"If I had blood, I'd blush," cracked comedian Henny Youngman, 81, when he received the annual Torch of Liberty Award from the Orange County chapter of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
"I'm really very happy to be here. Now, how do I get outta here?"
And so it went Sunday night at the Irvine Hilton and Towers when 150 guests gathered to honor the venerable comedian "who, for years, has given his time whenever and where he can," announced Jack Goldberg, chairman of the local chapter's Society of Fellows.
Standing at a banquet table podium, an irreverent Youngman rattled off gags faster than guests could giggle at them:
"You know what Moses said when he stood on Mount Sinai? 'This would be a good place to put a hospital.' "
Or, "There's a new synagogue on Rodeo Drive called B'nai Gucci."
"Why do Jewish divorces cost so much?" Youngman asked the guests. "They're worth it," he cracked.
The steady stream of vintage Youngman jokes continued. "Jewish fellow gets hit by a car. Policeman calls an ambulance, then covers the man with his coat. 'Are you comfortable?' the policeman asks. 'I make a nice living,' the man answers."
The comedian's ability to "make us laugh gives us greater understanding of who we are, what we want and how we stand with the world," Goldberg told guests.
During the $200-per-person dinner, Jewel Plummer Cobb, president of Cal State Fullerton and last year's Torch of Liberty Award winner, talked about the Anti-Defamation League:
"It's terribly important in America that all groups, no matter their background, have a sensitivity about groups different from their own. Whether it's boys and girls, or a particular ethnic group or religion, there's always need for sensitivity. The league has a national program in that direction, and I think it's most admirable."
Dinner co-chairman Marilyn Franken said she thinks that while it's important for Jews to "help their own," she also believes, as does the Anti-Defamation League, that it is important to "help all kinds of people."
Before dinner, Youngman, who lives in New York and is celebrating his 60th year in show business, said the award came as a surprise. "I thought I was only going to appear here. But then, someone told me I was the honoree, whatever that means," he said, still half joking. "But I'm happy to be honored by these people who give time to help others. I try to give people a little joy, make them feel better. So far I've been lucky."
Among guests were Ralph Shapiro, whose wife, Bea, co-chairwoman of the event with Marilyn Franken, was unable to attend; Howard Rosenberg, chairman of the Orange County chapter; Steven Edelman, chapter director; Rabbi Frank Stern; Pilar Wayne, and John Crean, with his wife, Donna, who was wearing a "dime-and-pin" brooch--a safety pin welded to a dime--that she said Youngman gave her when she met him in New York.
Committee guests included Jack Adelman, Rochelle Bach, Richard Cohen, Harvey and Sandy Englander, Tony Franken, Richard Goodman, Ivan Katz, Alan Kunski, Ricci Siegel, Mildred Turkel and Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder.