Get ready, America — March 17 is almost here. St. Patrick’s Day has drunkenly staggered through another year and will arrive, just like clockwork, next Tuesday.
It’s a silly holiday, really. Ostensibly, fans of the holiday use Irish whiskey, Irish beer and Irish car-bombs to celebrate St. Patrick’s conquest of Irish snakes. Some say it is a celebration of the salvation of Christianity itself from a time when the world was going to hell in a hand-basket. The Dark Ages were dark until St. Patrick came along and said “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty snakes.” So powerful were his words that the snakes left Ireland and, to this day, have never returned. Snakes know when they’ve been licked.
While many will pretend to be Irish-American that one night – long enough to get an all-American-sized hangover on Wednesday – I will not. I will instead celebrate on March 16 which, in comparison to an Irishman chasing a bunch of snakes into the sea, has a much better story.
You see, March 16 is the birthday of Henny Youngman, perhaps the greatest comedian who ever lived.
Youngman, whose first name was actually Henry but became “Henny” when he couldn’t pronounce it very well, was born in Liverpool, England, in 1906. That is the same place the Beatles came from, and you know what the world thought of them. Everything that comes from Liverpool is destined for greatness, apparently.
Youngman’s family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., while he was still young, possibly to prevent young Henny from acquiring the British accent that has ruined so many comedy careers. He played in a small jazz band called the “Swanee Syncopaters” and, between songs, he would tell jokes. Eventually he gave up jazz and, though he never surrendered his violin, he continued to tell jokes for the rest of his life. He remains known as the “King of the One-Liners,” a reference to his deft use of quick set-ups and punch lines – all in one line.
For these and many other reasons, Henny Youngman is my idol. Sadly, most folks have never heard of him. When a TSA luggage-rummager at the airport in Tampa Bay found in my suitcase a rare Henny Youngman joke tape-measure, he asked “Who is Henny Youngman?” Such ignorance should be grounds for termination from the TSA. In fact, it should be a crime for anyone to not know who Youngman was.
The star of TV’s iconic “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Gabe Kaplan – himself a stand-up comedian in the 1970s – often quoted Youngman’s jokes during the show. In fact, many of you do too – you just didn’t know where they came from. So woven into the fabric of American culture is he that jokes like “Take my wife… please!” are common place, though few realize their author.
Several of his many classics include “My wife shops all day. She’ll buy anything marked down. Yesterday, she brought home an escalator” and “My wife said to me, ‘For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I’ve never been before.’ I said, ‘Try the kitchen!’” Humorous little pearls. As I see it, Youngman was the quintessence of what a comedian ought to be. He could perform in front of any crowd and do well. His act was clean and, regardless of age, race, religion or creed, he was universally funny.
About 25 years ago, while reading an article about “The Tonight Show” in Reader’s Digest, one of the show’s talent bookers said they look for a comedian who can deliver 25 jokes in five minutes. As a struggling young stand-up, I always used that as my yardstick – not knowing any differently. It’s not easy, but I can average about 4.5 punch lines per minute. Youngman, with his concentrated, rapid-fire one-liners, could tell six, seven and sometimes even eight or more jokes a minute. He was the comedy equivalent of a sub-machine gun.
Though many of his colleagues transitioned into television and film, Youngman never really did. His last film role – one of his very few – was in “Eyes Beyond Seeing,” a straight-to-video gem from 1995 in which Youngman plays, ironically, a mental patient who believes he is Henny Youngman.
Until his death in 1998, Youngman performed about 100 shows a year everywhere. He took no vacations and – except for the week following the death of his wife of 59 years – he took no breaks. He never stopped working until the very end. That work ethic and that commitment to making others laugh far exceeds any success had by any 15th-century Irish snakedrivers.
So while Tucson’s Irish community toasts St. Patrick at The Auld Dubliner, the Frog and Firkin or other places, I’ll be toasting St. Henny.
Doug Hecox is a syndiciated columnist and comedian. Visit him online at www.dougfun.com.