Stand-Up Guy

UPDATED 03/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

THERE WASN'T A DRY EYE IN THE house, and the 500 people crammed into New York City's Riverside Memorial Chapel for Henny Youngman's Feb. 27 funeral were heaving—with laughter. As mourners such as comic Soupy Sales chuckled, Alan King read the will: "To his nephew Irving, who asked to be mentioned in his will: 'Hello, Irving!' "

It was a service with a smile for the King of the One-Liners, who died Feb. 24 of pneumonia at 91, though his jokes seemed even older. Called the world's hardest-working comedian, Youngman was still doing two shows a night last December. He listed his Manhattan home number in the phone book so he wouldn't miss any jobs, and he liked to try out lines on waiters and construction workers. Onstage he would fire off up to eight jokes a minute for any occasion, even a bar mitzvah.

Youngman's work ethic was rooted in his immigrant heritage. Born in 1906 in London ("I was so ugly," Henny used to say, "the doctor slapped my mother"), Henny and his Russian émigré parents moved to Brooklyn, where he grew up near lifelong pal Jackie Gleason. As a child he took up the violin and eventually led a band called the Swanee Syncopators. He got on the laugh track by accident, at a 1920s gig where he replaced a no-show comedy act at the last minute. One night in the '30s the former Sadie Cohen, a redhead he had met in Brooklyn and married in 1928, was giggling backstage while he was working; he marched her over to a stagehand and said, "Take my wife—please!" It became his signature line. Sadie died in 1987 at age 82 after good-naturedly weathering innumerable zingers ("I miss my wife's cooking—as often as I can"). "She always stuck by me," wrote Youngman, who continued his nonstop pace despite infirmity. At one hospital he quipped, "These doctors are a bunch of crooks—they're all wearing masks." At the service, Seinfeld's Jerry Stiller mused, "Is it possible that God himself needed a laugh?"

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