"Put your arm around me, Darling," says Henny Youngman, who is sauntering through Georgetown. He passes the window of an art gallery. "Hullo, Honey," he calls out to a sketch of a naked lady.
All bushy eyebrows and merriment, he enters the Foundry, where he is quite possibly the biggest (6-feet-2) the largest (220 pounds) and the oldest (71) person in the restaurant. Certainly he is the most talkative as the first person he buttonholes discovers.
"Hullo, Darling. Table for three?"
"Why should I? I'm not the governor."
"Will you be having dinner?"
He considers. "I think so. I can probably afford it. Separate checks, please."
Henny Youngman then sits down to a large meal, the huge star sapphire, the chunks of diamonds and gold flashing as he tucks a great square of orange napkin into his shirt: "Like my tie?"
"Mmmmmmm . . ." He spoons up the onion soup, lids lowering with pleasure, "BAD!" He grins, pleased with his joke. "Got all the kids saying that now. Mmmmmm . . . BAD!" He repeats it for the benefit of the passing waiter.
To the admiring next table, he extends a fistful of half-inch $50 bills. "This is what the Arabs are doing to our money," he informs them.
The human joke machine was here. He appeared one night at the Cellar Door, an unlikely spot for him, but the kids there loved him, loved the way he said, "Take my wife . . . Please." This, of course, is his trademark. Henny Youngman has just finished doing some commercials for the Oxford Pickle Company where he had to say, "Take my pickle . . . Please."
He has also just finished taping five TV shows is working on a pilot called "Zelli's Deli," where he'll probably play the kind of waiter who says things like, "That's a nice suit you got on. I hear the style's coming back."
By his own count (Henny Youngman is a great one for counting, and on those rare occasions when memory isn't enough, he carries along clippings of himself) there have been 350 metions of Henny Youngman on TV this year. "Milton Berle, Jonny Carson, Bob Hope - they all mention me. I'm King of the Mention, heh-heh-heh. That's a funny bit."
As you can gather from all this, Henny Youngman, corny, square, old fashioned Henny Youngman, King of the One-Liners, is very much in fashion right now. So out he's In, so obvious he's funny, so ancient he tours college campuses, so unintellectual the New Yorker magazine recently devoted reams of pages to his expansive career, so passe he works constantly.
There's a reason for this.
Henny Youngman will go almost anywhere for $2,500. Sometimes less ("But within reason"); sometimes more. Anywhere.
"Banquets, conventions, bar mitzvah, weddings. I got 500 agents. More than the CIA."
Would he perform for a thousand bucks? "Not if I can help it, Darling. Like tomorrow - tomorrow I go to Miami for a convention. The Garden Tool and Supply Convention. And then I'll be at the Colonial Inn for two weeks. And Friday, Friday, I work for New York Telephone."
A look of disgust crosses his face. It's a look that - like a number of things about Henny Youngman - makes you wonder what Henny Youngman is like when he's not busy being funny; when he's not doing (a guy in Vegas clocked him) 250 jokes in 45 minutes. Henny Youngman is looking disgusted right now because he used to work for the New York phone company; he launched their Dial-a-Joke hotline.
"They're idiots," he says ungallantly of his old employers. His old employers, for instance, had a way of hiring other comedians after Youngman finished his stint with them. "Yeah, that's right. That's why they're idiots. They should have kept me. I was getting 300,000 calls a day. They made $280,000 on me in one month. They're stupid. They're really ignoramuses. People in charge don't know what the hell they're doing."
By now his geniality has evaporated entirely, as the memory of the phone company floods back: the phone company thought that Youngman would be satisfied with $2,500 forever; Youngman decided, the second time around, he wanted more. But then Henny Youngman has always wanted more. Henny Youngman is a great deal more driven, more ambitious and more cynical than the good-natured simplicity of his one-liners would suggest. His quips are often nothing more than mechanical mood-elevators, designed to whisk himself out of a somnolent anger.
"People are jealous," he says flatly. "You'd be surprised. People around you. They're sore you're a hit they never expected you to be. And families, you know . . ." The voice trails off.
