David Brenner originally tried stand-up comedy as a lark. Tired of writing, directing and producing television documentaries -- 115 in all -- Brenner took a year to try his hand at comedy. As the year drew to a close, Brenner found himself on "The Tonight Show" -- the first of 158 appearances -- and with $10,000 worth of job offers.
That was in 1971, and Brenner emerged as a founder of the movement toward observational humor, a style now familiar to fans of Jerry Seinfeld and Gary Shandling, among others.
Brenner also emerged as a fixture on television shows. He fondly remembers one week when he acted as guest host for Johnny Carson, co-hosted the "Mike Douglas Show," appeared on Dinah Shore's and Merv Griffin's programs and filled in for Paul Lynde as the center square on "Hollywood Squares."
Brenner's father watched every appearance. "He gave me the greatest compliment,” Brenner said. “He said, `You didn't repeat one joke on any of those shows.'"
When did you first realize you were funny?
I never thought I wasn’t. From the time I put sentences together, I was making people laugh, making grownups laugh. When I was a little boy, when I was up to people’s knees, I was already making ‘em laugh.
It’s a genetic gift. It’s not a talent. I don’t have any talent. I got a genetic gift from my father, who was the funniest human being I ever met. It was passed on genetically to me.
Your father was a performer too, wasn’t he?
Yeah. Originally he was a vaudeville song and dance man and comedian and was brilliant and had a big contract to do movies. But he came from a rabbinical family and his father came down on him about working on our Sabbath and he quit. But he was the funniest guy in the neighborhood, the funniest guy on the street, the funniest guy in the crowd. He was just absolutely the funniest person I ever met. I did nothing but scream my whole childhood, no matter how bad things were. It was my father who taught me that there’s something funny in everything and that is the best medicine.
Plenty of people are funny, but not everyone has the nerve to try standup comedy. What made you decide to take that leap?
I had heard it all my life, “Oh, you should be a comedian.” Everybody who’s funny at the office, they hear that. I never took it seriously. First of all, I came from a rough neighborhood and I didn’t think anybody ever became successful there. Unless you’re a gangster you’re not going to have success from here. So I never considered it.
But I was a writer producer director of documentaries and I reached a brick wall where I realized nothing’s changing because no one wants it to change. I mean every documentary I ever did has been done how many times over since I did them. I realized I wasn’t going to change the world, but then I came upon an old movie. It was about this guy, I think his name was Krup. He was going to go to the electric chair and they were trying to stop it. It was a corny movie. There was this one guy marching in front of the governor’s house with a placard: “Don’t kill Krup” or whatever it said. He asked the guard who’s guarding the governor’s gate for a light for his cigarette. It was snowing. As the cop gave him the light, the cop said to him, “Mister, what are you doing out here in the freezing cold?” He said, “You’re not going to change the world.” The guy said, “Officer, you don’t understand. I’m not trying to change the world. I’m just trying to keep the world from changing me.” And that was the line that enabled me to quite documentaries.
Do you recall what movie that was?
No. I don’t remember. It was an old movie. I can see the actor’s face. He was never a big star. I can’t remember his name. It was just a B movie, but seeing that old movie and hearing that line justified me dropping out of documentaries.
So to make a long story short what I did was I dropped out of documentaries. I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit and twiddle my fingers. I thought well I’ll probably go to Hollywood and be a writer-producer-director of feature films. That could be fun. Then I thought well I’ve got to do something. I used to go to comedy clubs in New York and see comedians. I thought I always thought I was funny. Funnier than they were. Why don’t I just get up there and goof around and do standup comedy for a year? So I did for a year and it was a lot of fun. I ran out of money. I had a little cult following in New York.
I thought I should do one TV show to validate the year’s effort. And also when one day my friends would say to me, “Oh, come on. You were never a standup comedian,” I’d dig in the drawer and I’d get out the tape and I’d put it on. I was a comedian then a little over a year. I went on “The Tonight Show.” By the close of the next business day, I had $10,000 worth of job offers.
You say I went on “The Tonight Show” like you would say I went to the kitchen to get a sandwich.
That’s a very good observation on your part. Yeah, that’s how I thought of it. I was quitting the business. I was going to do “The Tonight Show” and then I was going to stop working at comedy. I was going to do something else. So I was not lackadaisical, but I was very non-caring in the sense I wasn’t worried about it. I wasn’t nervous. I just went out there and laid it out like I knew I could and that was it.
As a matter of fact, right before I was going to go on, I started running down the hallway back to my dressing room and the agent who was handling me then said, “You’re going to do fine. Come back here.” I said, “I know I’m going to do fine. I left three dollars in my jeans.” All I was thinking about was: “Oh, my God, I’ll go out there on stage and while I’m telling jokes some bastard is going to rifle my jeans and take the three bucks and I’m going to have to walk from 30 Rock all the way home.” So that was my only concern.
How did you get on “The Tonight Show”?
I had this young, hip agent who eventually smoked some good stuff in India, shaved his head and lives off an island off of Washington or somewhere. Without telling me, he brought a gentleman named Craig Tennis, who was the chief talent coordinator of “The Tonight Show.” He brought him down to the Bitter End in Greenwich Village. The Bitter End is a very hip club for musicians and comedians. I remember the Chapin brothers played there. Woody Allen. They only had the hippest guys. I was on the bill.
I didn’t know that this guy was in the audience. So I was doing my very hip material at that time. And don’t forget I was a documentarian so I had that social consciousness. I killed the audience. I killed them. But he said to my agent, “David Brenner does vomit material.” That’s what he called it: vomit material. “Not only will never be on ‘The Tonight Show,’ we wouldn’t let him in the building at 30 Rock.”
So when I heard that, that was the best thing that could have happened to me because I got pissed off and the street part of me came back and I said fuck him. I’ll show him. So I really got myself really in great shape and did material and I went and did a cold audition with every other act at the Victor Jay Theater in New York. They used to hold them every Wednesday. The reason I knew about it is I used to go there on Wednesday in my one suit, not even a suit, it was really a nice sweater, and they had finger sandwiches and drinks. That’s where I ate on Wednesday night. I made believe I was a manager and I’d go in and I’d sit down there and I’d watch these acts. Sometimes I wouldn’t even watch the act. I’d just slip out again. So I knew where they held “The Tonight Show” auditions.
I did the audition and I killed at the audition. I did the audition right before Christmas. I think it was actually the 24th, and I got a call Jan. 7th from the agent handling me and he said, “How would you like to do ‘The Tonight Show?’ Are you ready for tomorrow night? They want you?” I said all right, I’m ready, and that’s how I got it. Every young person would blow their brains out if they knew that story because it’s tough to make it. I just didn’t know it.
How did Craig react?
I went on “The Tonight Show” and it turned out to be I get the second largest number of letters of any new performer in the history of the show up until that time. After my shot, Craig Tennis walked up to me. Jerry Lewis was in a hotel room in the neighborhood and he put on -- I’ll never forget it -- a camel hair coat and he ran over. I was still in the greenroom. He charged in. He said, “You’re so good I almost hate you.” He ran out of the show and he said, “That was the greatest kid I ever saw.”
Buddy Hackett was home. He called to Vegas. He got me booked into the main room in Vegas. You couldn’t write it in a script any better than it was. As a result, Craig Tennis walked in and he shook my hand. He said, “I want to tell you you made a hero out of me. That was the best anyone’s ever done on ‘The Tonight Show’ and I get the credit for it. I want to thank you and I’m sorry for my opinion of you and what I said.” I said, “Hey, man, we’re clean now. That’s all right. Forget about it.”
Could you have walked away from comedy at that point?
Not when I heard about the $10,000. I could have walked away if nothing happened the next day. Yeah, I could have walked away. I thought the whole thing was a big joke. I mean, to get paid for doing what you got into trouble for doing all your life was ridiculous. I got thrown out of school over 200 times for being funny. My mother was always going to school. She’d be apologizing. She said, “A sense of humor is vital in my family. We’d sit around the dinner table and all we’d do is tell stories and laugh.” She said, “And I tell David there’s a time and a place for it but there’s no way I’m going to let him have this taken away from him.” She just said, “You just keep being funny. Try to control it but don’t ever let them change you. Don’t let them change your nature.” My father said the same thing: “Ttell them to go to hell.” He was a tough guy
I’m sure the younger comedians now don’t realize the power a “Tonight Show” appearance at that time had on a career.
No. I mean, I got Freddie Prinze’s first shot on “The Tonight Show.” And from his first shot on “The Tonight Show,” Jimmy Komack, the producer of “Welcome back, Kotter,” saw him and that’s how he got “Chico and the Man.” From one appearance. But it does happen
Does an appearance on “The Tonight Show” now or on Letterman have the same cachet it did it was just Johnny Carson?
