Youngman, Henny (1906-1998)

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Youngman, Henny (1906-1998)

Perhaps no comedian better understood the great truism among comedians that, regardless of the time devoted to working on an act and the energy put into a stage performance, a comic's material is the key to success or failure, than the "King of the One-Liners," Henny Youngman. For more than 70 years he entertained audiences as the quintessential Catskills comedian. His rapid-fire delivery, in which he could tell a half dozen wisecracks in 60 seconds, was filled with timeless bits that drew as many groans as laughs. Youngman's theory of comedy was to keep his jokes simple and compact. Beginning in the mid-1920s and extending into the 1990s, he repeated countless gags that could be immediately understood by everyone. Among his most famous lines are such comic gems as: "I just got back from a pleasure trip. I drove my mother-in-law to the airport," "The food at this restaurant is fit for a king. Here, King! Here, King!" and "A man goes to a psychiatrist. 'Nobody listens to me!' The doctor says, 'Next!"' In 1991, Youngman commented on his act's enduring popularity when he wrote, "Fads come and go in comedy. But the one-liner always remains sacred. People laughed at these jokes when I told them at Legs Diamond's Hotsy Totsy Club sixty years ago—and they're still laughing at these same one-liners at joints I play today."

Born on March 16, 1906, in England to Russian Jewish immigrants who later settled in New York, Henry Youngman harbored dreams of entering show business from an early age. His first taste of success came as a bandleader for a quartet known as Henny Youngman and the Swanee Syncopaters. By the mid-1920s, the group became a regular presence in the "Borscht Belt"—an area in the Catskill Mountains filled with private summer resorts that catered to a predominantly Jewish clientele. At the Swan Lake Inn, Youngman played with his musical group, while between sets he acted as the hotel's "tummler," a job that consisted of walking around the resort to make sure all the guests were having a good time. The tummler would often schmooze the male guests, dance with any unattached female guests, and even serve as an unofficial matchmaker. To keep the guests amused, a tummler had to have many jokes for practically any situation at his fingertips. Youngman recalled his days in the Catskills and their influence on his comedic style when he stated, "I'm quite sure my love of one-liners came from this mountain laboratory. You had to be able to rat-a-tat-tat them out, on all subjects, to all kinds of people, every hour, day or night."

Youngman abandoned the Swanee Syncopaters for the life of a standup comedian when a nightclub owner asked him to fill in for an act that failed to show. His comedy routine, honed from his days as a tummler, was a great hit. He soon came to the attention of a rising comedy headliner named Milton Berle, who was impressed with Youngman's delivery and helped him get standup gigs at small clubs and bar mitzvahs. By the 1940s, the former tummler had become the featured comedian on radio's The Kate Smith Show. For two years he had a regular six-minute spot during which he told his one-liners and played the violin. It was in this period that Youngman acquired his signature joke: When his wife Sadie arrived at the show with several friends the nervous comedian wanted her to sit in the audience so he could prepare. He grabbed an usher and told him, "Take my wife, please." The comic incorporated the humorous ad-lib into his act and continued to use the line even after his wife died in 1987.

Youngman spent the greatest portion of his career touring throughout the world with his unvarying act. He was proud to say he had performed before both Queen Elizabeth II and the gangster Dutch Schultz. No matter the audience or setting, he would take to the stage with his prop violin and still-humorous lines. Jokes such as "My doctor told me I was dying. I asked for a second opinion. He said you're ugly, too." were repeated for years to audiences long familiar with Youngman's routine. He also frequently appeared on television talk and variety shows into his eighties. However, his attempts to become a regular TV performer were less successful. The summer of 1955 saw the failure of The Henny and Rocky Show, which paired him with ex-middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano. In 1990, he made a brief appearance as the emcee at the Copacabana in Martin Scorsese's mobster epic Goodfellas. He died in New York on February 23, 1998.

Audiences laughed at Henny Youngman's nearly endless supply of one-liners because they were instantly funny and recognizable to almost everyone. He did not offer long comic monologues, controversial humor, or provocative social satire, but rather provided funny gags for anyone who has ever had to deal with life's more mundane occurrences, such as bad drivers, unhelpful doctors, drunken husbands, and mothers-in-law. Furthermore, his longevity allowed younger audiences to experience a still vital performer with roots in vaudeville. He proved that even the most well worn jokes, like "One fellow comes up to me and says he hasn't eaten in three days. I say, 'Force yourself!"' are still funny.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Youngman, Henny. Take This Book, Please. New York, Gramercy Publishing, 1984.

Youngman, Henny, and Neal Karlen. Take My Life, Please! New York, William Morrow, 1991.