Back in my nonage (my first nonage), when I was working as a factotum to International Singing Sensation Mr. Tony Bennett, one of my jobs was to answer the telephone. I’d just gotten used to talking to semi-celebrities like Jerry Leiber and Mitch Miller, when one day I picked up the line and answered “Tony Bennett Enterprises”, and an extremely recognizable voice comes back: “Henny Youngman!”
Needless to say I was taken aback, not just because the King of the One Liners was on the line, but also because I didn’t know how to respond. How do you negotiate such an abrupt greeting? All he said was his name! He didn’t say (like so many did, like so many tried to do) “Yeah, let me talk to Tony”. He just said his name, and the ball was in my court. There was a rather long silence. Finally, in desperation, I said, “…How are you?” and he goes, “Very clever!”
That’s what he was like, always “on”, always accessible, always his own manager, and not above taking a kid’s bar mitzvah as a gig, still working when he passed away at age 91. In his autobiography Take My Life, Please (my copy’s autographed, thank you), he expressed the philosophy he lived by all his life: “nem di gelt (get the dough).” It’s a philosophy I admire and even respect, keep telling myself to adopt, but never can quite seem to live by.
Was Henny a hack? After all, didn’t Jack Benny already play a violin badly for laughs? Didn’t Milton Berle already fire off an encyclopedia’s-worth of corny one-liners? Let’s just say Henny was a “professional”. He makes me laugh. Despite the fact that he came too late for vaudeville, I write a little about him in No Applause — and I won’t give those thoughts away for free here! Nem di gelt!
Today is Henny Youngman’s birthday.
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on comedy history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc