When Henny Youngman died on February 24, 1998, at the age of 91 in Manhattan, New York, the world of comedy lost the last of a generation.
Henny was known as the ‘King of the One Liners’ in a career spanning 70 years.
But although he was in a
tradition of the wisecracking Jewish comics who worked New York’s ‘Borscht Belt’ – along with Milton Berle, Jack Benny and Sid Caesar – and seemed as New York as the Empire State and Staten Island, Henny was born Henry Youngman, a Whitechapel lad.
Henny’s parents, like so many thousands of others, had come to the East End from Eastern Europe in the latter years of the 19th century.
Bound for the USA
But they soon found that Whitechapel was lacking in fortune for poor immigrants and, in September 1906, when young Henny was just six months old, they boarded a ship to emigrate to New York, and new opportunities.
Henny’s dad had artistic ambitions for his boy but not as a comedian – he wanted him to become a violin virtuoso. But as one of his fellow comedians quipped in the 1930s: “Henny’s the only guy who, when he opens his violin case, the audience hopes he’s got a machine gun in there.”
Henny worked nights as leader of a band called the Swanee Syncopaters, and it was then, during the late 1920s, that comedy first started to creep into his act. During the band’s performances, Young-man often fooled around with the crowd.
As luck would have it, the regular comedian didn’t show one night and the club owner asked Youngman to fill in. He was a success, leading to more work as a comedian – although Henny admitted that his wife often supported him in the first two decades of show business.
In fact, his wife, Sadie, who died in 1987 aged 82, was the butt of his most famous one-liner: “Take my wife… please!” The quip was actually an off-the-cuff remark before a
radio show, but stuck to Henny, and was the inspiration for the title of his 1973 biography, Take My Life, Please!
In fact, while he was attempting to make his living as a musician, his real professional career was taking place during the day – as a printer in a five-and-dime store.
“But I didn’t have any confidence in a business that was run by a guy like me,” he joked.
“However, if things went sour in comedy, I could always get a job printing… or I could be out of two jobs at once!”
It was the day job that led to the first break in his career. Among his jobs were writing and printing comedy cards, a series of one-line gags that were sold in his store.
Milton Berle – a few years younger than Youngman and already a top comedian – discovered Youngman when he was enticed into the store by a sign for the cards and took an immediate liking to the ‘naturally funny guy’.
A life-long friendship began, although the two often traded barbs: “He once said he was the king of one-liners,” Berle wrote in his 1974 autobiography, “but I told him that was because he couldn’t remember two.”
Youngman would respond: “Milton, is your family happy? Or do you go home at night?”
Youngman’s big break came in 1937 when he appeared on the popular Kate Smith radio show. He was a big hit, staying with the show for two years, leaving eventually to pursue a career in the movies. But except for mostly cameo roles, film stardom never materialized.
His one-line style lent itself better to the club than the screen, so Youngman headed back on the road, averaging nearly 200 dates a year for the next 40 years.
His career was revived in the late 1960s as a regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a TV show that was perfect for his style because it was nothing but one-line gags. “Oh, that Henny Youngman!” soon became a national catchphrase.
He died, rich and successful, in Mount Sinai Hospital, Manhattan, at the end of a journey that had taken him all around the world – via Whitechapel.