Henny Youngman was hired 10 years ago to be a spokesman for BART in a series of TV, radio, newspaper, and direct-mail ads. Henny Youngman finished the spots and went back to his hoity-toity New York apartment, where there is no BART problem. Henny Youngman let us stew during the BART strike, and left us wondering why it should cost billions to build a train to the airport.
Henny Youngman left us at BART's mercy, and he should be held accountable.
With this in mind, we called Mr. Youngman, now 91 years of age, at his New York apartment to demand some answers about our regional transportation nightmare.
SF Weekly: Mr. Youngman, in 1987 you were brought in to lead a public relations campaign designed to improve the image of the Bay Area's public transit facilities. Now, a decade later, BART and other Bay Area public transit systems continue to founder in a morass of spotty service, strikes, rising fares, and failed pigeon-repelling equipment. What do you have to say about this?
Henny Youngman: Eh? Oh. Hmm ....
Did you know, I just got back from a pleasure trip? I drove my mother-in-law to the airport.
SFW: Well, Mr. Youngman, what about the salaries of BART directors and employees? It seems like every other news article we read about BART discusses some type of pay increase. BART employees are already among the highest-paid transit employees in the country. Do you think this is fair? Do you think this much money should be spent on BART salaries?
HY: I think it's a great idea, only I should get it.
SFW: Now Mr. Youngman, this March a BART engineer was killed while heli-skiing in the Canadian Rockies when he was sent flying over a cliff by an avalanche. Do you think it is appropriate for BART engineers to be off heli-skiing in Canada when the transit system they are supposed to be keeping in tiptop shape is going to hell in a handbasket?
HY: Not really. I think they should stay home and take care of their own business.
You know, there were two drunks walking side by side down the street in New York. One went down the entrance to the subway, then went up the other side. One says, "Where were you?" The other says: "I was in some guy's basement, and boy, has he got a set of trains!"
SFW: Mr. Youngman, BART has gotten so expensive that schoolkids pay as much as $100 per month for subway rides. Do you think this is right? Do you think they should have to spend all their lunch money like this just to get themselves to school?
HY: I think they should be able to have their lunch money and go to school, just like I did.
Did you know I got kicked out of school for being funny? I was put in detention. I took a quarter to school for lunch, spent a dime, and snuck out of detention to spend the rest on a vaudeville show. I heard some jokes, and I kept them. I worked at a place called the Nut Club in Jersey. One day the boss said, "Look, tell these jokes. Do me a favor, save my life." I played, and I was a big hit. They fired the band and hired me. I became an MC, automatically. That's how it all started.
SFW: Mr. Youngman, BART and the Caltrain railroad have long been battling over millions of dollars in federal subsidies. Do you think it is right and proper for the federal government to subsidize municipal and state public transit systems?
HY: Sure it should. You want everything to go automatically, don't you? I think money should be held out for those important things.
I think they should take that money and give it to me.
I just took one of those all-expense pleasure tours -- I took my mother-in-law to the airport. I bought her a chair. They didn't let me plug it in.
I bought my daughter a car; she said there's water in the carburetor. I said, "Where is it?" She said, "It's in the lake."
I looked at my passport photo and realized I needed the trip.
SFW: Yes, Mr. Youngman, but what about the pigeon-repelling spikes they put up at the Balboa Park BART station? Birds were getting stuck between the spikes, starving, and dying. Is this any way to keep our BART stations clean?
HY: Listen, they know what they're doing.
I know: They should let the pigeons see Jackie Mason's picture. That would scare them away.
SFW: Mr. Youngman, thousands -- no millions -- of Bay Area residents were inconvenienced by the recent BART workers' strike. Many swore never to ride a BART train again. What do you have to say to highly paid BART workers making $40,000 a year who make life so difficult for so many working stiffs?
HY: They should drive up in their Rolls-Royces to the subway, get out of the Rolls-Royces, and get on the subway.
Can we say goodbye now?
SFW: Certainly, but can I just ask you this? The government has agreed to pay $1.2 billion to extend BART to the San Francisco International Airport. Do you think this is a good use of taxpayer money?
HY: Yes, if you've got to get a ride to the airport, there should be a train. Park the car at working time, take your trip, then come home and take the car. They should have a regular train that goes there, and when they come home from work, they can get the car again.
Can we say goodbye now?
SFW: Well, I wanted to ask you about the new squeaky Breda trolleys that the city is buying despite user complaints. One business said that the high-pitched noise from these trolleys caused a window to break. Do you think city officials are arrogant to continue buying these things in the face of these problems?
HY: I don't know. Can we say goodbye now?
SFW: Umm. Well, could you tell us a little bit about the shows you're going to be doing in San Francisco this week?
HY: I'm going to do eight shows. I'm going out to collect a little money. My son is coming with his children. Friends are coming to see me. That's the satisfaction I get. Friends who travel to come and see me. I outlive my friends, you know. At my age, I don't have any enemies. I've outlived them.
Do you know why I like living in California? You get your pay three hours earlier.
I was staying at a hotel in San Francisco. I went to my drawer to get some underwear and found Tony Bennett's heart.
I was in San Francisco making love to my wife and the earthquake woke her up.
Henny Youngman will be in San Francisco this week, headlining at the fifth annual Evening of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy at the New Asia Restaurant Dec. 24-26. Call 522-3737.