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.

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