'Fresh Air' Remembers Comedian David Brenner

Mar 17, 2014
Originally published on March 17, 2014 11:52 am

Comedian David Brenner became a star in the 1970s, with the help of The Tonight Show. He made his first appearance with Johnny Carson in 1971 and returned to the show more than 150 times, often as the substitute host. He also had his own short-lived late night show in the mid '80s.

Brenner died Saturday at 78. He grew up in Philadelphia, where Fresh Air is produced, and spoke to Terry Gross in 1990.


Interview Highlights

On how he started doing observational comedy

A friend of mine, Richard Lewis, said, "You have monopolized the obvious" ... and I thought that was a good way of describing my comedy. And I just got up there and did what I did on the street corner at 60th and Osage Street [in Philadelphia]: I just got up in front of Moe's Candy Store with my friends ... a car would go by, I'd make fun of the car, person, boom. ...That all came from the street corner.

On doing shows in Las Vegas and gambling

It's very difficult to make someone laugh who has just lost a lot of money. The big gamblers, it's easy to make them laugh. I always feel sorry for the small guy who lost the rent and all that. Well, you shouldn't be gambling, we all know that. But my father would sometimes lose the rent. I know what it's like to not have money because your father gambled it away. Gambling, like anything, take it in moderation, I always say.

I have an addictive personality, and so what I do is I play poker for very little money. I stay up all night and it gives me a chance to [get] the gambling part of my personality exhibited and out, and ... [it] gives me a chance to talk to regular people, because after the first few hands it's no longer playing poker with David Brenner. I'm now an adversary. I'm just another poker player and we can talk and I can be with every day people, which I really enjoy better than being with celebrities.

On his comedian father's influence

One day I realized that if you were to take my material and put it in front my father ... it's applicable to about 90 percent of my humor. So in a sense, I'm not a clone, but I was a student of my father. I loved my father. He was the funniest guy in the world and a great friend of mine. I emulated him without realizing, even though he said, "Forget show business, it's bad." But being around someone so funny all the time, I just naturally picked up his ways ...

My father, when I was a little boy, even though he discouraged me from show business, he said to me ... "There's no greater feeling in the world than standing on a stage and hearing a thousand people laugh at you."

He said, "If you make one person a day have a good belly laugh, then your life has been really worthwhile on this earth."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with comedian David Brenner. He died Saturday at the age of 78. Brenner became a star in the 1970s with the help of "The Tonight Show." He made his first appearance with Johnny Carson in 1971 and returned to the show over 150 more times. Here's one of those appearances.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

DAVID BRENNER: I've got to watch my weight now, for the first time in my life, yes. I gave up smoking cigarettes. And you gain. You can't believe the appetite. Oh. And you try to be cool in a restaurant. You sit there, I'll have a little cup of soup and a side of salad and a side of beef.

(LAUGHTER)

BRENNER: But I'll never stop people from smoking because I haven't been - I hated when anyone told me not to smoke. Except once. One time - this is great, this is the best line I think anyone ever hit me with. I was in a drug store in New York and I bought cigarettes. I bought a pack of cigarettes and then I thought I'll look around. You know how drug stores - look around.

So I lit up a cigarette and I'm walking around, seeing what else I could buy, you know, what I need. And the druggist saw me and said - he says, hey, put out the cigarette. You're not allowed to smoke in here. I said hey, if you're not allowed to smoke in here why do you sell cigarettes? He said if you bought Ex-Lax would you poop on my floor?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: David Brenner on "The Tonight Show" where he was a popular substitute host as well as guest. He had his own short-lived late night show in the mid-1980s. Brenner grew up in Philadelphia, where FRESH AIR is produced. We spoke in 1990.

Your father had been a comic. I think this might've been before you were born that he was a comic.

BRENNER: Yeah, it was way before I was born. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And he was a Vaudeville comic.

BRENNER: Comedian and a song and dance man, yeah.

GROSS: So what kind of material did he do?

BRENNER: If you were to take - my father had a premise and his premise was I'd like to catch the guy. See, like, I'd like to catch the guy that says get married. I'd tell him blah, blah, blah, blah. I'd like to catch the guy who paints houses. I'd like to catch the guy who fixed my car. I'd like to catch the guy who made my car. And all that kind of stuff.

And I didn't take that handle but one day I realized that if you were to take my material and put it in front my humor, I'd like to catch the guy, it's applicable to about 90 percent of my humor. So in a sense, I'm not a clone, but I was a student of my father. I loved my father. He was the funniest guy in the world and a great friend of mine. And I emulated him without realizing, even though he said forget show business, it's bad. But being around someone so funny all the time, I just naturally picked up his ways.

GROSS: How did your father bill himself?

BRENNER: He billed himself as Lou Murphy. And then he had a partner named Buster, and they were known as Brenner and Buster, and their handle was listen to the two Bs buzz.

GROSS: He billed himself as Murphy?

BRENNER: Yeah, because there was a lot of prejudice against Jewish people.

GROSS: So he took an Irish name?

