Henry "Henny" Youngman (originally German surname Junggman) (March 16, 1906 – February 24, 1998) was a British-born American comedian and violinist famous for "one-liners", short, simple jokes usually delivered rapid-fire. His best known (and oft misattributed) one-liner was "Take my wife—please".
In a time when many comedians told elaborate anecdotes, Youngman’s comedy routine consisted of telling simple one-liner jokes, occasionally with interludes of violin playing. These gags depicted simple, cartoon-like situations, eliminating lengthy build-ups and going straight to the punch line. He was known as the King of the One Liners, a title bestowed upon him by columnist Walter Winchell. A typical stage performance by Youngman lasted only fifteen to twenty minutes, but contained dozens of jokes, spouted in rapid-fire fashion.
Youngman was born in Liverpool, England, and his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was young. He grew up in New York City, and his career as a comedian began after he had worked for a number of years at a print shop, where he penned and published a large number of “comedy cards”—cards containing one-line gags that were sold at the shop. The comedy cards were discovered by up-and-coming professional comedian Milton Berle, who encouraged Youngman and formed a close working friendship with him. Berle quipped about his friend, "The only thing funnier than Henny's jokes is his violin playing."
Encouraged by his family to learn the violin, Youngman’s start in show business was as an orchestra musician. He led a small jazz band called the "Swanee Syncopaters," and during the band's performances, Youngman often told jokes to the audience. One night, the regular comedian didn't show for his performance, and the club owner asked Youngman to fill in. Youngman was a success, and he began a long career of stand-up, telling one-line jokes and polishing his act to razor sharpness. His generally inoffensive, friendly style of comedy kept his audiences in stitches for decades. He started his career playing in clubs and speakeasies, but his big break came on the Kate Smith radio show in 1937. His manager, Ted Collins, booked him on the popular show, where he was a great success; he made many return appearances to the radio.
During the 1940s Youngman tried to break into the movies and become an actor, but he was unsuccessful in Hollywood. He returned to the nightclub scene and worked steadily with his stand-up act, performing as many as 200 shows a year. Working with writer/producer Danny Shapiro, Youngman recorded a "live" album for National Recording Corporation in 1959 at the Celebrity Club in St. Louis. The album is still popular today in CD, and is a frequent iTunes download.
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