Not even close. There is no comparison. Because what has happened is people are so jaded with all the appearances. I’ll give you the best answer to that. When I was getting ready for my HBO special, I went out on the road and I had opening acts. I would hear them get introduced: “You’ve seen him several times on Leno. You’ve seen him on Comedy Central. He’s been blah blah blah. He was in the show so and so.” And I’m thinking, who the hell is this guy? He’s making $400 for the night. You never heard “You’ve seen him 12 times on Carson.” Are you kidding? I mean, with 12 times on Carson you were sure heading for stardom if you weren’t a star already.
You were on 100-something times.
You actually kept track.
Yeah, I actually kept track because that was the king’s castle. I did monologues, 157 monologues out of 158 appearances. I only did one panel only and that was because they were running out of time and gave me a choice of which I wanted to do and I didn’t want anyone interfering with my stand up because I ad-lib a lot and I didn’t want some guy giving me time signals. So I chose the panel.
I always did six, six and a half minutes. I can’t do short monologues on television. I’m not effective that way. Because I’m a builder. I don’t come out slam-dunking with jokes. So I did six and a half minutes. Johnny wanted to sit back in his chair every time I was on and enjoy six and a half minutes of laughs. So he always made me do a monologue, which is a hell of a challenge.
Panel is sitting there chatting with the host.
That’s easy. That’s a piece of cake. Standup, that’s putting every gem in the bracelet properly. Though I ad-lib all the time. My first appearance on “The Tonight Show,” when I came off, a friend of mine who ran a club in New York was with me. He said, “God, that bit about busses is so funny. I never saw you do that before.” I used to work his club all the time.
I said, “What bit about busses?”
He said, “That whole chunk of material you did about busses.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I don’t remember talking about busses. I had to watch the show that night to find out what I did. I did 45 seconds about busses that I never talked about in my life. But I have a timing device in my head. I know when those six minutes are up. Anyway, with “The Tonight Show,” it would work this way: I would call up and give them the dates that I wanted to do it. And that’s how I got the bookings.
Getting on Carson’s “Tonight Show” was a pretty big feat for anybody in show business, but to be elevated to guest host, to sit behind the desk, that must have been pretty amazing.
Yeah. From the moment I did it and realized I was going to stay in the business, my goal was to guest host. I was offered a sitcom deal with CBS and NBC. They were both vying for me. The money was the same and I really wanted to go with CBS. They had Fred Silverman then. I really wanted to go with CBS because I thought they would understand me better. NBC tossed in the carrot. They said, “If you sign with us, we’ll let you host ‘The Tonight Show’ once.” Host “The Tonight Show” once. That’s all I wanted to hear. I hosted it and it was one of the highest-rated hostings they ever had and that’s what made me a regular guest host. That was the feather in the cap.
Ironically, the sticom we did, it was based on the movie “Shampoo.” I played the Warren Beatty part and Leslie Ann Warren was the costar. It was called “Snip.” The idea of it was I was womanizing. We were married. She divorces me. She takes everything I have and she goes up to New England to her aunt’s house, converts it into a beauty shop on the first floor and I go to win her heart back on the pretext of helping her with her business. It was hysterically funny.
The weekend before, the Friday before our debut, and we were being touted as the new comedy hit of the season, NBC pulled the plug. Why they really pulled the plug is in our beauty shop we had an actor who was gay who was playing a gay part. This was 1976. NBC was afraid to have a gay person in a television show. And so they pulled the plug. A couple of years later, “Soap” came out. That was the end of my sitcom career and I went back on the road. That’s when I became a major star, without the sitcom.
Would you want to do another sitcom?
No. What I wanted to do was a talk show. I had a shot at one in the ‘80s and unfortunately two people who were producing it, Motown and King World, they couldn’t stand working wth each other. They didn’t care how successful it was. They just got out of it.
I know you had the custody fight that kept you out of the public eye for a while.
Yeah. Four and a half years.
You’re still David Brenner the huge star. But did that affect your career at all?
Majorly. By law, I could only work 50 nights a year or I’d be an absentee father.
The judge said this?
Yeah. I mean, that’s the law. If you’re sitting there in a courtroom and they say how many nights a year are you away from home and you say 250, no judge is going to give you custody. So I cut my income down. I couldn’t compete. This was 1991 when “The Tonight Show” was being given out and I couldn’t even get into the competition for it. I had to figure out should I do a Letterman and keep my face in the public or should I pick up that money in Texas? I need the money because I’m paying lawyers. As a result, I cut my television way down. In those days, I was doing between 100 and 140 network appearances a year and I cut it down to, I don’t know, 10, eight. Well, the public, four and a half years of not seeing me, or seeing me so infrequently, and they don’t write about you and then new people come in and take over as agents, as senior executives with production companies and the network people change. All of a sudden they’re like, “Oh, yeah, whatever happened to Brenner?” Four and a half years later, I walked out with a crippled career, totally broke. I lost my townhouse, cars, everything I owned, but I walked out holding the hand of my son.
