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'King of One-Liners' Is Dead

Henny Youngman, the Borscht Belt comic dubbed the king of one-liners for cracks like the immortal "Take my wife, please," died Tuesday. He was 91.

Youngman died of complications from the flu at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, said Jackie Green, a friend and Friars Club Dean Emeritus.

Youngman became the quintessential Catskills comedian, developing a schtick unvaried through seven decades in show business: snappy one-liners and rapid-fire jokes as likely to bring a groan as a guffaw from his audience.

His quick, near-mechanical delivery became Youngman's trademark; in 60 seconds, he could unleash a half-dozen zingers. A typical Youngman joke: "A man says to another man, 'Can you tell me how to get to Central Park?' 'No.' 'Alright, I'll mug you right here."'

Columnist Walter Winchell, impressed with Youngman, dubbed Henny "the king of the one-liners" in the 1930s. Youngman most famous one-liner "Take my wife, please" was actually delivered by accident before an appearance on radio's "Kate Smith Show."

A frazzled Youngman was getting ready minutes before air time when his wife, Sadie, showed up with several friends. Youngman grabbed an usher and told him, "Take my wife, please." The comic was still using the line a decade after his 82-year-old wife died in 1987.

Oddly, the comedian who became an American institution was born in White Chapel, England, on March 16, 1906. "I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped my mother," Youngman once said.

He arrived in New York six months later, settling in Brooklyn. He grew up in the borough, learning to play the violin at his father's urging, attending the Brooklyn Vocational Trade School, and becoming a printer.

But he was bitten by the show biz bug while working in his Manhattan print shop. Milton Berle, who was performing in a club nearby, would stop by the shop between shows to hang out with Henny, Youngman recalled in a 1991 interview with The Associated Press.

"I was a groupie for Berle," says Youngman. "I picked up a lot of stuff from him. Learned a lot."

His first shot at stardom came as a bandleader, the head of a group called Henny Youngman and the Swanee Syncopaters during the 1920s. Youngman's comedy career was the result of a tightwad club owner at the Swan Lake Inn in the Catskills.

Youngman was telling jokes between songs at the club. The owner fired the band and hired Henny as a comic, and the rest was hysteria.

"My whole life's an accident," he said in the interview. "I've never planned anything. It's just all happened."

What happened next was several years of doing the comedy circuit before Youngman's big break: a two-year stint with singer Kate Smith's popular CBS network radio show.

He left the Kate Smith Show in 1938 with an eye on the movies, but the offers never came in and Youngman couldn' sit still. He went back out as a comedian, averaging more than 200 dates per year over the next 40 years.

His father had hoped that Youngman might some day play violin with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. That never happened but he used the fiddle as a prop in his act, playing a few bars to break up the gags.

"I play two ways," he would crack, "for pleasure and for revenge."

His career always steady, with a constant flow of dates received a boost in the 1960s from Laugh-In, the weekly television program of one-liners which introduced the catch-phrase, "Oh, that Henny Youngman!"

And the Youngman style was perfect in 1974 when New York Telephone instituted its new Dial-A-Joke service, where callers heard six of Henny's gags in a one-minute call.

Youngman drew 3 million calls in a month with material like, "Fellow walks into a doctor. Doctor says, 'You're gonna live to be 80.' Fellow says, 'I am 80.' Doctor says, 'What did I tell you?'"

The peripatetic comedian continued working into his 90s, appearing briefly in the Martin Scorsese gangster epic GoodFellas and working with Steven Spielberg on his Tiny Toons cartoon series.

At age 90, he attended a ceremony where a Manhattan street corner was named for him. On his 91st birthday, he summoned reporters to a Manhattan restaurant for a reading of his "Last Last Will and Testament."

"To my nephew Irving, who still keeps asking me to mention him in my will: 'Hello, Irving!'" it read.

Written by Larry McShane ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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