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This is a combination Valentine’s Day, anniversary-date, and topically edgy column. It commemorates a comedian, Henny Youngman, “king of the one-liners,” who died 20 Februaries ago at age 91. His marriage with his wife, Sadie Cohen, lasted 59 years, and from the accounts I’ve read was happy.
That’s important to note because male-female relations these days are full of suspicion and bitterness, but satisfied couples can laugh together. Susan and I have been married 41 years, and she laughed at all the Youngman jokes that follow, such as:
Some people ask the secret of our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music, dancing. She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays.
She was at the beauty shop for two hours. That was only for the estimate.
‘I’ve got all the money I ever need, if I die by 4 o’clock.’ —Henny Youngman
One of Youngman’s lines that’s entered American culture began when he took Sadie to a radio show he was doing and asked a stagehand to show her a seat: Take my wife, please. The stagehand broke up, but Youngman’s marriage did not. During Sadie’s last illness Youngman had an ICU built in their bedroom so she could have home care. Hospitals frightened her, so Youngman told doctor jokes:
“Doctor, my leg hurts. What can I do?” The doctor says, “Limp!”
“Doctor, I have a ringing in my ears.” “Don’t answer!”
A man goes to a psychiatrist. The doctor says, “You’re crazy.” The man says, “I want a second opinion!” “OK, you’re ugly too!”
I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places.
When I told my doctor I couldn’t afford an operation, he offered to touch up my X-rays.
Youngman’s major worry concerned money, and he was always eager to trade humor for cash. Film reviewer Roger Ebert told of being with Youngman in Chicago on an elevator that stopped at a floor where a wedding was underway. Youngman got off, asked to meet the father of the bride, and said, “I’m Henny Youngman. I’ll do 10 minutes for $100.” Here’s one of those minutes:
I’ve got all the money I ever need, if I die by 4 o’clock.
You have the Midas touch. Everything you touch turns to a muffler.
What’s the use of happiness? It can’t buy you money.
My wife will buy anything marked down. Last year she bought an escalator.
The paramedic asks a man hit by a car, “Are you comfortable?” The man says, “I make a good living.”
Youngman in 1974 set the record for people calling Dial-A-Joke in New York City: 3 million people in one month to hear 30 seconds of his humor. In that astoundingly diverse city he became an equal opportunity offender by joking about various ethnic groups in ways that would not be acceptable today (you can fill in the blanks):
A ______ terrorist was sent to blow up a car. He burned his mouth on the exhaust pipe!
Two ______ men on the day after Halloween had burned faces. What happened? They were bobbing for french fries.
A ______ bought a zebra for a pet. What does he call the zebra? Spot!
I asked a ______, “Do you know where Michigan Avenue is?” He said “Yes” and walked away.
Youngman’s rapid-fire joke-telling, like a fast break in basketball, depended on misdirection—a first sentence suggesting where he was going, then a quick reversal: My grandmother is over 80 and still doesn’t need glasses. Drinks right out of the bottle.
I read about the evils of drinking. So I gave up reading.
My wife is the sweetest, most tolerant, most beautiful woman in the world. This is a paid political announcement.
I leave you with two jokes Henny Youngman thought were funny. He didn’t realize they were prophecies. First, given the new biology: There were three kids in my family. One of each sex.
Second, in our new world of medicine: Doctor says to a man, “You’re pregnant!” The man says, “How does a man get pregnant?” Doctor: “The usual way, a little wine, a little dinner.”