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.
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.”