No list of jokes can be complete without this one. Although it no longer makes me laugh, this joke has been with me all my life. Since before I was married (later consequently divorced), since before I understood the concept of marriage, it’s been a part of my life. I can’t remember a world in which this joke didn’t exist, cuz Henny Youngman peformed it on television back before I was sperm, and it’s been a part of the world ever since.
So what’s the premise of the joke? “Take my wife..” Youngman presents us with his wife, and does so in a way where we are expecting him to use his wife as an example academically to whatever he was just saying before.
What’s the punchline? “Please.” The first time you hear this, you aren’t expecting it. So the humor is borne out of that juxtaposition of what we were anticipating and what we actually got. Absurdity in a nutshell. Four words.
Just four words. An entire joke inside four words. I’m not saying it’s the best joke in the world, but that’s pretty impressive. There may be jokes that have been written before or since that are three words, or two, or even one. I haven’t found one. When I find one, I’ll be impressed, but that won’t lessen how impressive this joke is.
It’s one of those jokes that survives the test of time. One of the kinds of jokes that people still utter whenever the mood strikes them or the situation warrants it. It has become a part of Americana. It’s a part of the culture. It’s a phrase that’s up there with Billy Crystal’s “You look mahvelous!” Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect i tell ya,” Mae West’s “Come up and see me some time,” and Ian Fleming’s “Dry Martini, shaken, not stirred.” “Take My Wife, Please” is an institution. It’s a timeless antiquity. It’s baseball and apple pie and an arena of people chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!” for no good reason.
Henny Youngman could tell more conventional jokes, but even those he did in a rapid fire manner. Good one liners economize laughs by using less words to get them. Spit costs extra.
I spoke of Wendy Liebman a couple days ago. Her approach to her routine actually owes much to Henny Youngman. She goes a step further, perhaps. She takes one premise and mounts multiple punchlines, but Henny Youngman preceded her with a rapid fire presentation that shocked audiences two thirds of a century ago.
Back in the 1940s most comedians were the more conventional storytellers who recited anecdotes to an audience in a humorous way. Sometimes punchlines were filtered in, but the humor often simply bore out of the situations the comedians described. Henny Youngman was in his time a trailblazer of sorts, with a rapid fire approach to comedy that is taken for granted today. His delivery is a little nervous and awkward, but there’s still a powerful confidence and a cordial friendly zest for life that’s clearly evident whether he’s doing a bahmitzvah or the Taj Mahal. No venue was too small or too grand for him. He’d fill whatever room came his way, so long as the money was good. A man after our own wallets.
He’d often bring his violin onstage with the conceit that he was there not to tell jokes but to play music. It’s a schtick that some other artists have also used. Oftentimes George Burns’ solo performances (featuring a full ensemble of musicians behind him) involved George promising to sing to his audience at some point in the evening and sometimes he would sometimes he wouldn’t but in the mean time while the orchestra he dragged on stage with him waited, George would tell jokes and occasionally start mumbling a tune. Great schtick. He may have stolen it from Henny Youngman. Who knows?
Didja hear about the rich kid in Dallas who walked up to Santa and asked, “Santa what do you need?”
As the story goes, Henny Youngman got the idea for this joke when he took his wife Sadie out to see a live stage performance. Back in those days it was more common to see couples walking arm in arm especially for social occasions and public events. He handed his wife’s hand to an usher and said to him, “Take my wife please.” Henny meant for the usher to escort her to a seat, but the usher thought he was being funny and started laughing. It took a minute for the usher to realize Mr. Youngman was being serious. So Youngman worked it into his act. I don’t know if he ever tipped the usher.
In truth though, Henny loved his wife Sadie. Presumably she didn’t mind being the butt of many of his jokes on stage because those gags paid the bills. They were happily married for half a century, and when she got ill in the 1980s, rather than have her cooped up in a hospital, he had the equivalent of an intensive care unit installed in their bedroom. That’s what i’d call a house call.
Elvis Presley may have been the king of rock n roll. Michael Jackson may have been the king of pop, but Henny Youngman was the king of the one liners. His autobiography was titled “Take my life, please.” What else could it be?