Comedians have long entertained audiences with acts of cynicism; wit, humor, emotion, thoughts of substance, and even insults. They have become iconic in the sense that they create a rapport and build a relationship with audiences very quickly which allows them to understand what makes you laugh; cry, or frown. The good ones do at least. It is important for them to understand the people in front of whom they perform, because the material they enact will create a different mood in each person in the room. It would be somewhat foolish for Rodney Dangerfield to tell a group of feminists "My Wife's Gotta..." jokes, but yet sometimes it worked. Or if Jerry Seinfeld went to the heart of Detroit and told "Black Jokes" he might not get the warmest reception. It takes a certain ingenuity to master timing; wit, and tone all in a few brief moments of monologues, and Henny Youngman had it.
Born in Liverpool, England and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Henny, as he was affectionately called, and later renamed, had a very modest upbringing. Like most children of immigrants who came looking for freedom and the pursuit of an honest living with decent compensation, Henny group up with a different understanding of the world as we do now. He appreciated his humble beginnings, as it permitted him to understand the difficulties most Americans experienced daily. He was the son of a self-proclaimed Luftmensch, which is Yiddish for Dreamer from how I interpret it, and his father instilled in him the humility that would later allow him to relate to Mafia personalities that ranged from hired thugs to made men. That was the "blue collared" side to Henny Youngman that infused with his adolescence made him a pleasant. His "white collared" alter ego formed out of the years he spent in the Catskills catering to Elite Jewish business owners who were bringing their families up north to take a break from the busy city-life atmosphere. Learning how to please them and satisfy their quench from humor helped him hone his skills to a point that few can achieve. He was able to appease the audience within minutes using material that he "borrowed" from legends that played in the Vaudeville arena. An intelligent and crafty youth, Henny was able to emulate and perform these acts with perfect attention to the details that trademarked these legends. This is part of what made him a legend.
What is also legendary about Henny Youngman is the affection he had for his wife, Sadie. Sadie was more than just a partner to him, she was literally the muse for parts of his comedy; whether it was intentional or not. The famous "Take My Wife, Please" jokes began accidentally when he had taken his wife to dinner and had made the statement in reference to the usher bringing his wife to a reserved table. The usher; however, took the joke as a slight remark made at the expense of Hennys' wife. This was a complete contradiction to the way he actually felt about his true love, but was still a good marketing ploy to further his career. And Sadie was not offended one bit. While she never understood the networking, or the shadier sides of the showbiz world, she did understand that her husbands' work meant everything to him. Not more than her, but she saw how happy he was doing his work and being a great provider for their family. But neither Hollywood, nor the Vaudeville stages could match the love he felt for Sadie. That love was reserved for the woman that gave him inspiration, and the children he spawned that gave him a reason to continue working.
The combination of a hard working; strong minded, and very funny gentleman was exactly what the stage needed. The personality captured the average joe, the wit enthralled the rich, and the funny entranced the hoodlums. Hennys' act was not always without danger, and it was not from Henny himself, but from certain members of the audience who had reputations to uphold. Henny details one sad story where he was performing in a club for two Hired thugs, one who had an interest in the waitress. After several failed attempts to charm his way into her undergarments, he decided one night to punish her; beating her and raping her severely. Henny's act was a success, and he received a generous tip from the hoodlum; however, instead of spending it on himself, he took the waitress to a doctor and gave the doctor the money to take care of her wounds. That was how generous and genuine Henny Youngman was. Another story he told, depicted a night club scene with two of the cities largest crime bosses sitting in the audience, and neither had much respect for the other. This fact as humorous alone as it was, is made even more comical with the additional table behind him where sat the Chief of Police. As you can imagine this situation escalated quickly and for the worse where Henny himself had to dodge bullets to get out alive. As you can tell, his life was not without adventure.
This adventurer; this life experienced icon, this man of many talents is a reminder of how bright we can be if we apply love and compassion in the right areas. Never once did I read of Henny treating someone inhumanely, or even speaking ill about someone unless he was identifying the persons' character. And even in doing so he was not vulgar, but rather outlined events and circumstances that showed traits indicative of someone with poor moral. Henny was to be admired. Not just because of his personality, but because of what he accomplished with it. Henny did not limit himself in any facet. Instead he capitalized on his name and legacy for the good of others, not just his family. His generosity extended even into his elder years where he was still performing bar-mitzvahs at 80 years old. That is not the mindset of someone who is just working to put food on the table. It is the attitude of a true winner. Someone who is dedicated to creating enjoyment and pleasure for all. And HE's willing to do the work. He does not need anyone else to force his hand, he does it for the sheer joy of giving to others. This is the legacy I would like to leave. This is the legacy I would love to have bestowed upon me by my colleagues; family, and friends. And this is a legacy; that when I'm an old Alter Kocker, I can look back and be proud of, and tell my grandchildren and their friends about, every day, literally.