Comedian David Brenner Dies at 78
David Brenner, the wry stand-up comic and pundit from Philadelphia who as a favorite of Johnny Carson appeared more times on The Tonight Show than any other guest, died Saturday. He was 78.
His longtime publicist Jeff Abraham confirmed Brenner's death from cancer to The Hollywood Reporter. "Brenner died peacefully at his home in NYC surrounded by his family at his side," read Abraham's statement.
By one estimate, the perpetually grinning Brenner appeared on The Tonight Show 158 times and guest-hosted the NBC late-night show on a handful of other occasions when Carson took time off. One book says he made more talk-show appearances than any other guest in history.
Said comic Richard Lewis in a tweet: "Brenner was a star. The king of 'hip, observational comedy' … He was family. This leaves an irreplaceable hole."
Brenner was born on Feb. 4, 1936, and lived in poor sections of South and West Philadelphia. His father, Louis, was a vaudeville singer, dancer and comedian who performed as “Lou Murphy,” and Brenner always said he was the funniest man he ever met. His dad gave up the stage and a Hollywood movie contract because his rabbi father objected to him working on Friday nights; three of Brenner's uncles also were rabbis, but the future comic never found the calling.
After high school, Brenner spent two years in the Army, then attended Temple University, where he majored in mass communications. He went on to write, direct or produce 115 TV documentaries, many about the plight of people fighting poverty, as the head of the documentary departments at Westinghouse Broadcasting and Metromedia Broadcasting.
Brenner, though, was discouraged that his documentary work never affected change.
“At the beginning, I thought, 'Well, you just present the public with a problem and some possible solutions and society will use that information to make things better for people,' ” he said in a 2008 interview with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. “I eventually realized my naivete. It isn’t that we’re seeking the answers; we just don’t want to implement them. So I decided rather than try to solve problems, I would help people forget ’em.”
He did his first paid stand-up gig at The Improv in New York in June 1969. Later, when he was performing at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, his agent invited the Tonight Show's talent coordinator to watch his client's act, Brenner recalled during a piece that ran in December on CBS This Morning.
"David Brenner does vomit material. Not only will he not be on The Tonight Show, we'll never let him in the building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza," he remembered the booker telling his agent. "I took that insult and said, 'You know what? Forget about me doing any television show. I'm doing The Tonight Show.' "
He began attending Tonight Show auditions to figure out what kind of comic the show wanted and worked out a monologue that was more tame and tailored to that sensibility. He made it on The Tonight Show on Jan. 8, 1971. (Watch his debut on the show below.)
"Everything was perfect. You couldn't write a better scenario," Brenner said. "The next day, I had $10,000 worth of job offers. I never thought this was going to turn my whole life around."
A contemporary of Lewis, Freddie Prinze, Andy Kaufman, Steve Landesberg, Gabe Kaplan and others, Brenner perfected the art of observational comedy, or, as he once described it, "dumb things that we say or do."
"When I'm looking around for something in my house, I say this all the time: 'It's going to be in the last place I look,' " he said. "Of course it's going to be in the last place I look! Who finds something and keeps on looking?"
Brenner was to star in an NBC sitcom in the mid-'70s called Flip (some say the show was titled Snip), a spoof of the 1975 Warren Beatty movie Shampoo.
"It was produced by Jimmy Komack, who had hits with such shows as Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico and the Man," Brenner told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999. "Leslie Ann Warren was in it, and I had the Warren Beatty role. Five episodes were in the can and there were rough cuts of two others. … At the last moment, NBC pulled it. You know why? There was a gay guy on the show, and NBC was scared to death of that. Today you can't have a series without a gay guy in it, but that scared them back then."
Brenner's career suffered starting in the 1980s, he said, when he spent time fighting for custody of his sons Slade, Wyatt and Cole. "The courts say you can’t be away from home more than 50 nights a year or you’re an absentee father, so I had to give up on a lot, including The Tonight Show," he said.
During his long career, Brenner also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The David Frost Show, The Mike Douglas Show (taped in Philadelphia), Late Show With David Letterman, Real Time With Bill Maher and The Daily Show and was a frequent guest of Howard Stern on his radio program.
He was engaged for years starting in 2005 to Tai Babilonia, a former pairs figure skater who competed in two Winter Olympics, but they never married.
His marriage to Elizabeth Slater in 2000 was sealed on a stage in Las Vegas during his live HBO comedy special, David Brenner: Back With a Vengeance! That union lasted nary a year.
In addition to his sons, Brenner is survived by his wife Ruth and his grandson Wesley.
Recently, Brenner was touring clubs with four fledgling comics that he selected in a nationwide review process.
He wrote five books, including 2003's I Think There's a Terrorist in My Soup: How to Survive Personal and World Problems With Laughter -- Seriously.
Abraham said that Brenner, as a final request, "asked that $100 in small bills be placed in his left sock 'just in case tipping is recommended where I'm going.' His final resting spot will read, 'If this is supposed to be a joke -- then I don't get it!' "