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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 826

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This is the grave of Henny Youngman.

Born in 1906 in London, he and his family immigrated to New York when he was a child, living in Bay Ridge. He was evidently a real pain as a kid, getting kicked out of class all the time for telling jokes and causing problems. He also grew up with a buddy down the street named Jackie Gleason and they helped teach each other how to be funny. Like any other immigrant kid, he needed to work and he got a job in a print shop, where he worked for years. He was also both a funny guy and a violinist. He took to writing jokes and printing them in the shop. One day, a young but successful comedian named Milton Berle wandered in and read his comedy cards, as he called them. Impressed, Berle urged him to take up performance. They became lifelong friends. But he had to overcome a lot of resistance from his own family. When he was 16, he got on a stage to perform. His father found out and brought in a cop and threw him off the stage!

In addition to his print shop job, Youngman led a swing band called the Swanee Syncopaters, an amusing name given he was pretty far from the South! But then this was the peak of southern nostalgia and so it’s not surprising that he would engage in this with his southern-influenced jazz. Once, when a club he was working a show, a comedian on the bill didn’t show up. There was time to kill and the club owner told Youngman to take a shot. He did and was popular. It’s not really too surprising. First, he was genuinely pretty fun. Second, the utter wave of one-liners just washed over people hilariously. Third, he wasn’t an offensive guy. He was pretty friendly in his performances. People just liked the guy. In 1937, he got booked on Kate Smith’s radio show and that was a huge break for him. He became a big-time radio guy. He also became close to Walter Winchell, who would publish his jokes in his columns and gave him the moniker “the king of the one-liner.”

Youngman wanted to make his way in Hollywood and he did get cast in some films in the early 40s, but he only got a couple of roles, they were minor and Hollywood was not going to be his bag. Instead, he worked the club circuit and worked it hard. Playing about 200 shows a year, he could sell out a crowd and make a more than moderate living. His punchlines were usually about his wife. Like Don Rickles after him, Youngman had a great relationship with his wife while also being a master of the wife joke. The most classic was of course his catchphrase, “Take my wife, please!” Others included, “My wife said to me, ‘For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I’ve never been before.’ I said, ‘Try the kitchen!'”

Whether you find this stuff funny or not (I admit I kind of do), what Youngman was at his heart was a working comedian. He worked hard. Year after year. In fact, performing was effectively his whole life. Roger Ebert told a story of taking an elevator with Youngman after he performed a show. They got on the elevator. Youngman found out there was a wedding taking place on another floor of the building. He got off and offered the bride’s father 10 minutes of comedy for $100. He did this sort of thing all the time. And because his jokes were such rapid one-liners, his shows might not be much more than 10 minutes to begin with. His top advice to other young comedians was to get paid. Cash was the coin of the realm and he knew how fleeting that could be and how club owners would rip you off.

As a joke guy, Youngman could fill a certain role in the entertainment world. For instance, in the 1970s, we saw the development of phone numbers could hear recorded entertainment material. This hit its peak in the late 80s with the pay-per-call material. Anyway, who would people want to hear more on these things than Henny Youngman? Turns out, the answer was no one. In 1974, the New York Telephone Company created one of these and hired Youngman for a recording session. It proved to be hugely popular. Three million people called in over one month to hear 30 seconds of his work. That’s a lot of people! With this kind of material, he got tons of TV spots and short bits in movies, including Goodfellas, which might be where I first saw Youngman now that I think about it.

Youngman worked up to the very end of his life, stopping only about a month before his death in 1998. He was 91 years old of pneumonia.

Let’s watch Youngman work:

Henny Youngman is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Queens, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks, this was a fun one! If you would like this series to visit other comedians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Milton Berle is in Culver City, California and Jackie Gleason is in Miami. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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