Comedian David Brenner Dies at 78

Comedian David Brenner Dead at 78

David Brenner, the lanky, toothy-grinned “Tonight Show” favorite whose brand of observational comedy became a staple for other standups, including Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser, died Saturday. He was 78.

Brenner, who had been fighting cancer, died peacefully at his home in New York City with his family at his side, according to Jeff Abraham, his friend and publicist.

“David Brenner was a huge star when I met him and he took me under his wing. To me, historically, he was the godfather of hip, observational comedy,” comedian Richard Lewis said in a statement. “He mentored me from day one. … His passing leaves a hole in my life that can never be replaced.”

The tall, thin and always sharply dressed Brenner became one of the most frequent visitors to Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” in the 1970s and ’80s.

His 150-plus appearances as guest and substitute host turned the former documentary filmmaker into a hot comedian, one who was ubiquitous on other talk shows and game shows.

He also briefly hosted his own syndicated talk show in 1987 and starred in four HBO specials.

Brenner moved with the times, trading routines about the humor of everyday life for jokes about social and political issues, and appearing on MSNBC and Fox News Channel cable programs.

Although his career faltered, he worked steadily through 2013 doing standup. A four-day gig last December included a New Year’s Eve show at a Pennsylvania casino-resort in which he showcased young comedians.

Brenner, who was raised in working-class south Philadelphia and graduated with honors from Temple University, was “always there helping a bright young comedian, whether it be Richard Lewis, Freddie Prinze or Jimmie Walker, and he was still doing it until the very end,” Abraham said.

In a statement, Walker called Brenner “a true comic genius” who was “my mentor and taught me about life and comedy.”

Although Brenner took a brief stabs at TV fame, with the 1976 sitcom “Snip” and the talk show “Nightlife” he hosted in 1987, he didn’t achieve the success of Seinfeld’s self-titled NBC sitcom or Reiser’s “Mad About You,” and he saw Jay Leno follow Carson as “Tonight” host.

Brenner’s take on his career path, as he described it in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, was that he put family before stardom.

He said a long custody battle with a girlfriend over their son, Cole, forced him to curtail his TV appearances and visibility beginning in the mid-1980s, when Brenner lived in Aspen, Colo.

“In a nutshell, I couldn’t work more than 50 nights a year (out of town) or I’d be an absentee father,” he said. “That was when they were giving out the talk shows, the sitcoms.”

He was asked if he regretted his decision.

“I didn’t even make a decision. I didn’t even think about it. How could you not do it? I don’t mean to sound noble,” Brenner said. “Besides, I come from the slums of Philadelphia and everything in my life is profit. My downside is what most people would strive a lifetime to get to.”

Decades ago, he had burned out on filmmaking — “You don’t change the world by doing documentaries,” he told “CBS This Morning” in 2013 — and decided to give comedy a try. He was on the verge of quitting when his effort to impress talent bookers at “Tonight” worked.

His career soared after his first appearance in January 1971. He went from being nearly broke to overwhelmed by a then-hefty $10,000 in job offers the day after he was on the show.

“I never thought this was going to turn my life upside down and give me my whole future,” he told “This Morning.”

He also recalled how hard Carson made him work on “Tonight,” asking Brenner to do a monologue each time he appeared. Other veteran comics headed straight for the couch to banter with the host.

Carson’s explanation was “I like to sit back, smoke a cigarette and laugh for six minutes,” Brenner recalled.

In a 1995 interview with the AP, Brenner imagined a different path with “Tonight.”

“I really believe that had … Johnny Carson retired in the early ’80s, then I would be sitting behind that desk,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt.”

Brenner wrote five books, including the post-9/11 “I Think There’s a Terrorist in My Soup,” published in 2003. His last HBO special, “David Brenner: Back with a Vengeance,” debuted live in 2000.

In a statement, his family said he left a last laugh: A final request that $100 in small bills be placed in his left sock “just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.”

Besides son Cole, Brenner is survived by his wife, Ruth, sons Wyatt and Slade and a grandson, Wesley.

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  1. info says:

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  2. Peter Estrada says:

    David Brenner was a fantastic human being. He was observed a signal, intelligent and loving. And most of all of course, incredibly funny! The world was a better place with him in it.

  3. Brian T. Sullivan says:

    During the great blizzard of 1978 in Boston, Caesar’s Palace brought in a helicopter to get him out of the hotel I worked in because the roads were closed for a week. He had a gig at the hotel in Vegas. That is how big he was back then. I loved him on The Tonight Show.

  4. bertram van munster says:

    David Brenner was awesome.

  5. Alex Wells says:

    I had the good fortune to see him at Catch a Rising Star in NY in 1974 just before he hit the big time,. I was really impressed by his natural, honest style.

  6. Jerry Frey says:

    Baby Boomers grew up watching Johnny Carson and the previous generation embraced his scorpion humor. I miss Johnny Carson’s show along with Ed and Doc…

  7. daniel says:

    told great stories, intelligently told without dragging himself or you into the gutter of the F, bomb,.you gave me great laughs, enjoy your eternal rest!

  8. Smooth says:

    RIP David Brenner, and thanks for the many laughs. Oh, tell Johnny and the Rat Pack that Rickles is still at it.

  9. Raejean says:

    You made a difference, funny man. Say “hello” to Tom for me.

  10. rgold02 says:

    So sorry to see you go. Rest in Peace. Thanks for always making me laugh.

  11. Nick Turner says:

    David told some great true stories about my home town South Philly …about how they would tear down half a block of row houses leaving exposed a wall mid-block covered with wallpaper because it used to be the inside of somebody’s living room. Quoth David, “I’m talking about an outside wall covered with wallpaper. Its nuts. “. LOL True stuff, told in an amazingly funny way. RIP David and thanks so much for the laughs.

  12. david t. krall says:

    from: david t. krall

    Truly sorry to hear about David Brenner’s passing! A great and gifted comedian…very funny and witty…
    even at 78, he left us too soon…I remember him just as if it was “yesterday” seeing him on one of his
    earliest, if not his first appearence on The Tonight Show…very, very funny….they’re leaving us way too soon…Carlin, Wilson, Mack, Ramis, now Brenner…it’s like passing a baton…thank you David Brenner…you made us laugh… and think…God’s speed and safe journey,,,rest in peace…That’s got to be one awesome comedy club and show “on the other side” !!! You now join the patheon of
    greats who also left us recently like Sid Caesar…

  13. Rob says:

    Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite
    And you can charm the critics and have nothin’ to eat
    Just slip on a banana peel
    The world’s at your feet
    Make ’em laugh
    Make ’em laugh
    Make ’em laugh

  14. Chris says:

    Anytime Johnny Carson said: “On the show tonight…comedian David Brenner…” I’d stay up.

    He never disappointed. He usually had something really funny to say. And when he wasn’t funny he was still interesting and articulate.

    David Brenner was an original; one of the great ones.

  15. Malinda Burton says:

    Prayers are with the Brenner family,so sorry for your loss

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