You could see the line coming from a mile away. “God,” said Rabbi Noach Valley, pointing at Henny Youngman’s coffin, “take Henny, please.”
It was, everyone agreed, the kind of funeral the King of the One-Liners would have wanted: few tears, plenty of laughs.
“People,” the comic legend used to say, “are dying today who have never died before.” Just because he was now one of those people was no reason to hold the jokes.
“Henny couldn’t be cremated [because of Jewish law],” said comic and fellow Friar’s Club founder Alan King. “So he wanted to be roasted instead.”
Youngman died of pneumonia at 91 on Feb. 24. But as he was eulogized, as much of his material echoed off the walls of the Riverside Memorial Chapel Friday as it would in any Borscht Belt hotel during his heyday.
“When I visited him in the hospital, he complained that the surgeons were all crooks because they wore masks,” said Rabbi Valley, spiritual leader of the Actor’s Temple in Manhattan, where Youngman was a member.
When husband-and-wife comedy team Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara took the podium, Stiller began by acknowledging all his friends in the audience as his wife — in a seemingly rehearsed gesture — nudged him: “This isn’t about you, Jerry.” (See Stiller’s accompanying remembrance.)
And as the vaudeville atmosphere unfolded, one almost expected Youngman to step out of the back and declare the whole thing an elaborate put-on.
But there were tender moments as well as Rabbi Valley described a man whose “main hobby was to make people laugh.” Born Henry Youngman in London — “the doctor slapped his mother” — and growing up in a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, tenement before rising to fame, Youngman did credit to the public’s perception of Jewish comics, he said.
“He was a real Jew, a good Jew, an authentic Jew,” the rabbi said. “Not because he was one of the funniest men on Earth, but because kindness and compassion were his trademark.”
Noting that Youngman would never pass a homeless person on the street without helping, Rabbi Valley recalled a needy woman who received a sandwich from the Carnegie Deli courtesy of Youngman, often enough that she eventually complained that she was “sick and tired of pastrami.”
Other speakers noted that over the years Youngman helped numerous comedy writers get their start, many of whom are writing sitcoms today. When one writer left his employ to start a new job, Youngman gave him $150 to buy a new suit.
Journalist Tony Hiss recalled the two years he spent trailing Youngman for a New Yorker profile because he was “one of the most unsumupable people I ever met.” Hiss would carry Youngman’s props, such as business cards reading “My Card” and miniature checks for suckers who agreed to cash a small check.
“He worked on his stock of 1,500 jokes every day, like a White House gardener,” said Hiss. Estimating that Youngman made hundreds of thousands of people laugh each year, Hiss said, “This is angel’s work, and sometimes an angel comes from Bay Ridge, is 6-foot-2 and has a violin under his arm instead of a harp.”
Also paying tribute was former Mayor David Dinkins, who said that in contrast to others who curried his favor while he was in office, “Henny was a warmer friend to me when I was no longer mayor.”
Said to adore his fans as much as they adored him, Youngman’s number was listed in the phone book, which prompted calls from would-be joke writers.
“I gave him one about the terrorist who became a comedian and bombed on his first night,” said Moshe Gottlieb, an insurance salesman from Brooklyn, after the service. “I don’t know if he used it.”
The crowd was dominated by classic funnymen like King, “Professor” Irwin Corey and Gene Baylos as well as singers Tony Bennett and Robert Merrill. But there were a few up-and-comers who demonstrated that Youngman remains an icon and role model for a new generation of standup comics.
“The way he carried himself and the class he had onstage and off, there are a lot of lessons to be learned for young comics,” said comedian Jeff Ross, a veteran of several specials on Comedy Central and fellow member of the Friars Club.
“That face and that violin are a piece of Americana. There’s James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Henny Youngman. Henny’s opening at the Copa in heaven tonight,” Ross said. “We better send up his tux.”