That sounds like that’s the important part.
Yeah. To hell with the other thing. And today I have this wonderful, wonderful son. I have three wonderful, wonderful, wonderful sons.
In the days when you were doing all these TV talk show appearances, was there ever any backlash? Did people not want to come see your act because they could see you on TV?
No. I’ll tell you why. The public was aware that when I did something on television, I never did it again. Or I waited years to do it. The night after I did my HBO special, I was working the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. I had an hour show to do. I went up there and did an hour. I told the audience right away. I said, “You know I had a special last night. Those of you who saw it, thank you for watching. I want you to know I have no idea how I’m going to do it but you’re not going to hear one joke you heard last night.” And that’s what I did.
I think the public became aware if they watched me on television, if they became fans and watched me on TV, they realized I wasn’t repeating the jokes. I remember one week, my father pointed this out to me, I was hosting “The Tonight Show” the whole week, I was the center square on “Hollywood Squares” because Paul Lynde was off on vacation, I was co-hosting “Douglas” that week, I had an appearance on “Dinah Shore” and “Merv Griffin.” In TV Guide I was on every page. He watched everything and taped everything. He gave me the greatest compliment. He said you didn’t repeat one joke on any of those shows.
It would be amazing if it were a talent. It’s not amazing if it’s a genetic. It’s as amazing as saying, “God, you’re 6-2. Oh, and you have brown hair and brown eyes. That’s amazing.” What is amazing? That’s my genetics. What’s amazing about it?
But you have the ability to take something and translate that and make everyone else realize that it’s funny.
Yeah, but I wish I could say to you that I sit and I think about it and I plan it. I don’t. I get up on the stage and it happens. I think whatever’s doing it inside of me is amazing. But I’m just a vehicle in a sense. I don’t feel amazing.
Do you have a process for writing jokes? Do you write jokes?
No. I cut things out of the newspaper and I paste them up on 5-by-7 index cards and I getup on the stage and I look at the article and I hope something funny comes out. And if it does, I remember it and I’ll use it again for the next few nights until the news is old.
Mort Sahl does a similar thing.
Yeah. He gets up there with a newspaper. It’s amazing.
So who can we say that you influenced?
I’m always tagged, I think it was a New York Times writer -- said I did observational material and I was an observational comedian. That was the beginning of that. I’ve had so many comedians come up to me and give me credit for their career, so many young ones that are unknown. The problem is I made it look easy. And that probably was part of the problems I had. Everybody became a comedian. They thought it was something you could become, like a dentist.
Does that bother you that you’re the first guy to do this observational humor and now everyone’s copied you?
It doesn’t bother me now. Someone once said, ”God, you opened the door to everybody. You opened the door for every comedian through the ‘80s and ‘90s.” I said thank you. Except that I wish I would have been going through the door instead of standing there still holding it open. I didn’t make the $450 million.
You’ve got 23 year olds running the business now. I had a meeting with one of them one time. It was an older guy, actually. He had a lot of 23-year-olds with him. He was the head of a major studio in California. He was about 35 years old. He opened the meeting by saying, “David I just want you to know that from the time I was a kid, my mother would let me stay up and watch you on ‘The Tonight Show’ and you have been my favorite comedian ever since then and I think you are the best still.”
That’s a nice compliment.
Yeah. And I said thank you very much. We’re talking, talking, talking. I’m tossing some sitcom ideas at him. He said to me, “You know, David, I just want to tell you that the business has changed. What we’re really looking for today is the flavor of the month.” Now, I had heard this several times prior to that. So I said well, I don’t mean to insult you, but I also love marshmallow chopped liver swirl cherry peanut butter American cheese ice cream as much as the next person. But the top selling ice creams in this country are still vanilla, chocolate and strawberry and you my young friend are sitting across the table from vanilla. Of course, I didn’t get the gig.
Who are your big comedic influences?
My father. That’s it really. He brought me up on a diet of old timers, because he was an old timer. I was raised with all the vaudeville comedians. So I guess their style or something, timing, something slipped in there. I’m a big fan of a lot of comedians, from Richie Pryor to Chris Rock, but I don’t think I was ever influenced by any of them. I don’t think anybody influenced me.
