Tuesday, October 27, 2015

King Of The One Liners

I just read Henny Youngman's autobiography Take My Life, Please.  Took me long enough, as it was written about 25 years ago and Henny died over 15 years ago.  It's a bit over 200 pages, but you wouldn't expect anything long from a man who's known for one-liners.

His life was like a template of so many Jewish comics of his era--he grew up very poor in Brooklyn.  The only thing slightly different is his father, having left the Old Country but not yet come to America, stopped in London long enough to have his first son, Henry, in 1950.  This son later changed it to Henny--he was called "Hen" but didn't think it looked good on a marquee.  Henny couldn't be President so what else was there but show biz?

He barely attended school, preferring to schmooze with friends. His father insisted he learn a trade, so he became a printer. One of his specialties was printing old jokes on cards, which he'd sell for a dime.  Like a good Jewish boy, he also learned the violin.  This led to him forming a group known as the Swanee Syncopators, though they'd change their name to fit whatever gig they played.

He started doing humorous bits on stage and was asked to fill in for an emcee and his true career was born.  He kept the violin to have something to do, but his delivery was so fast he barely needed it.  Soon   Soon he was a tummler in the Catskills, keeping the guests amused any way possible. (he also got married--and spent half his career doing jokes about his wife and mother-in-law.) He got his big break in 1937 appearing on the Kate Smith radio show.  He became a regular, and started burning through a years worth of material every week or two. 

Powerful columnist Walter Winchell named him the King Of The One Liners, and he remained in that position pretty much until his death in 1998.

He talks about the many people he met along the way.  Jackie Gleason, the funny Irish kid who grew up nearby. His closest friend, Milton Berle--a few years younger but who made it big faster.  Then there are all the gangsters he had to deal with playing in clubs. In the final chapter, he even mentions modern names--the new kids he likes, such as Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Jay Leno, as well as those he doesn't, such as Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison. (He also talks about Jack Ruby and Donald Trump, neither of whom he thought much of.)

His number one rule in show biz--Nem di gelt, which means take the money. Don't be too proud, don't price yourself out of the market, don't count on promises. Take the money.

If the book has a problem, it's that he spends too much time on his youth. Not that it isn't interesting, but I figure most of the book would be about his years as a successful entertainer. Instead, the book is half over before he even become a working comedian, and at the two-thirds point, we're still in the Depression.  It's not until the final third of the book that he deals in a whirlwind way with the last 60 years or so of his career.

But he does sprinkle plenty of his famous one liners along the way:

A man says to another man "Can you tell me how to get to Central Park?"  The guy says no. "All right," says the first, "I'll mug you here."

I just got back from a pleasure trip.  I took my mother-in-law to the airport.

A doctor gave a man six month to live.  The man couldn't pay his bill so he gave him another six months.

I've been married fifty years and I'm still in love with the same woman. If my wife every finds out, she'll kill me.

Funny then, funny today.

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