POVonline

My favorite Wizard of Id comic strip is the one in which a maiden appears before the King to announce that she wants a divorce from her husband of many years.  "I cannot stand what he does," she declares.

"What does he do?" his highness inquires.

The woman responds, "He does Henny Youngman."

Henny Youngman, who passed away recently at the age of 91, was hailed as the King of One-Line Comedians.  Actually, in the last three or four decades, there haven't been too many comedians who specialized in one-line jokes.  But however many existed, Henny was their King.

His act consisted of holding a violin and rattling them off, one after the other, each unrelated to the one before.  If you didn't like a joke, just wait: Another would be along in a matter of seconds.  On rare occasions, he would play the fiddle, usually as a grand finale.  Milton Berle used to say that the only thing funnier than Youngman's jokes was Youngman's violin music.

Henny was one of those comedians who was as colorful off-stage as on.  There are a hundred tales about practical jokes and real-life antics, many so perfectly outrageous, you suspect they've been "embellished" a bit in their constant retelling.  Or maybe they were just lies to begin with.  The best of these was probably the tale of Harry Crane and the Starlets Nudist Association.

Harry Crane was a legendary comedy writer.  He worked constantly in radio for years and so got to know all the New York comedians, Youngman included.  Later, he was called to Hollywood to work at M.G.M. — the legendary film factory run by the mogul's mogul, Louis B. Mayer.  When Henny went out to do a bit part in a picture, he immediately called his old buddy Harry, and not just out of camaraderie.  "You've been living out here for years," Henny told his old pal.  "You must know where they have all those wild parties and orgies."

Crane told him he was daffy, or words to that effect.  "That's just stuff they print in the sleazy fan magazines.  There are no such parties."

Unfortunately, Henny had but one line.  "Come on," he kept insisting.  "You can get me invited to a wild party."  He kept this up for weeks and finally the writer had had enough.  He took Henny aside and, as if divulging the secret of eternal life, said, "All right, I set it up.  I got you an invite to the annual orgy of the Starlets Nudist Association."  Youngman couldn't have been happier.

"Now, listen," Crane continued.  "This is a real private affair so tell no one, you understand?  Show up at this address tonight at 9:00 sharp.  Don't be a minute early or a minute late.  When the butler lets you in, give him the password, which is 'sun tan.'  Then do exactly as you're told."  Youngman took the address and swore he would breathe not a word to anyone.

That evening at the stroke of nine, The King of the One-Liners eagerly presented himself at a stately mansion in the Bel Air colony.  A dignified butler opened the door and asked for the password.  "Sun tan," Youngman stammered, and he was immediately admitted to the foyer.

The butler pointed to closed doors which led to the ballroom.  "The young ladies are just concluding the business meeting in there."  He then pointed to a small room to one side.  "You may remove your clothing in there, then proceed to the ballroom where the nude starlets await."  Youngman hurried into the small room and the "butler" — who didn't work there and was actually an actor friend of Crane's — slipped out of the mansion.

Henny removed all his clothes and then marched into the ballroom, where Louis B. Mayer was staging a formal sit-down dinner for fifty couples.  He was not welcomed with open arms.

Did this actually happen?  I kinda doubt it.  How did Crane manage to substitute an actor for Louis B. Mayer's butler on the night of an important party?  Perhaps something did occur which was eventually exaggerated into this tale but I don't know...it sounds like a bad Playboy Party Joke to me.  Still, it's a good story.

I heard it more than twenty years ago from Mr. Crane, who was then head writer of Dean Martin's TV show.  I was lunching with a friend in the NBC Commissary where, yes, the food was as awful as Carson said.  My friend knew Harry and so he joined our table, delighted to have a new audience (me) for his anecdotes, which unfortunately included the above.  You try finishing a commissary hamburger with the mental image of Henny Youngman naked.

Twelve years later, I was a writer on a comedy series that was taping at NBC.  The King of the One-Liners was hired to come in and tape some spots.

