Bernie Brillstein: The Man Who Loved Show Business

Berniebrillstein“You can’t trust people who haven’t walked through kitchens.”

That was a vintage Bernie Brillstein-ism, according to his longtime friend and client Lorne Michaels. Michaels translates the Bernie bon mot to mean that talent needs to be honed through hard work and experience, and for comics, that often means the grueling biz of working nightclubs. And in many nightclubs, you have to walk through the kitchen to get to the stage.

Having spent most of the day talking to people about Brillstein (pictured with his wife, Carrie), who died Thursday at 77, I think I can safely say that the single-most defining aspect of his character was his “love of the game,” as so many of his friends put it. He enjoyed the shoe-leather work of going to see a comic, or a play, or reading a spec script, or bumping into a promising staff writer on the set of a flailing TV show.

The latter scenario is how he met Michaels, 40 years ago on a Burbank soundstage that was briefly home to “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.” The show was anything but beautiful, but it did mark the first U.S. job of a young Canuck scribe who was destined to meet his manager and mentor while working on that NBC show (and the two of them were destined to link arms and muscle “Saturday Night Live” on the air seven years later).

“The first night (on ‘Beautiful’) the taping went to 2:30 in the morning. We all spent a lot of time in the halls waiting around. And there was this guy Bernie who was both funny and profane and smart in a way that I’d never really experienced before,” Michaels remembered.