From The Catskills To Casinos, Youngman Left 'em Laughing

Posted: March 01, 1998

Henny Youngman mailed me a diamond pin after I interviewed him, way back in 1984, when we sat across a table and some mountainous bagels and Nova, at New York's storied Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue.

Celebrity graft? Sort of, except that this wasn't worth much beyond the chuckle it elicits: It's a dime, soldered to a safety pin. Dime-and-pin, get it? The comedian, who called himself ``King of the One-Liners'' (it was printed on his stationery), dispensed them as tokens of affection, appreciation.

And speaking of tokens, here's a joke: ``Two drunks walking along Broadway in New York. One goes down into the subway by mistake. He comes up the other entrance, and his friend is waiting for him. The waiting drunk says, `Where were you?' The other one says, `I was in some guy's basement. Has he got a set of trains!' ''

Youngman, who segued to that big Borscht Belt in the Blue on Tuesday, at age 91, succumbing to pneumonia, put that one in his 1983 collection, Take My Jokes, Please. (The Library of Congress subject categorization reads, aptly enough: ``Humor, contemporary American.'' But also: ``Psychology of American behavior patterns'' - somebody was on to something.)

The book's title, of course, is a play on Youngman's signature line: ``Take my wife - please!'' More than one newspaper, including the Philadelphia Daily News, fooled around with that for an obit headline: ``Take my life - please.'' Youngman would have approved. In fact, his autobiography, published in 1991, had the same title.

That book will tell you he was born Henry Youngman in 1906, in England's London Jewish Hospital. His parents, Jonkel, a hat-maker, and Olga Jungman, were Russian immigrants. Before little Henry was 2, the family packed up and headed to America - to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. ``I don't know why my father left London,'' Youngman wrote in an earlier autobiography, 1973's Take My Wife . . . Please! ``He just had itching feet and couldn't do anything about it because Dr. Scholl was still in medical school.''

Sitting with Youngman in the Carnegie Deli was like being plopped down into a scene from Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose: The comic had his own table, his own phone line (sometimes he'd pick up the wrong one and have to jot down a takeout order), and a coterie of ex-chorines, gag writers, and old waitress pals who hung around with him. Youngman, who was very tall, very big, and wore a ring with a bulbous purple stone the same color as his lips, alternately held court at Leo Steiner's Carnegie Deli and the nearby Friars Club, where he'd hobnob and trade-talk with old pals such as Morey Amsterdam and Milton Berle. Youngman lived a short stroll away on 55th Street. His world, when he wasn't working, was just a few square city blocks.

But even in the '80s, when Youngman was in his late 70s and 80s, the comic still worked plenty. Casinos, clubs, sales meetings, synagogues, college halls, trade shows, conventions, Elks, Lions, Moose and Eagles (``all the animals,'' he'd say) . . . Youngman was like Paladin in that old western: Have Joke, Will Travel. Only he packed a violin instead of a gun.

(About that violin: Youngman had been playing one since he was a kid; he nicknamed the instrument, which he employed as a high-piercing punctuation mark to his gags, Stradivaricose.)

``I've been very busy,'' Youngman said, over the Carnegie clamor, during the interview that August. ``I do 200 days a year. Whatever comes along. There's no set price. Within reason, I take it. And I simplify it. I go alone. I get in a plane, go there, do the job, get the money and run.''

Youngman could travel at 8 j.p.m. - jokes per minute. His delivery - which has inspired a couple of generations of stand-up artists - was rapid-fire, rat-tat-tat.

``Love story: He falls. She falls. Niagara Falls.''

``Man goes to a doctor. Doctor gives him six months to live. Man can't pay the bill. Doctor gives him another six months.''

``To me, love was feeling about a girl the way Milton Berle feels about Milton Berle. Beautiful.''

``A girl was knocking at my door all night long - I finally had to let her out of my room.''

Youngman had what he called ``The Golden Forty-Five'' - a 45-minute monologue of rim-shot madness.

And Youngman was an inventor, too: He invented Dial-a-Joke.

Somebody - maybe Martin Scorsese (Youngman played a Copacabana comic in Goodfellas) - should make a movie of Henny Youngman's life, except who would play him? He started in burlesque halls, he printed up jokes he lifted from Variety, he fed one-liners to Walter Winchell. He slayed 'em on Kate Smith's radio show. He did the whole Catskills thing, the Vegas thing, Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin.

And Youngman was an equal-opportunity deployee: He machine-gunned Polish jokes and Irish jokes, Jewish jokes and Catholic jokes, sex jokes and drunk jokes. And jokes, of course, about his wife - hundreds and hundreds of them. She was the former Sadie Cohen, a redheaded lass who sold sheet music in Kresge's department store. They fell in love. They were married 58 years. Sadie died, at 82, in 1987.

She took the jokes ``with a grain of salt,'' Youngman said after she died. ``She knew I was joking.''

And joking, for Youngman, was everything: a source of income, a way of life.

``You'd be surprised,'' he said in the Carnegie Deli, talking about the haiku-like laffers in his just-published joke book.

``You'd be surprised. People need laughs. People are worried. They can't pay their bills, and if you give somebody a laugh, at least they're temporarily up. A lot of headaches: families, this, that. Pick up a paper every day and somebody's getting killed, people are murdering each other. Guy's on an airplane and kills 40 people one by one. It only makes it tougher for me to get laughs.

``But that's been my creed all along: Give somebody a laugh and it makes them feel better.''

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