The equally-legendary Dick Clark was our producer.  Just before Henny was to go before the cameras, Dick came up to me and said, "I'm told you know every joke in Henny Youngman's act."

I said, "Yes, I know both of them."

"I guess you do," Dick grinned.  "Listen, when we tape Henny's spot, I'd like you out there to prompt him on some of his material.  If we tape enough extra stuff, we may be able to edit it into later shows."  (This was not Dick Clark being cheap, though God knows he could be.  Henny would be paid and paid well, each time we could cut him into an episode.)

He took me into the make-up room and introduced me to Henny Youngman.  "This young man knows every joke in your act," he told him.

"Good," said Henny.  "I'll stay here and he can go out and do that junk."  (I am cleaning up the language here a bit.)

As we waited for his call, Henny largely ignored me and groped a rather attractive make-up lady.  She finally warned him, "Behave, Mr. Youngman, or I'll tweeze your eyebrows with my hedge clippers."

"Hey, that's good," Henny chuckled.

A few minutes later, we were out in Studio 3 where Leno now tapes, with Mr. Youngman in front of the cameras and me, just to one side of them.  He did about 30 jokes and then asked, "Now what?"  Dick Clark waved me into action.

I called out, "Drunk puts a dime in a parking meter!"

Henny, without pausing to think, said, "Drunk puts a dime in a parking meter.  The arrow goes to 60.  The drunk says, 'Gee, I lost a hundred pounds!'"

I yelled, "Killing on Wall Street."

Henny immediately came back with, "I just made a killing on Wall Street.  I shot my broker!"

I announced, "X-rays!"

Henny didn't miss a beat: "I've got a great doctor.  If you can't afford the operation, he touches up your X-rays."

And so it went for the better part of twenty jokes.  Finally, Dick nodded to me that he thought we had enough and the director yelled, "Cut!"  The crew, still convulsed with laughter, gave Henny a rousing ovation.  Then he came up to me, shook my hand and said, "If I ever need a partner, I'll give you a call."

More than a dozen years later, a friend of mine and I were in Las Vegas and I was trying to find a show we could go see that evening.  Paging through a magazine, I got as far as an ad for the Sahara announcing Milton Berle's Comedy Roast of Sid Caesar.  All week, Milton Berle and a bevy of comedians were roasting Sid Caesar twice nightly in the Congo Room.

I told my companion we were going to see Milton Berle's Comedy Roast of Sid Caesar.  She immediately responded, "Well, that's where you're wrong, Evanier.  You are going to see Milton Berle's Comedy Roast of Sid Caesar.  I'm going to be busy bankrupting this hotel at the video poker machines."  So I went stag to see Milton Berle's Comedy Roast of Sid Caesar.

I purchased a $35.00 ticket at the Sahara box office, then presented it to a tuxedoed gent at the door who handled the seating.  With a bluntness that was excessive even for a Vegas maitre 'd, he announced that I'd better tip if I expected a seat in the same area code as the stage.  I slipped him a ten and wound up close enough to count the wrinkles.

Berle came out first and did about fifteen minutes of jokes, well-worn but funny.  At one point, someone in the audience shouted out a feeble zinger, and Uncle Miltie quickly came back with five or six sharp "ad-libs" to put the guy away.  The audience loved it, and didn't seem to realize (or care) that the heckler was a blatant plant.

Then he introduced the dais: Henny Youngman, Jackie Gayle, Slappy White, Foster Brooks and the guest-of-honor (two shows nightly), Sid Caesar.

In theory, a "roast" consists of a succession of speakers who insult — humorously and often obscenely — the roastee.  And in roasts done for genuine special occasions and in private venues, that's how it usually works.  But years ago, someone had the idea that there was a buck to be made, staging "roasts" for TV shows and mass audiences...and for those, no one is about to write all-new material that they can use nowhere else.