BRENNER: So, yeah. And he looked Irish. And in those days, all the Jewish actors and, you know, all the way through like Kirk Douglas and all, and everybody changed their name. All the Jewish people changed their name in order to be in the business. And my father did the same thing. Plus, my father's family was a prominent rabbinical family in Philadelphia. The Brenners were very prominent.

My grandfather, Nathan Brenner, was a top rabbi and Jay Gerson Brenner, my uncle, my father's brother, was a very prominent rabbi. And he didn't want the name of Brenner being used in show business, which is actually the reason why he left show business. He came back to Philadelphia. He had a contract to do movies in Hollywood and he came back to see his family before doing the movies and his father said, you know, you can't work on Shabbat. On Friday night, you just can't. It's against the tradition of our people. And my father ripped up that Hollywood contract and never went back on the stage again. And he did live his whole life regretting that he couldn't do what he really was meant to do, and that was be an entertainer.

GROSS: Hmm. So what did he do when he got out of entertainment?

BRENNER: He did a lot of odd jobs. He worked for the Philadelphia Record which was a newspaper here and he was in charge of the landscaping for Fairmount Park and he was the manager of the Fairmount Park trolleys when they had them here. He was an insurance man. And then the main thing he was, he was a bookie. He was a numbers writer.

(LAUGHTER)

BRENNER: That's the main - that was the mainstay of his income.

GROSS: Did he have to do that on the Sabbath?

BRENNER: Yeah. He didn't take bets on Shabbat. Friday night you couldn't make a bet with Lou Brenner but any other time, starting Saturday night - well, there were no numbers. I mean Friday was over. There were no numbers on the weekends, see, so he didn't take bets on Friday night.

(LAUGHTER)

BRENNER: He started taking bets again Sunday for the week. And he had a great talent. He could memorize all the bets without writing them down so he could never get arrested. He had one shortcoming, though. He was a compulsive gambler with it too. So when he would win, hit the numbers, he would play it back with some other book or his own book, he would make bets. And he was a real Damon Runyon character. He was a wonderful, wonderful character.

GROSS: So your father was a bookie. Now you play Atlantic City and Vegas all the time...

BRENNER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...where you have all these compulsive gamblers coming to be entertained after they've either won or lost a lot of dough. Are there things that you have to keep in mind when you're playing a room in Vegas or Atlantic City where you know a lot of the people have been gambling all day?

BRENNER: You have to keep it in mind because it's very difficult to make someone laugh who just lost a lot of money.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BRENNER: The big gamblers, it's easy to make them laugh. I always feel sorry for the small guy who lost the rent and all that. Well, you shouldn't be gambling, we all know that. But my father would sometimes lose the rent. I know what it's like to not have money because your father gambled it away. Gambling, like anything, take it in moderation, I always say.

I have an addictive personality too, and so what I do is I play poker for very little money. I stay up all night and it gives me a chance to, one, get the gambling part of my personality exhibited and out, and the other, it gives me a chance to talk to regular people, because after the first few hands it's no longer playing poker with David Brenner. I'm now an adversary. I'm just another poker player and we can talk and I can be with everyday people, which I really enjoy better than being with celebrities.

GROSS: When you started doing comedy in, what, '68 or '69...

BRENNER: '69. That's the - June of '69.

GROSS: ...there weren't as many comics. It was before the comedy boom, before all the comedy clubs.

BRENNER: Yeah, right.

GROSS: And everybody had a niche. You know, like Robert Klein was the baby boom comic.

BRENNER: Yeah, in the '50s. Yeah. Steinberg was then. They came before me, yeah. Steinberg, Richie Pryor, Cosby, they were all...

GROSS: Richard Pryor was like...

BRENNER: They were way before mine.

GROSS: ...the young, hip black comic.

BRENNER: Yeah, right.

GROSS: So where did you see yourself fitting in?

BRENNER: I didn't at all. I was really different and I did what they call - now they tag it as observational comedy and that is to look at anything and find humor in it, that was mundane. A friend of mine, Richard Lewis, said you have monopolized the obvious. You have a monopoly on the obvious, he said.

And I thought that was a good way of describing my comedy. And I just got up there and did what I did on the street corner here at 60th and Osage Street. I just got up in front of Moe's Candy Store with my friends. I just got up and whatever happened, you know, a car would go by, I'd make fun of the car, person, boom.

Someone would say something, someone would say something dumb and, you know, OK, let's run. You know, come on, let's run. And I'd say well, you're still walking. I don't get it. You know, let's run and they don't run. You know how people always say that? Come on, let's run over there. And they walk. You know? And that all came from the street corner. That all came from west Philadelphia, and south Philadelphia before that. So I didn't think of any - I just thought I'd just do what I think is funny. And then they start - then they tagged it observational comedy.

GROSS: Does it still feel great to get laughs, having gotten them for so long?

BRENNER: My father, when I was a little boy, even though he discouraged me from show business, he said to me, he said, Kingy(ph), there's no greater feeling in the world than standing on a stage and hearing a thousand people laugh at you. He said if you make one person a day have a good belly laugh, then your life has been really worthwhile on this earth.

GROSS: David Brenner, recorded in 1990. He died Saturday. He was 78. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.