David Brenner: A native son to be proud of
Comedian David Brenner, who died of cancer Saturday afternoon in New York, was a splendid representative of his profession and of his hometown, Philadelphia.
One of the most influential comics of his generation, Brenner, who was 78, was funny until the very end. He made a final request of his family: that $100 in small bills be stuffed in his left sock "just in case tipping is recommended where I'm going."
The sum was always significant to him. Born in the midst of the Great Depression in South Philadelphia, Brenner felt the sting of his early indigence so sharply that, as an adult, he habitually carried a fold of 100-dollar bills to remind himself of where he had come from.
In his 1983 Philly-centric autobiography Soft Pretzels With Mustard (the first of five books he wrote), he created humor out of his experiences growing up as a Jewish kid in an Italian neighborhood.
But he also remembered the raw times: spending the night under the Boardwalk in Atlantic City and washing his clothes in the public washroom.
After graduating with honors in mass communications from Temple University, Brenner pursued a career as a documentary filmmaker before trying his hand at comedy.
He was close to quitting when, in January 1971, he landed the slot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson that changed his life.
Not only did he become one of Johnny's favorite guests - appearing 158 times - but he also filled in as Johnny's guest host more than 50 times.
Brenner's style shifted over the decades, from the keen observational mode of his greatest popularity to the sharper political opinions of his later career. His ability to change and evolve with the times explains the remarkable scope of his resumé.
He appeared on everything from The Ed Sullivan Show to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, from Mike Douglas to Howard Stern. He did four HBO specials - the second taped at Palumbo's in South Philly - and a Valentine's Day episode of Modern Family.
He would have been one of the most prolific performers of the modern era, but during his prime he was embroiled in a pair of protracted custody battles for sons Cole, Slade, and Wyatt that kept him on a short leash. He tried to keep the career impact in perspective. "I don't mean to sound noble," he said. "Besides, I come from the slums of Philadelphia, and everything in my life is profit. My downside is what most people would strive a lifetime to get to."
In recent years, he had devoted himself to his family and to helping aspiring comedians. As he told his longtime publicist Jeff Abraham: "Cream rises, but it does so on a sea of milk."
New Year's Eve was the last of four shows he put on at the Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia. Brenner's name was the draw, but he organized it to introduce his fans to some emerging stand-ups, ever mindful of what the Carson exposure had meant to him.
One of those comics is Rich Harkaway, by day a successful Philadelphia urologist, by night a struggling stand-up. "Very few people have taken an interest in me," Harkaway says. "David picked me out of hundreds of people who auditioned to tour with him. Then he sent me so many e-mails - how to perform, how to hold a microphone. He treated me like an equal. Everybody knows the 158 Tonight Show appearances, but few people know that behind that was a remarkably loving, caring man."
Jay Black, a comic from Marlton, was also on the bill. He couldn't believe it when he got back from vacationing with his family in Wildwood, and there was a message from Brenner on his answering machine.
"I told my wife, 'I think I just got a call from a legend,' " Black says. "I realize now how sick he must have been over New Year's, but from a comedian's point of view, he was still as sharp and funny as ever. It speaks to his personal strength and his professionalism. He never stopped working and finding the jokes."