In a time when many comedians told elaborate anecdotes, Youngman's routine consisted of telling simple one-liner jokes, occasionally with interludes of violin playing. These 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 conferred to him by columnist Walter Winchell. A stage performance by Youngman lasted only 15 to 20 minutes but contained dozens of jokes in rapid-fire succession.
Youngman was born to a Jewish family in London, England. His family moved to Brooklyn, New York when he was a child. He grew up in New York City, and began as a comedian after he had worked for years at a print shop, where he wrote "comedy cards" containing one-line gags. The comedy cards were discovered by up-and-coming comedian Milton Berle, who encouraged Youngman and formed a close friendship with him. Berle said about him, "The only thing funnier than Henny's jokes is his violin playing."
Encouraged by his family to study the violin, Youngman began in show business as a musician. He led a small jazz band called the Swanee Syncopaters, and during performances, he often told jokes. One night, the club's regular comedian didn't show up and the owner asked Youngman to fill in. He enjoyed it and began his long career as a stand-up comic. His inoffensive, friendly style of comedy kept his audiences laughing for decades. He first played in clubs and speakeasies, but his break came on Kate Smith's radio show in 1937. Youngman's manager Ted Collins booked him on the show, and he made many appearances on the radio.
During the 1940s, Youngman tried to work into films as an actor, but he found little work in Hollywood. He returned to nightclubs and worked steadily, performing as many as 200 shows per year. Working with writer/producer Danny Shapiro, Youngman recorded The Primitive Sounds of Henny Youngman 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.
Like many comedians, Henny Youngman treated his profession as a working job, one where it is difficult to make a living, and getting paid for the work is all-important. In numerous interviews, Youngman's advice to other entertainers was to "nem di gelt" (Yiddish for "take the money").
He was quoted in an interview with the online magazine Eye: "I get on the plane. I go and do the job, grab the money and I come home and I keep it clean. Those are my rules. Sinatra does the same thing, only he has a helicopter waiting. That's the difference."
When the New York Telephone Company started its Dial-a-Joke in 1974, over three million people called in one month to hear 30 seconds of Youngman's material—the most ever for a comedian.
Youngman never retired, and he performed his stage act in venues worldwide until his final days. As his fame passed into legendary status, he never considered himself aloof or above others, and he never refused to perform a show in a small venue or unknown club. In a tribute to Youngman, TV and animation producer Mark Evanier described him in a way that emphasized both his money consciousness and his love of performing:
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.
Roger Ebert described a similar episode in a 2011 film review:
I once observed Henny Youngman taping a TV show in the old NBC studios at the Merchandise Mart. We got into an elevator together. It stopped at the second floor, a private club. A wedding was under way. Youngman got off the elevator, asked to meet the father of the bride and said, "I'm Henny Youngman. I'll do 10 minutes for $100."
Youngman made numerous appearances on television, including a long-running stint on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. In 1955, he hosted a TV series entitled The Henny and Rocky Show, appearing with champion boxer Rocky Graziano. He had cameo appearances in several movies, including Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, History of the World, Part I and Goodfellas.
He had a larger role as the strip club owner in Herschell Gordon Lewis's The Gore Gore Girls, a fact he denied vehemently. He made a few recordings, most notably The Primitive Side of Henny Youngman, recorded live in St. Louis and released by National Recording Corporation on the NRC label. The CD is still in print.
His autobiography is entitled Take My Life, Please!.
Youngman's last movie appearance before his death was in Daniel Robert Cohn's film Eyes Beyond Seeing, in which he has a cameo as a mental patient claiming to be Henny Youngman.
Youngman's wife Sadie Cohen was often the butt of his jokes ("My wife said to me, 'For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I've never been before.' I said, 'Try the kitchen!'", or "My wife's cooking is fit for a king. [Gesturing as if feeding an invisible dog.] Here King, here King!" Also, "Last night my wife said the weather outside was fit for neither man nor beast, so we both stayed home.") In reality the two were very close, with Sadie's often accompanying her husband on his tours. The Youngmans remained married for 59 years until Sadie's death in 1987 after a prolonged illness. While she was ill, Henny had an ICU built in their bedroom, so she could be taken care of at home, rather than in the hospital, as Sadie was terrified of hospitals.
Henny explained the origin of his classic line "Take my wife, please" as a misinterpretation: he took his wife to a radio show and asked a stagehand to escort his wife to a seat. But his request was taken as a joke, and Youngman used the line countless times ever after.
Youngman had two children, Gary and Marilyn. Gary started his career screenwriting and directing, continuing to work in the film industry in various capacities. Gary is best known for his 1976 film Rush It!.
With the exception of a week following his wife's death, and the month he was in his final hospital stay, Henny was known for having worked almost every day for over 70 years without vacations or other breaks.
Youngman developed pneumonia and died on 24 February 1998 at the age of 91. He is interred in the Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, New York next to his wife Sadie.A Wave, a WAC and a Marine (1944) as O. Henry Brown
You Can't Run Away from It (1956) as First Driver
Nashville Rebel (1966) as Himself
The Unkissed Bride (1966) as Himself
The Gore Gore Girls (1972) as Marzdone Mobilie
The Great Masquerade (1974) as Himself
Death Brings Roses (1975)
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) as Manny Farber
Silent Movie (1976) as Fly-in-Soup Man
History of the World, Part I (1981) as Chemist in the Roman Empire
Death Wish II (1982) as Himself
The Comeback Trail (1982) as Himself
National Lampoon's Movie Madness (1982) as Lawyer ("Municipalians")
Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) as Himself (segment "Roast Your Loved One")
Goodfellas (1990) as Himself
Eyes Beyond Seeing (1995) as Mental Patient/Henny Youngmam