The comedy world lost a great talent over the weekend with the death of veteran comic David Brenner. He died Saturday in his Manhattan home from cancer. He was 78.
The son of a vaudevillian singer-dancer-comedian Lou Murphy, Brenner was born on Feb. 4, 1936. He spent two years in the U.S. Army before attending Temple University, where he graduated with honors with a degree in mass communications. After college, he worked as a writer, director, and producer of dozens of television documentaries, winning many awards including an Emmy. In the late ’60s he began performing stand-up comedy at the infamous New York Improv and various clubs in Greenwich Village. He made his national television debut in 1971 on The Tonight Show where he would eventually appear 158 times. The Philadelphia native even guest-hosted for Johnny Carson 75 times, making him Johnny’s most frequent guest. And even recently, he was no stranger to television; he made an appearance on CBS This Morning in December of last year, which you can watch below.
Brenner was famous for his observational comedy, or as he once called it, “dumb things that we say or do.” It was his brilliant musings on daily life that landed him his own TV series Snip, about a hairdresser in Massachusetts who lives with his ex-wife, daughter and aunt. The show never made it on air in the US after a last-minute cancellation, allegedly because NBC was not prepared for an openly gay character (played by Walter Wanderman). In 1986, his one-season late-night talk show Nightlife premiered in an attempt to compete with Carson. Although short-lived, it gave some comedians like Bobby Slayton their national television debuts. He also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The David Frost Show, The Mike Douglas Show, Late Night and Late Show with David Letterman, Real Time with Bill Maher and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, making him arguably one of the most-booked talk show comedians of all time.
Brenner released a comedy album titled Excuse Me, Are You Reading That Paper? in 1983 and put out four HBO specials. Always seeking a spin or a punch line, he got married on stage to Elizabeth Slater in his 2000 special David Brenner: Back With a Vengeance! (although they were divorced less than a year later). He also wrote five books, most recently I Think There’s a Terrorist in My Soup: How to Survive Personal and World Problems with Laughter- Seriously (2003). The comedy legend was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 2003.
Longtime friend and publicist Jeff Abraham said that Brenner’s final request was “that $100 in small bills be placed in his left sock ‘just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.’” His final gift of laughter to the world will be seen at his final resting spot, where it will read, “If this is supposed to be a joke — then I don’t get it!”
He is survived by his wife, Ruth; sons Slade, Wyatt, and Cole; and his grandson Wesley.
See David Brenner’s debut on The Tonight Show from 1971 below.