Obituary: Henny Youngman

"TAKE my wife - please!" The shortest joke with the longest laugh, four words of fun that became the trademark of Henny Youngman and will probably be engraved on his tombstone. Not the world's shortest joke; that honour belongs to England and Moore Marriott, the garrulous old gaffer of the Will Hay films. In Oh Mr Porter (1937) Marriott as a toothless ticket seller slings up his shutter, shouts "Next train's gone!", and slams it down again.

But Henny Youngman was no character comedian; his entire showbiz life consisted of standing stiffly at a microphone and snapping out short gags at a rate of knots. This may be why he was great in vaudeville, a joy on radio, OK in the early days of television, but not much cop in the movies. In fact for most of his lifetime, which was long, he had only one movie to his record, a 70-minute "B" feature from the Poverty Row production company Monogram.

It was called A Wave, a Wac and a Marine (1944), a title which meant something to wartime America but little to the UK. A wealthier company would have changed it, but such expensive tinkering was unheard of at Monogram. The film's stars were Elyse Knox, Sally Eilers and Alan Dinehart, with Youngman billed lower down the cast-list. Although the film has not been shown since its original release in 1944, I can recall being quite impressed by Youngman's quick-fire gagging, although his somewhat deadpan delivery was obviously unsuited to the cinema. Late in life he made a film comeback by filling a small role in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (1992) .

Like another creative cracker of one-liners, Bob Hope, Youngman was born in England, in the Liverpool of 1906. His birth gave him one of his first jokes: "I was so ugly the doctor slapped my mother!" When he was six months old his family moved to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. His father forced him to learn the violin, an instrument he was to use in his act all through his life. Like Jack Benny in the US and Ted Ray in England, Youngman fiddled but little, using the instrument to punctuate his gags. "I was such a lousy fiddler people laughed at me - so I became a comedian."

Youngman came to radio in the late Thirties following years of touring through the famous "Borscht Belt", training-ground for every major American comedian from Red Skelton to Woody Allen.

It was Allen who would later reawaken interest in Youngman by protesting against being labelled as an intellectual comedian and claiming he should be thought of as a disciple of Henny Youngman. This style was of snappy gags following one another like explosions from a machine-gun. Walter Winchell, the newspaper columnist, gave Youngman his first advertising-bill matter: "King of the One-Liners".

Youngman shot to popular fame on the Kate Smith Show, a pre-war radio series which starred the popular if overweight "Songbird of the South" with new comedy discoveries. Following Youngman's year on the show came Abbott & Costello, a pair of crosstalk comics who shot to greater fame in their many wartime comedy films.

After the Second World War came the rising tide of television, and Youngman was chosen as one of several hosts for Texaco Star Theatre (1948) including Morey Amsterdam (remembered from The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Milton Berle. They competed for the post of regular host and Berle won, becoming American television's first great star.

In 1955 Youngman attained titular stardom at least with The Henny and Rocky Show. Rocky was Graziano, the ex- middleweight boxing champion, and the series ran live every Wednesday night following that week's boxing match. Thus the show could run from five minutes to 30, according to how long the match had lasted.

Other television series included a game show called Make Me Laugh (1958) in which Youngman and several fellow professional comedians tried to make each other laugh within one minute. He also made the return trip to England around this time to star at the London Palladium. In 1975 there was a series called Joe and Dad, starring a dancer and her father Ray Heatherton, with Youngman very much in support. In 1978 came The Rah Rah Show starring Chuck Barris, who had created that successful series for untalented wannabes, The Gong Show. This contained a mixture of venerable professionals including the be-bop singer Slim Gaillard, the hi-de-ho Cab Calloway, and the ha- ha merchant Henny Youngman. It was not a great success.

Perhaps the oddest assignment of his entire comedic career was when Youngman was hired as the Dial-a-Joke voice for the New York Telephone Company. This was back in 1974, and Youngman clocked up a record of 300,000 calls a day.

His wife Sadie, who had accidentally inspired the ad-lib that was to become Youngman's catchphrase, as well as the title of his autobiography, died in 1987.

"I miss my wife's cooking," he said, "as often as I can!" But perhaps the most outrageous gag he ever staged was a public celebration of his 91st birthday. He invited newspaper and television reporters to a posh restaurant to witness the reading of his last will and testament. As Ed Sullivan, America's top television presenter, once commented, "Henny never changed his gags, only his audiences."

Henry (Henny) Youngman, comedian: born Liverpool 16 March 1906; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 24 February 1998.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballArsenal vs QPR match report
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all