Can you point to anything and say you learned this from your father or from somebody else?
No. No. I learned everything from my father but subliminally. He would hang out on the street corner. When I was 2 1/2, 3, 4 years old I’d be standing on the street corner and my father would be joking around and people would be screaming, laughing, and then this is all getting inside of me somewhere.
Your father listened to his father about not working on Shabbat and stopped his career. Did he regret that?
Yeah. His whole life.
Did he give you any advice about working on Shabbat?
I was never religious so he didn’t have to worry about that. The only advice he said to me was, “What I used to do when I went out on stage is I used to twirl a button on my suit to keep me from being nervous and right before I went out I took a good shot of whisky.” That’s good advice except I didn’t listen to either one of them (laughs) because I can’t drink before I go on stage and I’m not nervous, so what am I going to twirl a button for?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a comedian?
Today it’s tough. I would tell them be original. Although you don’t have to be. Some of the biggest comedy stars are thieves. They stole everything. I used to say you couldn’t make it if you stole, but now, God, the guys who are superstars, they go in clubs with recorders and send people in and steal things from young comedians. But be original. And what I told Jay Leno: get up every single night you can wherever it is – two people, four people -- and practice because you learn something. Whether you know it or not, you’re learning something every performance, and you always will, your whole career. The other thing I told Jay Leno. I told him get out of Boston. Move to New York or LA. And that’s what I would tell a kid today: Go to New York and LA and just get up there and keep working. And don’t listen to anyone except the audience. Don’t listen to any professional in the business.
You say you’re not religious, but you’ve been labeled as a Jewish comic.
I don’t know what that comes from. I happen to be Jewish and I happen to be a comedian. They could have labeled me as a tall comic or a Philly comic, or something like that. I don’t think about that part of me.
Your religion doesn’t play a role in what you do?
Nothing. Nothing at all. Zero. Zip.
Lenny Bruce used his Jewish background for material, but you don’t really do that.
No. The Jewish people are funny because the most persecuted people are always the funniest. That’s why you have a lot of black comedians today and a lot of Hispanic comedians because whoever’s getting kicked around goes into sports and show business. And who’s been persecuted more than Jewish people? So who’s had the most reasons to laugh? Other than that, my religion plays zero factor in my career and in my life.
I grew up and read all the Bible, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran. I went through it. Zen, Buddhism and all that and picked something out from everything and keep an open mind.
How has your act changed over the years?
You made a point before: How does it feel with the guys with the observational material that went so far in their career? I had to reinvent myself. What I did is I had to stay true to my nature, which is to be observational. That’s when I decided to be observational with the news and to work live without a net. I just had the feeling there were enough young people out there saying, “Oh, he’s doing Seinfeld, he’s doing Shandling,” like I’m the guy following. I didn’t want that. I said I want to do something that no comedian I know today has the balls to do, and that is no safety net, work off the news, just wing it, go and take changes and slip in stuff and stick your neck out. And no one has the balls to do that. They all have to have a set act. They’ll do live but the have it down to a science, they practice it, they know every move, every line, they don’t deviate at all and it’s live! It’s all rehearsed, or else it’s an old act that they’ve been doing for 20 years and of course it’s going to be great. The difference is I work spontaneously and I work off the news and that’s the difference.
When you go out and work without that safety net, how often does it work? Out of a 90-minute show, how much of it is really great stuff?
Well, I would say out of the 90 minutes I do, 85 minutes is pretty crystal clear. There are nights when you’re off. You get into a subject and you kind of mire down a little bit or something. Boom. I get out of it right way. But I’m very comfortable up there. I’d say most of my stuff works.
At this point, how would you like to be remembered?
Oh, I don’t care about it. I don’t care. I really don’t care because I think we’re here in a flicker and we’re gone. I once had somebody call out, ”Davidm you’re going to live forever. You’re going to be remembered forever.” I said I appreciate that very much, but nobody’s remembered. I said let me ask you a question. This is in like 1985. I said by raise of hands, who can name the No. 1 actor, singer, and/or comedian of 1885? Let’s see the hands. And I said, Do you see? You don’t even know who was great 100 years ago, so no one’s going to know who is great now in 100 years, but I appreciate the sentiment. I tell you one way I want to be remembered. I want to be remembered by my three sons as well as my father is remembered by me. And then after that, I don’t care.