Henny Youngman Comes to Class

Written by Larry Shor on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

All of us have our favorites in the world of entertainment, but how often do you get to meet your idol? And how rare would it be to have your idol come to you? Well, it actually happened once to a professor of mine during my college days, and I was there to see it!

Henry "Henny" Youngman was one of the most famous comedians of all time. Born in London in 1906, he came to America while he was still a child. Originally trained as a violinist, he was working in a night club when the comedian on the bill took ill. Youngman volunteered to take his place, and he was a smash! His big break came in 1937, when he appeared on the great singer Kate Smith’s network radio program. He made many radio appearances during the medium’s golden age, and even tried to break into the movies.

It was in nightclubs, however, that Youngman really made his mark. Unlike most other comics, who told long and involved stories, his comedy was rapid-fire with joke after joke, until his audiences literally collapsed with laughter. Youngman performed in just about every possible type of venue. He always said that he would go wherever they wanted him and he could get paid. When asked his advice for young comics, it was always the same. In Yiddish, he would say: “Nem di gelt” — take the money.

In the late 1970s, I was attending the University of Maryland and had a professor for a business law course who was crazy about Youngman. Youngman was still immensely popular, appearing all the time on various TV programs. Everybody knew his catch phrase, “Take my wife ... Please!” Well, this professor, whose name was Lester Jayson, talked about Youngman and told some of his jokes in every lecture. He just loved him!

At the time, there was a very popular venue in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., called the Cellar Door. It was a small place, but all the big names in show business played there, including Henny Youngman. Some of the kids in the class went to the show, and apparently were able to talk to Youngman and tell him about their professor who loved him.

The next time we had lecture, which was a day or two after the show, the unthinkable happened. The door opened, a man walked in, and said, “Hello everybody, I’m Henny Youngman!”

I thought poor Professor Jayson was going to pass out. His eyes filled with tears as Youngman shook his hand and told him how much he appreciated all the kind words. And then, for the next hour, he gave us a great show, uninhibited by any censor! I remember being in tears, laughing so hard.

It was just unbelievable that a big-time comedian would take the time to do that, but he was from the old school, and they took nothing for granted. Professor Jayson had a distinguished career in law, and was a well-known figure on Capitol Hill for many years. I guess it meant a lot to Youngman to have such a distinguished figure as a fan. I graduated from Maryland a couple of years later and it has been many decades since that happened, but I remember it so very clearly! I don’t think you would see anything like that today.

Youngman continued to work almost to the end of his life. He became a cult hero and had appearances in a number of films, including Mel Brooks’ “History of the World” and Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” He passed away in 1998, and Professor Jayson followed him a year later. It was a crazy, highly unusual event, and I am glad that I got to see it happen. May both their memories be for a blessing.

NEXT TIME: Passover Seders —
On Vinyl!

By Larry Shor