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The Gig of Death? 

Henny Youngman's gone. Is Freddie Roman next?

Wednesday, Dec 9 1998
In the world of stand-up comedy, the specter of death hangs over every show. A particularly clever or energetic comedian may kill hundreds of audiences. But on other nights, a bad sound system, some surly patrons, or road fatigue may break his stride. Then his jokes jar instead of amuse. His segues are not smooth. The gaiety goes. The comedian dies.

These deaths are neither swift nor painless.
"Once, I died for 40 minutes," says borscht belt comedian Freddie Roman, recalling a particularly laughless Catskills performance. "Fortunately, in my case, there have been many kills and only a few dyings."

Given that mortality so haunts the comedy world, Roman should be considered a truly brave man. On Dec. 24, he's playing "An Evening of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy" in San Francis-co. It's the same gig that Henny Youngman played last year, the last stand of his career before expiring at age 92.

Last Christmas, after eight shows delivering one-liners at the annual S.F. Kosher Comedy event, Youngman returned to New York feeling ill. That February, he died of complications from the flu.

"I think having him do eight shows in four days wasn't good for his health," says Lawrence Helman, promoter of the Kung Pao event. "For six months after that, I was getting 'You killed Henny Youngman' phone calls. People would say, 'Did you hear about Henny?' And I'd say, 'Yeah, I heard about Henny.' Then there'd be references to the fact that was his last show, and: Were we responsible?"

Roman spoke with Youngman during the weeks before he perished, and notes that the one-liner legend "was not well after he came back."

So is Roman, by flying to San Francisco to perform this hoaxed gig, essentially saying, "Take my life, please?"

Concerned, we called Youngman's daughter, Marilyn Kelly, at her home in New York and asked whether the S.F. show had been a strain on Youngman's health.

"I think it was, for him. But he would never admit it," says Kelly. "But he was delighted to have done it. He was very pleased. And he was so used to traveling that it was like second nature to him."

Unconvinced, we spoke with Michael Camerman, who had been Youngman's personal manager. It soon became clear that, as a New Yorker, Camerman wasn't about to give a west-of-the-Hudson town like San Francisco credit for anything -- least of all killing his former employer.

"It turns out in retrospect that 'Oh my God, it was his last job,' " says Camerman. "But to him, it was just one more job. Sure, it was a big deal for Kung Pao Comedy to have Henny, but it wasn't a big deal for Henny to play Kung Pao Comedy. The job isn't what made him die."

East Coast conceits aside, it may be possible that Camerman is right: During his S.F. gig, Youngman did look mighty good for a 92-year-old.

"He was a shriveled-up old man before he hit the stage, but when the light hit him, you could watch the transformation," Helman says. "You could see him getting energy from the spotlight."

And Freddie Roman -- who was recently interviewed by SF Weekly for this article -- says he's not at all worried about the gig being hoaxed. Indeed, he says he's excited to play San Francisco for the first time in his life.

"The man was 92 years old," says Roman, noting that the comedians who shared the bill with Youngman emerged unscathed. "All the other performers that did it are still alive. I'm not worried at all."

Hmmm .... So maybe it wasn't the Kung Pao gig that killed the King of the One-Liner. Perhaps it was something else. Retracing Youngman's steps during the weeks that preceded the legendary comic's death, one incident in late December 1997 stands out as particularly taxing, annoying, and unhealthful: Youngman submitted to an interview with SF Weekly, then became the subject of a cynical, parodic article ("Take BART, Please," Dec. 24, 1997).

Weeks later, he died.
So Freddie Roman needn't worry. After all, it's unlikely he'd be so foolish as to submit to an SF Weekly interview that could then be spun into a cynical, parodic article.


About The Author

Matt Smith


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