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THESE DAYS, PERHAPS only those of a certain age remember standup comedian Henny Youngman. More’s the pity, because he was the master of rapid-fire humor, interspersed with a few bars of his violin playing:
“A man asks a cop, ‘Can I park here?’ ‘No.’ ‘What about all these other cars?’ ‘They didn’t ask.’ ”
“A bum said, ‘Give me $10 until payday.’ ‘When’s payday?’ ‘How would I know. You’re the one who’s working.’ ”
Youngman’s violin virtuosity is missing here at SimanaitisSays. Instead, I intersperse his biographical details with several of my Youngman favorites.
Henny was born to a Jewish family in London, England, in 1906. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was a child. As a young man, Henny worked in a print shop where he specialized in one-line comedy cards.
“My dad was the town drunk. Most of the time that’s not so bad; but New York City?”
Encouraged to study the violin, Youngman’s first show-business gigs were as a musician in clubs and speakeasies. His standup career began when a club’s regular comedian failed to show up. A big break came in 1937 when Youngman performed on Kate Smith’s popular national radio show.
Youngman professed a straightforward career philosophy: “I get on a plane. I go and do a job, grab the money, and I come home. And I keep it clean.”
He evidently enjoyed his work, as Youngman was known to be averse to vacations or other breaks over his 70-year career.
“During the war an Italian girl saved my life. She hid me in her cellar in Cleveland.”
Even after achieving legendary status, Youngman never refused performing in a small venue or unknown club. Movie critic Roger Ebert recalled, “I once observed Henny Youngman taping a TV show in the old NBC studio at the Merchandise Mart. We got into an elevator together. It stopped at the second floor, a private club. A wedding was under way. 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.’ ”
No doubt that wedding party never forgot this impromptu gig.
Henny was married to wife Sadie Cohen for 59 years. Indeed, he said his most famous line, “Take my wife… please,” actually didn’t originate as a one-liner. It was a straightforward request asking a stagehand to escort Sadie to her seat.
Nonetheless, Youngman also recognized the fruitful comedic themes of marriage: “She was married so many times, she had rice marks on her face.”
“My wife and I have the secret to making a good marriage. Two times a week, we go to a nice restaurant, a little wine, good food. She goes Tuesdays; I go Thursdays.”
“My wife was in the beauty shop for two hours. That was only for the estimate.”
Divorces or other marital eventualities were not ignored either: “Why do divorces cost so much?” “Because they’re worth it.”
“Why do Jewish men die before their wives?” “Because they want to.”
Doctor jokes were also recurrent themes: “The doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so he gave him another six months.”
“I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places.”
“A man goes to a psychiatrist. ‘Nobody listens to me!’ The doctor says, ‘Next.’ ”
Even God had a role in Youngman schtick: “God sneezed. I didn’t know what to say to him.”
Aptly, Youngman’s autobiography is titled Take My Life, Please. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018