Climbing the Mountain

Back in 1991, David Brenner was king of the comedy mountain.

The comic had appeared well over 100 times on the “Tonight Show,” which he often guest-hosted in the 1970’s and ’80’s. He enjoyed lucrative Las Vegas appearances and was a perennial guest on TV shows like “Letterman.”

Then came the contentious court battle that knocked him, for a time, off the mountain. Brenner virtually disappeared for over four years as he struggled to win custody of his oldest son, Cole, now 17. It nearly cost him his career.

The comic had to drastically cut back his performance schedule or risk losing custody of Cole. His income declined by 80 percent as he paid $600,000 in legal fees. Brenner lost his Manhattan brownstone and his limousine. By the time he had won the custody battle, the clubs weren’t calling anymore.

Since 1995, Brenner has been immersed in another fierce battle — to rejuvenate his career. He took over a nationally-syndicated radio show, wrote a screenplay and worked the clubs. During a recent telephone interview, it was clear that all the work has paid off: Brenner is back with a vengeance.

He’s sold the screenplay, a wicked comedy called “Willpower;” he’s signed a multi-performance deal with the Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas; and his new HBO special, “David Brenner: Live and Dangerous,” will be broadcast live from the Venetian on Feb. 19. Brenner is also appearing at smaller clubs such as the L.A. Cabaret Comedy Club in Encino, where he will perform Nov. 5 and 6. “Those shows will have more of a neighborhood feel,” the Encino resident says, “because I’m a Jew who lives in the neighborhood.”

But don’t expect to see the old David Brenner, the master of the “hair-on-the-soap” brand of observational comedy. “That whole observational thing was just, ‘blah, blah, blah,'” he says. “Now I’m more into observations about things that concern me, like politics, crime, the economy.”

His comeback has taken some thought. When Brenner, 54, performed on “Letterman” in February, applause interrupted his act a record 16 times. But not a single job offer came his way the next day. “People just thought, ‘Brenner is always hysterical,’ and went off to lunch,” he says. So the comic thought up a novel way to draw attention with his HBO special.

Instead of performing a scripted stand-up routine, he’ll improvise a significant portion of his act, riffing off of news items he’s read that day in USA Today. “I’ll run with the material, even if it’s not tested,” he says. “I do that in small clubs, and I’ll do it live in front of millions of people on HBO. I know I have to make the wire higher and thinner than ever before. And I have the guts to do it.”

During a recent performance, Brenner quipped, “It was decided that Miss America can have had several marriages and several abortions, and that’s a good thing. Now Miss New Jersey can win.” When Dan Quayle “pulled his hat” out of the presidential race, Brenner joked, “he was most disappointed that the little propeller on top was broken.”

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.

Today, Brenner lives with his longtime companion, Elizabeth, a painter, and their two sons, Slade, 4, and Wyatt, 18 months. She takes the kids to synagogue while Brenner frequently performs for Jewish groups, including a recent fund-raiser for an Orthodox school. During an appearance at a Jewish event in Reno, Nevada, he quipped, “Jews in Reno? How did this happen? What, did your plane crash here?”

These days, Brenner’s comedy is more reminiscent of his socially-conscious documentaries than his “hair-on-the-soap” jokes. “I’ve come full circle,” says the comedian, who also takes pride in his highly-improvisational approach. “Anyone can study a script and perform,” he says. “But I write the material, ‘right now,’ live. Everyone in the audience will have a seat inside my comic brain.”

David Brenner will perform Nov. 5 and 6, 8 p.m. at the L.A. Cabaret Comedy Club, 17271 Ventura Blvd. Tickets are $10 plus two-drink minimum. For tickets, call (818) 501-3737.