David Brenner Tells His Life Story

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Earlier this month we lost legendary stand-up comic David Brenner. Since that time, much has been written about the man, favorite jokes have been quoted, and tributes from his peers have been penned. With this in mind, I thought it would be fitting to take a look back at what was no doubt one of the most extensive interviews he had done and watch his appearance on Alan King’s 1992 Comedy Central show, Inside the Comic Mind, and let Brenner tell his life story.

Brenner grew up in Philadelphia in what he describes as a rather rough and tumble neighborhood. Growing up, he states that he didn’t know anybody who was rich. “I remember seeing people in the movies who were rich and saying ‘oh, that’s movies.’” He tells a story about his family being evicted from their house when he was nine, and as his father pounded on the door of their new apartment, he asked his mother why this was happening to them, when they were good people. His mother responded with the sobering advice, “Being good is not enough. You have to have money.” David states that it was at this moment that he became driven to make a career and make money, inspiring him to go out and get a job at a butcher shop the next day.

David came from a prominent family of rabbis and went to school with a number of students who weren’t very tolerant of his background. His early life was full of fighting and drama, which eventually led to him becoming the leader of a gang. His first street fight occurred when he was almost five. A group of kids chased him home, and when he ran upstairs to his mother, she once again deeply influenced the young man with her advice, by telling him that fighting was wrong, but running home to his mother was not an option. She led him back downstairs to the front door, sent him outside, and locked the door behind him. David immediately sprung into action, and won his first fight, at which point he was initiated into this gang. It was in this capacity that Brenner claims his sense of humor first emerged. As much as possible, rather than actually physically fight other kids, he attempted to use humor to lighten the situation, and where possible, avoid massive street rumbles.

Though he may not have felt he was destined for show business, the performance bug ran through Brenner’s blood: his father, Louis Brenner, was himself a performer on the Vaudeville circuit. Before he eventually found his way to standup, though, he had another career as the writer, director, and producer of 115 television documentaries about social issues of the day. However, he became discouraged with the work after a while, when he realized his films about the government spending, widespread poverty, and the welfare program weren’t making any discernible change in the world. He decided to take a year off, and it was during this time that he started performing standup comedy.

Despite the performer’s genes he had inherited, Brenner claims that this period in his life marks the first time that he had held a microphone on stage. He then tells the first-timer story that many established standups share: the first night he performed was met with screams from the audience, and sustained applause. The next thirty times he bombed. He describes it by saying that the following times on stage he was trying to do an impression of himself, instead of simply being himself. But eventually, he managed to break out of this and become experienced enough to book a long-term paying gig at a club named Pip’s in Brooklyn, New York. One night, at a sparsely attended show at Pip’s, he went on stage and asked the crowd what they wanted to talk about. As they shouted out topics, he gathered them and gave his take on them, got off the stage, and apologized to the club owner. However, his personal assessment of the show apparently couldn’t be more wrong. The owner of the club told him, “you hit it kid. That’s how you do your writing.”

From there, the journey to stardom was a short one. After just 18 months performing at Pip’s, David landed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for the first of 158 appearances he would make over the years. Brenner’s writing style of improvising in front of an audience would continue even when on national television. After his first appearance on The Tonight Show in January of 1971, Brenner’s manager told him that a routine he did during his set that he had never heard was one of the best he’d ever seen him do. Brenner, however, had no recollection of the joke. He had improvised a full 45-second chunk on buses in front of millions of viewers.

I’m going to break away from Alan King’s show for a moment, and jump over to the Brenner’s earliest appearance on The Tonight Show I could find in the Paley Archives, which was on March 4, 1981, to give an example of Brenner’s style of standup. The thing that struck me most about Brenner’s style was how conversational it seemed. Frequently throughout his set David would chuckle to himself as if he was hearing the material for the first time (and, based on his description of his writing style, he very well may have been). One joke from his set that surprised me was this: “How come the hotdogs come in packages of 10 and the rolls come in packages of 8?” As a comedy fan, living in 2014, this is a cliché that’s been around, I assumed, since hot dogs were invented. I remember hearing it in an episode of Animaniacs as a child. However, the audience in 1981 explodes with laughter after he says it. After doing some research, I can’t 100% confirm that this joke is a Brenner original, but it’s definitely one of his signature jokes, and was quoted in newspapers as early as 1978.

The biggest laughs in this set seem to come from Brenner’s observational material. Jokes about companies that advertise with coupons on the back of air sick bags. Or the sign in a restaurant in New York City that read “for bathroom, use staircase.” Or a sign he saw outside of an IHOP advertising the fact that they now have menus in Braille. Each one of these anecdotes takes about fifteen seconds for him to tell and each one of them ends in an applause break. David’s keen observational eye allowed him to squeeze a lot of laughs from just a small statement.

Shortly before the taping of the Alan King show, David was going through a very public custody battle over his son. When asked about how he handles appearing on stage while going through difficult moments in his life, he claims that he has always had the ability to “decompartmentalize” his life. He gives the example of when his mother died he still went onstage that night, editing on the fly, taking out the stories about his mother, and her favorite jokes, but he still managed to make his way through the set and do his job.

Brenner represented a different generation of comedy. A generation in which a solid showing on Carson would skyrocket your career to the top and turn you into a household name. A generation in which the pinnacle of your career would be booking a long-term gig in Las Vegas, and never have to worry about touring or going on the road. Brenner’s influence was felt across the comedy community and he no doubt inspired and influenced a number of comedians to follow in his footsteps, a fact that he cheekily referenced when he was asked what a perfect night would be like for him, he described it as “a night when somebody doesn’t do one of my jokes on television.” But there’s no escaping the Brenner sensibility. They may not be doing his exact material, but as long as there’s standup on TV, somebody’s going to be doing David’s style of humor.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His new webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.

David Brenner Tells His Life Story