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Here’s to Henny Youngman

Comedian could fire off comedic lines like a laugh machine gun

“A wife says to her husband you’re always pushing me around and talking behind my back. He says what do you expect?  You’re in a wheel chair.”

I was a stand-up comedian in a Vancouver night club for one night.

Scratch ‘one night’ — about three minutes and 20 seconds.  But it felt like it went on all night.

That’s the one thing the audience and I agreed upon. They jeered and they hissed. They made unkind references to my lineage and addressed me in terms usually reserved for unmentionable parts of the anatomy.

What they did not do, is laugh.

I have dog-paddled in shark-infested waters; I have let a live tarantula walk up my arm. I even mock-grappled with wrestler Gene Kiniski but I have never felt as desperate and lost as I did for those three minutes and twenty seconds in front of a hostile night club audience.

Not surprising. Studies show that the greatest fear for most people isn’t falling off a cliff, being struck by lightning or getting mauled by a grizzly — it’s standing up and speaking out before a roomful of strangers.

That applies to you and me perhaps, but not to Henny Youngman.

The American (actually he was born in Liverpool, England) King of the One-Liners stood up in roomfuls of strangers virtually every day for over 70 years.  He never took vacations or a weekend off. His audiences ranged from The David Letterman show to dinky wedding receptions in whatever hotel he happened to find himself in.  The film critic Roger Ebert remembers: “I once ob-served Henny Youngman taping a TV show in the old NBC studios. We got into an elevator together. It stopped at the second floor, a private club. A wedding was underway. Youngman got off the elevator, asked to meet the father of the bride and said, “I’m Henny Youngman. I’ll do 10 minutes for $100.” He also did nightclubs (200 nights a year), the odd movie and a regular gig on Laugh In.

Youngman’s humour was rapid-fire, machine-gun style. His act was only 15 or 20 minutes long but he could cram a hundred different jokes into that time frame. Nobody ever complained about the length of Youngman’s performances. Their sides were aching too much.

Youngman’s wife Sadie was the butt of a lot of his jokes — including his trademark gag: “Take my wife — please!”

He had others:

“My wife said to me, ‘For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I’ve never been before.’ I said, ‘Try the kitchen!’”, or:  “Last night my wife said the weather outside wasn’t fit for man or beast, so we both stayed home.”

In fact, Youngman was nuts about Sadie and she returned the ardour.  They were married for over six decades and towards the end, when her health declined he had an Intensive Care Unit built into her bedroom because she was terrified of hospitals.

Sadie died in 1987; Henny ploughed on for another decade, finally closing his remarkable one-man show in 1998 at the age of 91.

Henny could spark laughs anytime, anywhere from anyone, but it never went to his head. For Henny it was a job.

“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.”

‘Keeping it clean’ was a big deal for Henny.  I met a young comedian who got to sit beside him on an airplane once. The kid asked Youngman for his secret.

“I keep it clean!” thundered Youngman. “All these young punks with their sewer mouths and their gutter jokes — stupid! Sure they get laughs but they don’t get asked back because they offend people who don’t like bad language. Best advice I can give you, kid — KEEP IT CLEAN!”

Then without missing a beat, Youngman buttonholed the flight attendant and said: “Now where’s my #%$ing scotch?”


— Arthur Black lives on Salt Spring Island