“Take my wife…PLEASE.” Somehow the gag touches the national funny bone and has helped anoint Henny Youngman as “King of the One-Liners.” But how does it play at home? “I’ve been married to one woman for 48 years,” reports Youngman. “Where have I failed?” he adds, slipping characteristically into a routine. “People ask how it lasted so long. Here’s the secret. My wife and I go to a lovely place at least twice a week, a little candlelight, a little wine. She goes Tuesdays. I go Fridays. My wife was in the beauty parlor for two hours. That was just for the estimate. This week she had plastic surgery. I cut up her credit cards…” Enough already, Henny, be serious. “Seriously,” he says, “do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman who will give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you’re in the wrong house, that’s what it means.”
So much for his shtik. Youngman’s art is in no way based on life with his Sadie back in their Manhattan apartment. Patiently adoring after 48 years, “my fair Sadie” (as he calls her) is unperturbed about being the target of Henny’s trademark gag. “I don’t mind at all,” she says. “After all, it is his work. He’s a wonderful man, father and husband. He’s the greatest. He really is.”
Unlike so many classic comedians, Henny is an unembittered, compassionate person and very protective spouse. So Sadie aids and abets the calumny of herself, serving as his “secretary, wife, sweetheart, everything you can think of. I love doing it. I’m not his agent,” she points out, “but I take care of all the agents that call. I do the paperwork, the bills, the appointment book,” she says, gesturing toward the cluttered dining room table from which his show is put on the road.
Youngman is 70, but nobody’s Sunshine Boy—it takes three phone lines to cope with all the bookings. He plays 200 a year at up to $3,000 per—Tahoe casinos, campuses, Korvette commercials, conventions, Carson, Cosby’s new ABC series, 26 other TV appearances this year, the Ms. All-Bare America Contest, Dial-a-Joke for Ma Bell, cameos in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie and two other pictures. Henny, 40 years after Walter Winchell crowned him, is still the King, punching out 150 to 200 one-liners in a half-hour gig.
That’s between passes on his omnipresent violin. A friend clocked him at a rate of 250 one night when he was really rolling in Vegas, and Henny’s current repertoire could run four hours or about 1,400 gags—if anyone would bear it. A paperback collection is just out called I Don’t Want My Name on This Book. “It’s very seldom I take stuff from other people,” he says. “Their stuff doesn’t come up to the quality of the merchandise I use.” Like the political candidates, he buys the bulk of his material from professional gagsmiths—at the going price of $1,500 for six minutes.
Not that he wasn’t born a natural (as Henry Jungman in London before the family came to Brooklyn when he was 6 months old). Henny was chucked out of high school, he says, “for clowning around.” His sign-painter father got him a print-while-you-wait stand in a local dime store. Youngman can’t recall whether it was a Kresge’s or McCrory’s, and neither can a petite blonde who started working there at 15 herself. “He didn’t believe my name,” says the former Sadie Cohen, now 67. “He thought I was gentile.” She didn’t believe his line either. “I was afraid of him. He was so tall. He asked me to a dance. I thought if he didn’t behave I could always go home by myself.”
But soon Youngman, who moonlighted on violin at weddings and bar mitzvahs, began to play steady at the Cohen household. “He said no more dates with anybody else,” recalls Sadie. In the meantime Youngman’s outfit, the Swanee Syncopaters, was slipping into primitive Spike Jones-type parodies, and Henny was making a name for his between-numbers patter. Finally he found his calling as a vaudeville emcee at the Fox, around the corner from the Brooklyn five-and-ten where he first worked. The Kate Smith show on radio made him national. One rehearsal about 35 years ago, Sadie popped in to ask for some tickets to the studio, and Henny improvised the take-my-wife crack that was to make them both famous.
Early on Sadie stayed home, raising two children—son Gary, 36, a film editor who just produced and directed his first feature-length comedy, and Marilyn, 42, a widow. Her husband was Jack Kelly, Frank Sinatra’s pianist. (Henny is helping their son and his grandson, Larry, find himself as a deejay and cabaret booker.) Sadie is free to catch the openings of his major engagements. “I enjoy them as much as anyone else,” she says. But isn’t one Henny Youngman routine just like every other? “He’s always coming up with something new,” she finds. Anyway, “That’s the only time I ever hear his jokes. He never practices. He’s just the opposite at home as he is on the stage.”
She’s pleased that “he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t play cards—I’m very fortunate,” she says. “But he’s very restless when he’s not working, and I pray for his health. Days off he hates. He has to be booked all the time.” So when Sadie is in Miami, where they own a condominium, “If he has a day or two I make him come to Florida. That’s about the only time he relaxes. Not relax, actually. But at least sit in the sun a bit and have a little rest. Even then he calls Jerry Lester, the comic, and he comes running. They’re a riot together.” Sadie occupies herself with backgammon, gin rummy and canasta with the girls.
Like her, Henny also has motherly instincts. “Sadie,” he asks, “you don’t mind going to the dentist alone, do you? I have meetings with two guys. Tell the driver to take you to Madison Avenue…” “I know where it is,” Sadie smiles with the same assurance as when she’s discussing Henny’s work. “He says I don’t know anything about his business. And I don’t want to contradict him. But it’s been a long time since I’ve been doing this. I know a little something.” Take Henny Youngman’s wife? No way.