Most of the time, the comedians do their usual routines, and perhaps throw in a token reference to the honoree.  (Years ago, there was a TV roast of Don Adams with David Steinberg as host.  So many comics did material having nothing to do with the star that Steinberg finally introduced one by saying, "And now, our next speaker who will try to pass off his stand-up act as a Don Adams Roast is...")

So what happened in the Congo Room that night was that Berle told some more jokes that had nothing to do with Sid Caesar.  Then Jackie Gayle got up and told some jokes that had nothing to do with Sid Caesar.  Then Slappy White told some jokes that had nothing to do with Sid Caesar.  Then Foster Brooks told some jokes that had nothing to do with Sid Caesar.  Foster Brooks, you may be shocked to learn, acted as if he had been drinking.

The audience didn't care one bit that all of this was off-subject and, truth to tell, neither did I.  It was just a chance to see some old pros do their time-tested routines.  Nothing wrong with that.

The one thing that made me uncomfortable was that Henny Youngman sat there throughout the proceedings, staring off into space, as if completely unaware he was on a stage.  Even when one of the other speakers mentioned his name, he didn't seem to notice.  He just sat there, about five feet from me, no sign of life about his face.

And the thought hit me: Why is he doing this?  Henny was 86 years old — too old to be flying cross country, donning a tux and staying up 'til 1 A.M. doing the second show.  A man of his age should be home — feet up, someone to care for him.  Why was he there?  He couldn't have needed the money...

Then they introduced him for his spot and he got up and turned into Henny Youngman.

It was like someone had just connected the power supply: Henny was suddenly half his chronological age.  His eyes were bright, his voice was clear, and he sailed into a fifteen-minute set with lightning precision.  Joke after joke connected and when he finished, the audience went wild with applause.  Henny acknowledged the warm reception, took his seat...and zoned out.

Just like that, all his energy disappeared and he suddenly looked 86 again...or maybe even older.  He seemed as lifeless as he had before he'd done his spot...but I sure didn't feel sorry for him anymore.  In fact, I understood: When he performed, he was doing something.  And if he wasn't doing something, he wasn't really alive.

Sid Caesar closed the show and he was brilliant.  His spot alone was worth the cost of the ticket and the deftly-extorted gratuity.  Afterwards, I got backstage to say hello to Sid, with whom I'd worked on several occasions, and Milton, whom I'd met a few times.  Sid introduced me to Henny, and I didn't bother mentioning that we'd "worked together."  I told him how good he was, how it was an honor to see him, yadda yadda yadda.  He immediately snapped to life again and launched into an array of stories, most of them funny (and filthy) to the extreme.

I tried to leave so he could rest up for the late show but Henny wouldn't let me go until just before it was time to go on again.  "Let me give you a word of advice, young man," he said.  "Nem di gelt!  You know what that means?"

I did.  It's Yiddish for "Get the money."

"Right," Henny said.  "Get the money.  What we do — writing jokes and telling jokes — looks easy, especially when we do it well.  It isn't.  It's hard and the people who hire us make a lot of money off what we do.  So always make sure you get paid.  Don't be afraid to get the money.  Ask for it up front and ask for as much as you can get.  Club owners...TV producers...they're all crooks, trying to get out of paying us for what we do.  Nem di gelt."

I thanked him, and promised I would remember to nem di gelt, and he went on for his second show.

A few months later, someone told me a story about Henny Youngman which I believe is true.  It was about what Henny would do when he was home in New York and found himself unbooked on a Saturday night.

He would take his fiddle and go to some hotel that had banquet rooms.  He'd consult the daily directory in the lobby and find a party — usually a Bar Mitzvah reception — and he would go up to the room and ask to speak to whoever was paying for the affair.  "I'm Henny Youngman," he would tell that person.  "I was playing a date in another banquet room here and one of the waiters suggested you might want to have me do my act for your gathering here."  He would negotiate whatever price he could get — $200, $500, preferably in cash — and he would do his act for them.

That was Henny Youngman.  I have no idea where is today but I'll bet he's telling jokes.  And I'll bet he got paid in advance.

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