Henny Youngman was a Jewish icon hard to categorize—one part violinist, one part comedian extraordinaire.
Youngman may have become famous for his quick one-liners and spots on popular programs like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but his beginnings were much humbler.
He was born to a Jewish family in Liverpool, England, but moved to Brooklyn with his parents as a child.
His first foray into comedy occurred while working at a print shop in Manhattan, where he began printing out what he called “comedy cards,” one line jokes he started selling at the shop.
Milton Berle, already a heavyweight in showbiz, happened upon these cards one day and immediately struck up a friendship with his young new apprentice.
At that time, however, the only entertainment gig Youngman could book was as a musician. His parents had encouraged him to take up the violin as a child, and Youngman put those talents to work as leader of a small jazz band called the Swanee Syncopaters.
But Youngman realized his love for laughs hadn’t faded, and he began doing stand up for audiences between jazz numbers. As the act evolved, he learned to combine his violin playing with one-line quips, a technique he would become famous for.
Eventually, Youngman’s career and recognition grew. He began appearing on radio shows, then television, until Americans across the nation knew his name.
In 1974, the New York Telephone Company began a venture called Dial-a-Joke, a line users could call to listen to 30 seconds of comedy material. Three million people called in just one month to hear Youngman’s voice, the most any comedian ever received.
Youngman died on February 24, 1998, at the age of 91. His legacy lives on today, however. A live comedy album of Youngman’s 1959 performance at the Celebrity Club in St. Louis can currently be downloaded on iTunes.