‘Take My Wife’ Jokes Began With a Genuine Request

Henny Youngman didn’t really want anyone to abduct his life partner
‘Take My Wife’ Jokes Began With a Genuine Request

“Take my wife… Please” is a classic joke from the days when complaining about one’s spouse could comprise a comedian’s entire act. This turn of phrase (which even made it into Barlett’s Familiar Quotations) became the trademark catchphrase of legendary comic Henny Youngman, who once was dubbed the “King of the One Liners,” by columnist Walter Winchell.

Youngman, who usually performed with his violin in hand, worked his way up through vaudeville, played speakeasies, contributed to the golden age of radio and made the rounds in the mafia-owned nightclub circuit. Youngman eventually became so wildly popular that he even had his own “Dial-a-Joke” 900 number in the 1970s, which he claimed made $280,000 for AT&T in just one month. Pretty good for a 900 number that in no way involved chatting a sexy single and/or Freddy Krueger.

While Youngman clearly had a vast library of gags at his disposal (by one account, he told a whopping “250 jokes” during a 45-minute set) he was undoubtedly defined by “Take my wife…  Please.” As Norm Macdonald once noted, the true genius of the joke was its economy: “Three-word setup. One-word punchline. Four-word joke.”

But oddly enough, the creation of this signature wisecrack was a total accident, and actually began as a genuine request. 

As Youngman recounted in his appropriately-titled autobiography Take My Life, Please! Back in the mid-1930s, he had been hired to make an appearance on the Kate Smith Show radio program where he had his first big break. On one occasion, his wife showed up with eight friends and came backstage to ask for tickets. According to Youngman, “They were all talking and giggling while I was trying to read my script.” 

With just 20 minutes until showtime, an anxious and irritated Youngman was fed up with the noise. “Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore,” Youngman recalled. “I took Sadie by the elbow, and brought her over to a stagehand. I wanted her out to sit with the studio audience.” What did he say to the stagehand? “Take my wife. Please,” of course. As he told David Letterman in 1982, he didn’t intend to be funny at the moment, “I just (meant) take her away, I gotta get on, and this thing has stuck.”

Youngman later attributed all the success that came with that one line to his wife, writing, “Thank you, Sadie, for that joke that made my career, and the 57 years of marriage that made my life.” He also described how his wife “agreed to marry me at a time when her parents were convinced I was a bum.” 

Yeah, apparently Mr. “Take My Wife” absolutely adored his wife. And, contrary to several other jokes he told, Youngman even liked his mother-in-law — which is perhaps why he was never asked to host The Daily Show

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter (if it still exists by the time you’re reading this).


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