David Brenner died today at his New York City home, with his family by his side. Brenner had been battling cancer. The stand-up comedian was 78. He is survived by his wife, Ruth; sons Cole, Wyatt and Slade; and grandson Wesley.
Richard Lewis, a longtime friend of Brenner’s, said via Twitter today, “Brenner was a star. The king of ‘hip, observational comedy.’ Mentored me. He was family. This leaves an irreplaceable hole.”
Steve Martin offered: “Loved David Brenner. He gave me good advice early in my career (which I wrote about in my autobio). A gentleman, and really, really funny.”
“One of the kicks of hosting The Tonight Show is the chance to present some new talent,” Johnny Carson said following a commercial break on the Jan. 8, 1971, telecast. “And I’m glad you’re in a crazy mood tonight, because this is a young man that we discovered at one of our regularly scheduled auditions. This is his first appearance on television. He’s very clever. Somewhat warped. Which is, if you’re going to do comedy, you should be a little bit warped, I think. Would you welcome, for the first time on The Tonight Show, Mr. David Brenner. David!”
Brenner’s set not only earned him a standing ovation and curtain call from Carson, but also an invitation back — more invitations back to The Tonight Show than anyone else in Carson’s tenure — 158 appearances in all. Brenner also guest hosted the show in Johnny’s absence multiple times.
Born Feb. 4, 1936, David Brenner was a child of Philadelphia through and through. Graduated from West Philadelphia High School, he has said he was lost and drifting before he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served for a year and a half. He then matriculated to Temple University — where as he described it on his Facebook page, he “Studied All the female students” before a taking his honors degree in mass communication and going into a career making documentaries. Brenner was behind the camera before he ever made us laugh in front of it, even earning an Emmy Award in the process for his work two years before his TV debut as a stand-up comedian.
As Brenner wrote in the caption to this photo: “Sometimes a documentary film director has to be innovative. In the supermarket basket is my camerman, Arnie Baskin. Notice his big eyes and his white, sweatband. Actually, he was on sale and I bought him.”
He wrote, produced and directed 110 documentaries, with Tom Snyder narrating many of them. “Neither of us ever dreamed at that time that someday he would host a TV talk show and I would be one of his guests — and as a comedian, of all things,” Brenner recounted.
He had the chance to be a TV star, too, playing a hairdresser as the lead in the 1976 sitcom, Snip (a spin-off of the movie, Shampoo), but NBC canceled it before the series with Brenner and Lesley Ann Warren was set to debut (all seven episodes did air in Australia, however).
The stand-up gigs and TV appearances kept on coming Brenner’s way, though, as he made a name for himself with topical political humor. Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, and David Letterman all welcomed Brenner to their shows in the 1970s and 1980s; he was even the center square on The Hollywood Squares for a bit in the late ’70s. Brenner was an observational comic before that was in vogue. He wrote five books and recorded four HBO specials. At the end of 2000’s “David Brenner: Back With a Vengeance,” he closed the live HBO special by getting married to Elizabeth Slater, mother of his sons Slade and Wyatt. He also has a son from a previous relationship, and would later be betrothed to figure skating great Tai Babilonia.
The past two years, Brenner took extra effort to help out and showcase younger aspiring stand-up comedians. One of his last live shows, over several nights in the last week of 2013, were billed as “David Brenner Introduces Comedy Stars of Tomorrow.” Brenner talked to CBS News about why, introducing his own clip package by acknowledging that anyone under 30 had no clue who he was, while “if you are older than 30, then I’m a star!”
In an interview a couple of years ago, Brenner noted the passing of both of his parents, the synchronicity of their illnesses aboard the QE2 cruise ship, and how his father stayed true to his philosophy to “always leave ’em laughing” all the way to his end.
Brenner’s Twitter handle @KingLaughGetter, wasn’t very active, but he described himself simply: “Born poor and funny, hopes to die just funny.”
Here’s hoping David Brenner left them laughing.
Brenner’s final request: To place $100 in small bills in his left sock upon burial, “just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.”
His publicist reports that his final resting spot will include the notation: “If this is supposed to be a joke — then I don’t get it!”