Remembering comedian David Brenner

David Brenner, whose wry observational comedy made him a star in the 1970s, and who appeared more than 150 times on “The Tonight Show,” died on Saturday, after a struggle with cancer, at his home in New York.  He was 78.

Throughout his comedy career, which he embarked upon after making myriad documentaries in the 1960s, the tall, toothy Brenner also hosted a syndicated talk show in 1987 and starred in four HBO specials.  One of them, his 2000 HBO solo show “David Brenner: Back with a Vengeance,” will air on March 20, 9 p.m. on the HBO Comedy channel. 

I interviewed Brenner back in late 1999, as he was switching to political comedy while trying to rejuvenate his career after he significantly cut back on his performance schedule so as not to lose custody of his then-young son, Cole.  He told me at the time that his income had declined by 80 percent, that he had lost his Manhattan brownstone and that by the time he had won his custody battle, the clubs weren’t calling anymore.

Nevertheless, Brenner managed to return to stand-up with a vengeance, working steadily even through last year.  One of his last appearances, according to USA Today, was a four-day engagement in December including a New Year’s Eve show at a Pennsylvania casino-resort. 

Here’s an excerpt from my 1999 story on Brenner, in which he talks about his Jewish background and how his dad’s humor eventually fueled his own comedy:

If improvising an act before millions takes guts, it's something Brenner learned in spades while growing up in tough, poor sections of south and west Philadelphia. “I was in hundreds of street fights,” recalls Brenner, a Jewish-gang leader who always tried to deflect anti-Semitic violence with jokes. “We were tough Jews.”

Brenner's grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi whose sons accompanied him to shul wielding bricks and bottles to fight the bigots. “Three of my uncles became rabbis and three became gangsters,” Brenner says. “And my father was not a rabbi.”

Lou Brenner was a bookie with steel-gray eyes who drank whiskey and smoked cigars. He was also the funniest person on earth, Brenner says. As a young man, Lou was a vaudeville comedian who came home one day with a Hollywood movie contract in his pocket. Lou's father, the rabbi, nixed the deal. “He said, 'You can't work on Shabbat,'” Brenner says. “So my dad quit.

“But I remember going down to the pool hall with my father, the people gathering around him, screaming and laughing at his jokes. It was fall-down laughing… And on the way to the pool hall he would take me to shul. He went every morning to daven. He wore tsissis and carried a Bible.”

Lou was a man who cared about people, and David, as a young man, wanted to change the world. While still in his 20s, he made 115 documentaries on socially conscious issues such as overspending by the Pentagon and poverty. He won an Emmy Award and headed the distinguished documentary departments of both Westinghouse and Metromedia Broadcasting. “I naively thought I could change things,” he says. “And then I realized people didn't want to change.”

So Brenner, who had inherited his father's penchant for comedy, tried his hand at stand-up in 1969. Two years later, he made his stunning debut on the “Tonight Show.” Within 24 hours of his appearance, he had received $10,000 worth of job offers. His career was well on its way.