“I once wanted to be an atheist, but I gave it up. They don’t have any holidays.”

Henry “Henny” Youngman (originally Yungman) was the king of the one-liners and was one of the first comedians to make a name for himself without costumes or jokes padded with an elaborate story. The oddest fact, however, is that Youngman did not start out his career with the intention of becoming a comedian, but rather entered the Borscht Belt circuit as a musician (thus his famous violin). His backstage quips caught the attention of the manager, who asked him to fill in for an absent performer…and the rest is history. 

Youngman, whose Russian-Jewish parents immigrated to America but were in England when he was born in 1906, grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Noticing his attraction to vaudeville, his father tried to channel his interests toward becoming a concert violinist. Instead, Youngman headed to the Catskills (“The Borscht Belt”).

In the mid-1930s, Youngman landed a spot on the Kate Smith radio show. His six minutes turned into ten, and he became a regular on the show. For the next 60 plus years, until his death in 1998, Youngman worked almost nonstop. He performed on stage, on television, on records, in a few movies and even at wedding receptions and Bar Mitzvahs.

Youngman’s most famous line, “Take my wife, please,” actually derived from a serious request Youngman once made to an usher to escort his wife, Sadie, to a seat. The usher thought he was joking, and Youngman integrated the line into his routine.

In 1980, at age 73, Youngman celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. It was a star-studded event. Youngman’s actual Bar Mitzvah, when he was 13, was cancelled due to the death of a cousin on the day of the ceremony. 

Youngman passed away from pneumonia on 24 February 1998.

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