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Henry "Henny" Youngman (March 16, 1906 – February 24, 1998) was a Britishmarker-born comedian and violinist famous for "one-liners," short, simple jokes usually delivered rapid-fire. His best known (and oft misattributed) one-liner was "Take my wife—please".

In a time when most 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, spouted in rapid-fire fashion.

Early life

Youngman was born in Liverpoolmarker, Englandmarker, and his family moved to Brooklynmarker, New Yorkmarker, when he was young. He grew up in New York Citymarker, 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."

Career

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 polishing 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 Hollywoodmarker. 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 Corporation in 1959 at theCelebrity 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 de gelt" (Yiddish for “get 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.


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 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.

Personal life

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!") 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 passing 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.

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. 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 45 years without vacations or other breaks.

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