Henny Youngman Dead at 91

by Doug Graham
Stand up comedy lost another legend Feb. 24, 1998,when "King of One-Liners," Henry "Henny" Youngman, died of complications from the flu, according to Jackie Green, a long-time friend and Friars Club Dean Emeritas. Youngman died in Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhatten.

Youngman was born March 16, 1906, according to the Daily Almanacs, and spent seven decades of his almost 92 yearsin this world in show business with a schtick of snappy one-linersdeliver in a rapid-fire shoot-from-the-lip style.

Henny Youngman, from a 1990 promotional flyer
Henny Youngman,
from a 1990
promotional flyer

Youngman was born in London and moved to New York with his family when he was six months old. His "professional career" started 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 once said. "However, if things went sour in comedy, I could always get a job printing...or I could be out of two jobs at once!"

Youngman's father wanted his son to be a virtuoso, but another comedian once quipped, "Henny's the only guy who, when he opens his violin case, the audience hopes he's got a machine gun in there." His start in show business was the leader of a band called the "Swanee Syncopaters." During the band's performances, Youngman 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 worked, although he admitted that his wife often supported him in the first two decades of show business.

His wife, Sadie, who died at age 82 in 1987, was the butt of his most famous one-liner, "Take my wife...please!" The quip was actually quick remark before a radio show, but stuck to Youngman like glue and today is included in Bartlett's Book of Famous Quotations and was the title of his 1973 biography.

He did keep his "day job" as a printer, and it lead to an important step 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 - was working Loew's State and "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."

Fate again intervened, Berle got held over and a budding 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 likely respond: "Miltie, is your family happy? Or do you go home every night?"

Youngman's big break came in 1937 when he was booked on the popular Kate Smith radio show. Her manager, Ted Collins, booked him (with a 20% cut for Collins) and he was a big hit, staying with the show for two years.

He left to pursue a career in movies, but except for mostly cameo roles, it never materialized. His one-line style lent itself better to the club then 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 Laugh-In, a television show that was perfect for his style because it was nothing but one-line gags. "Oh, that Henny Youngman!" became a national catch-phrase.

Youngman Materials Available

The Best Little Book of One-Liners (Running Press Miniature Editions)
Henny Youngman / Hardcover / Published 1992
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Henny Youngman's 500 : All-Time Greatest One Liners ~ Ships in 2-3 days
Henny Youngman / Paperback / Published 1990
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Henny Youngman's Big Book of Insults : More Than 300 Slights, Snubs, and Offensive Remarks from the King of the One-Liners ~ Ships in 2-3 days
Henny Youngman / Hardcover / Published 1995
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Henny Youngman's Book of Jokes ~ Ships in 2-3 days
Henny Youngman / Mass Market Paperback / Published 1992
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Henny Youngman (Old Time Radio Comedy) Vol 3
Henny Youngman / Hardcover / Published 1989
(Publisher Out Of Stock)

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In 1974, Youngman was used by the New York Telephone Company on its new "Dial-A-Joke" service. He drew over three million calls in one month.

Although semi-retired after his wife's death, Youngman continued working, including a tour for his 1989 book, 10,000 One-Liners, An Encyclopedia of One-Liners. One site on the web has an announcement of him working last December at a show billed as "Jewish Comedy on Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant."

His one-liners are a staple of everyday life and often used to lead stories on the web and in print. An example: from the Dallas Morning News, in an article by Kevin B. Blackstone about Tiger Wood's ending honeymoon with the press, printed this lead last May: "The first part of our marriage was very happy," recalled Henny Youngman. "Then, on the way back from the ceremony..." Or this gem, from the opening of the Celebrity Wills: [Youngman] remarked once that, in his will, he is leaving his body to Julia Roberts. "If she can't wait, she can have it now," he added.

Youngman leaves a legacy of books and videos and will long be remembered as one of American's best-loved performers.

Henny's Best 20 Jokes and Insults
and other notes
The Henny Youngman I Met | Take Henny...No, Please Don't!