King of one-liner's career spanned 7 decades

Henny Youngman, the undisputed king of the one-liners, whose quip “Take my wife — please,” defines a comedic style, died Tuesday in New York. He was 92.

The comic died at Mount Sinai Hospital, where he had been since Jan. 2, suffering from pneumonia. He had been working up until Christmas.

Youngman, whose career was a series of peaks and valleys, ridicule and respect, frequently appeared with a violin (shades of Jack Benny). But his real trademark was his non-stop series of succinct, acerbic but surprisingly uncontroversial jokes. (“I was so ugly when I was born,” he once said, “the doctor slapped my mother.”)

He was said to have four hours of material, some 1,600 jokes, floating around in his head. His approach was basic, his pace rapid-fire. At times, he was scorned for being out of touch and unsophisticated; at others he was revered for his impeccable timing and the simplicity of his humor.

The venues varied from nightclubs to sales meetings, trade shows, fraternal roasts and even local bar mitzvahs. If he was busy, Youngman charged $5,000 a gig; if not, his fee would drop as low as $1,500.

His need to work constantly is perhaps the result of a rather modest upbringing and a series of false starts. He was born to Russian immigrants in Liverpool, England, on Jan. 12, 1906. His family soon moved to the U.S. and his father made him take violin lessons hoping he would become proficient enough to play professionally.

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, Youngman studied printing at Brooklyn Vocational School and did several odd jobs before starting a band called the Syncopaters.

The band played in and around Brooklyn and at Jewish resorts in the Catskills in the 1920s. By the early ’30s, the wisce-cracking bandleader had struck out on his own with his comedic patter.

Through his early writer Al Schwartz, Youngman’s name began appearing in columns including Walter Winchell’s, and Youngman played dates at Manhattan’s Yacht Club, but more frequently, out-of-the-way spots in New Jersey.

Those were lean times, until singer Kate Smith hired him to be on her CBS radio show in 1936. After two years on the show, he waited in vain for movie offers; to survive, Youngman began to play anywhere and everywhere, averaging more than 200 engagements a year.

TV appearances refreshed his appeal in the ’50s, but by the 1960s, with a new generation of post-Borscht-Belt comedians in favor, Youngman’s routine seemed tired. That changed in the late ’60s, when “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” made a virtue of the one-liner and Youngman did it better than anyone else. He also appeared on “Hee-Haw,” “Hollywood Squares” and “The Tonight Show.”

Youngman was the first comic, and probably the most popular, to do Dial-a-Joke. His first month on the New York Telephone Co. spot in 1974 drew 3 million calls (Youngman earned only $3,500 for 30 minutes of material). He followed it up with another month in 1979.

He made occasional TV dramatic appearances, such as 1961’s “The Golden Thirty” on “The U.S. Steel Hour.” In films, he appeared in “A Wave, a Wac and a Marine” and “Nashville Rebel” and made cameo appearances in “Won Ton Ton” and “Silent Movie” in 1976, “The Comeback Trail,” “The National Lampoon Goes to the Movies” and briefly in 1990’s “GoodFellas.” In 1980, he appeared in “Medium Roasted Rare,” a special on Showtime.

Youngman also wrote several books including his autobiography “Take My Wife … Please! My Life and Laughs” in 1973. He also penned collections of jokes such as “Don’t Put My Name on This Book” (1978), “Insults for Everyone” (1979), “Five Hundred All Time Great One-Liners” (1981), “Henny Youngman’s Giant Book of Jokes” (1981) and “Take My Jokes, Please” (1983).

Among his recordings are the albums “Sol Hurok Does Not Present the Best and Worst of Henny Youngman,” “Take My Album, Please” and “Greatest Jokes.”

Youngman and Sadie Cohen were married in 1928 and had a son, Gary (a film editor), and daughter, Marilyn. Sadie died in 1987.

Survivors also include two grandchildren.

Services will be held at noon Friday at Riverside Chapel in New York.

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