"Well, not jealous," he amends quickly."They just can't believe it . . . Honey, there were times in my career when I really was starving. Sure. This is really a tough business. I wouldn't advise ANYONE to go into it. Unless you're blessed."
He ponders that glumly and in silence. For a while all you can hear is the sound of Henny Youngman, who does in fact think he was blessed, munching his salad. Henny Youngman grew up poor in Brooklyn, N.Y., and made his debut at the Sixteenth Street Theater on Yom Kippur - until his outraged father got a cop and pulled him off stage.
Henny YOungman's father wanted him to be a great violinist. In tribute to his early training, Youngman still carries f fiddle and will play the hora terribly in between the joke about his brothers-in-law and the joke about his wife's new form of birth control - no makeup. The one thing no one in the family ever expected of Henny was that he would become a successful performer. That was inconceivable until he became an overnight hit on the Kate Smith radio show in the '30s. Proudly he showed his mother his paycheck.
"Since when are YOU funny?" his mother demanded to know.
"My family didn't like me staying up late at night," he says. "But that's how I met Billy Rose, Damon Runyon. Used to sit with them at Lindy's 'cause when these men invite you to their table, it's the greatest publicity in the world.
But you sacrifice your family, to tell you the truth."
Henny Youngman has two grown children and a wife. Sadie, who prompted his classic wittieism when she showed up one time at the Kate Smith show demanding free tickets for eight of her friends. "Take my wife," an exasperated Youngman ordered the usher. And then, as an after-thought - "Please."
Of his overnight success, Youngman says, "Sure my wife didn't like it. My wife was in a different world. See one day you're doing one thing and alluva-sudden your world changes. They can't understand this. I couldn't understand this."
He is asked if he'd do it again.
"SURE I'd do it again," he obliges. "Where else would you meet these important people? Jack O'Brian, Walter Winchell, Leonard Lyons. You gotta meet 'em at night. You never meet 'em in the daytime.
"But there isn't the camaraderie there used to be. When we all used to go to Lindy's years ago. You know - you'd eat at Lindy's and all these guys would sit together, Milton Berle, myself. Gleason was around. Years ago you'd eat in this restaurant and it was a better camaraderie. We were all broke. Yeah. Everyone was starving."
He lifts a hand to summon the waiter, "Bring me a Seven-Up," he says. Then he pays the bill with a $100 note. "This may be worth a hundred bucks some day." He grins at his joke. There is probably no one who appreciates Youngman's humor more than Henny Youngman, although there have been many who have liked it enough to borrow it shamelessly.
"People have been doing my jokes for 40 years," he says, shrugging nonchalantly. "At first I used to get aggravated. Then I realized - a lot of people can't afford to buy their own jokes. Me? I don't have to steal 'em. Once they're out in the field, they're public domain . . . I ad-lib all my jokes. But I do these in sequence. I got my doctor jokes, some wife jokes, the Polish jokes, the brother-in-law jokes.
"Guy goes into a French restaurant, orders dinner, waiter disappears for an hour. Guy screams 'GENDARME!" Waiter comes and says, 'Gendarme means Policeman.' Guy says, 'Yeah, I know. There's a hold-up in the kitchen. Go get my food.'
"Guy named Goody Ace had it in his script once. So I remembered it. See, part of my business is remembering what the other guy did, and using it for what I do. We call this 'a saved-up ad-lib.'
"And that's how these things get around."
You know panhandlers are all over New York. One fella says gimme 10 bucks till payday. I says when's payday? He says you should know you're the one who's working. 'Nother fella says I haven't tasted food in two days. I says you should FORCE yourself. Another fella says I haven't tasted food in a week. I say don't worry it still tastes the same . . ."
Henny Youngman is told a joke. He smiles politely, as DaVinci might humor an inveterate doodler.
A scientist finds these two albino gorillas and decides to mate them in captivity.
"Yeah, yeah," says Youngman.
But then the male gorilla dies.
"Yeah, yeah," says Youngman. "So thisPolish fella walks in, Right?"