When it came to comedy, Johnny Carson had his favorites on The Tonight Show. Buddy Hackett was always good for a dirty joke or two. Don Rickles kept him on his toes with his sarcastic put-downs. And he would just let Rodney Dangerfield go until the man ran out of jokes. But those guys were from his generation. As far as juniors went, the young up-and-comers, it was a small few. Jay Leno and David Letterman spent most of their careers fighting for the title of Johnny’s favorite son. (Even after Carson’s retirement and death, they still went at it.) Despite his weird beginnings, Steve Martin grew on Carson to the point where they famously became poker buddies. And Joan Rivers—well, let’s not get into that.
But David Brenner was Johnny’s main man.
There’s nary a comedian nor entertainer more synonymous with Carson’s 30-year Tonight Show reign than Brenner—throughout those years, the wide-grinned comic appeared on the show over 150 times. He made his first appearance in January of 1971, back when the King was still holding court in the Big Apple. The Philadelphia-born, former TV documentarian did eight minutes, mostly about how much of a bitch it is asking for directions. Although the lanky Temple graduate was serving up punchlines with the precision of an old-school, vaudeville comedian—which he must’ve picked up from his old man, former vaudeville performer Lou Murphy—Brenner’s style was more observational. He was perhaps the first comic to ever publically utter the stand-up mainstay, “Didja ever notice ... ?”
From then on, Brenner became the King’s most consistent jester, usually regaling Carson and the audience with more observational nuggets. When I was growing up and watching Tonight, it seemed like making Carson laugh on a regular basis was Brenner’s sole mission in life. It appeared as though Brenner was always at the ready whenever Carson’s people beckoned, showing up decked out in a sportcoat and sweater vest, ready to work the room either sitting up or standing down. He even got the chance on occasion to hold down the fort, guest-hosting when ol’ Johnny was away.
Sure, Brenner did other things in his career. As a professional, touring comedian, he often went out and made other, less famous people laugh, usually in Las Vegas. People always think Billy Crystal was the first to come out of the TV closet in 1977 when he played a gay character on Soap. But Brenner beat him by a year when his sitcom Snip included a gay, supporting character. Unfortunately, NBC got cold feet and cancelled the show before it aired.
This experience must’ve soured Brenner from doing anything else other than stand-up. According to his IMDb page, his leading turn in Snip was one of two acting credits. (The other was an auctioneer he played in the 1989 Mark Harmon vehicle Worth Winning.) He briefly had his own talk show in the ‘80s, titled Nightlife, of which his mentor Carson apparently did not approve. (According to the 2002 book Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show, Brenner was “angrily and summarily fired” from the Tonight Show bullpen when he informed Carson’s people of his late-night endeavor.) He did write several books, including his 1983 debut Soft Pretzels with Mustard and the post-9/11 collection I Think There’s a Terrorist in My Soup, which signified the more topical direction he was going in his comedy during his later years.
While he was never as edgy or subversive as some of his peers, Brenner was a familiar comedic voice. He was reliable and relatable, therefore, like many comics who’ve been doing stand-up for so long, people got used to him. It certainly seemed that way when news of his death from cancer at age 78 surfaced on Saturday. Many people—lots of whom work in comedy—were surprised and saddened by the news.
But even though he’s no longer with us, there is, of course, the strong possibility he’s making Johnny laugh again.
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