television show called The Village Green, with then future Woodstock councilman Gordon Wemp. The cause of Kelly's death remains unknown today.
With the exception of a week following his wife's death, and the month he was in his final hospital stay, Henny was renowned for having worked almost every day for over 70 years without vacations or other breaks.
Youngman developed pneumonia and died on February 24, 1998, at the age of 91. He is interred in the Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, New York, next to his wife, Sadie.