Henny Youngman kept them laughing until the end

"A sense of humor helps keep you young," Henny Youngman said in a recent interview with the Bulletin.

The Borscht Belt comic practiced what he preached. Nearly up until his death Tuesday of this week in Manhattan at age 92, the venerable comedian still fired off the one-liners that made him famous.

In December, he delighted San Francisco audiences as a headliner for the annual "Evening of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy."

"San Francisco? I was in San Francisco once and opened up my hotel drawer to get some underwear and found Tony Bennett's heart."

"I was making love to my wife once in San Francisco and the earthquake woke her up!"

Those are among the zingers he got off in an interview prior to performing here. The San Francisco performances were among his last. According to the New York Times, Youngman came down with a cold while in San Francisco. Back home in New York it developed into pneumonia. He had been hospitalized since Jan. 2.

Born in London in 1906 to Russian Jewish immigrants Yonkel Yungman and Olga Chetkin, Youngman grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Manhattan 30 years ago. He got his first big break in 1937 when he was signed for a short spot on the Kate Smith radio show. He was such a hit that he was made a regular.

It was on the Kate Smith show that Youngman first integrated violin playing into his act. Over the years, he continued to integrate machine-gun-like one-liners with slightly bad playing.

For much of his career, he traveled the United States and Canada for nonstop engagements. At trade shows, nightclubs, colleges, banquets, hotels and synagogues and on radio commercials and television variety shows, he made his mark with such famous lines as "take my wife…please."

His late wife, Sadie, was in fact a centerpiece of Youngman's routines.

"She has a black belt in shopping," he said of her before she died in 1987. "One day she came home with an escalator because it was marked down."

To Youngman, joking about his wife of 58 years served as a kind of memorial to her. "She said to keep doing the wife jokes," he said.

A friend of the late George Burns and Milton Berle, Youngman in many ways epitomized the Old World, New York, Jewish, Carnegie Deli-habitué performer.

He became more religious as he aged, he said. In fact, the comic celebrated his bar mitzvah in his 70s in Atlantic City.

"The day I was supposed to be a bar mitzvah [in Brooklyn 66 years ago], my cousin, a young girl, died. And who wants to have a bar mitzvah when something like that happens?" he once said.

Among other survivors, Youngman leaves a son, Gary, who lives in Beverly Hills.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.