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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 837

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This is the grave of David Brenner.

Born in 1936 in Philadelphia, Brenner grew up in the poor Jewish community of that city. His father was a vaudeville comedian and David grew up in his shadow but also internalizing all that show business material. His father actually had some potential to be a successful performer and had received a contract to work in the movies, but his own father, who was a devout rabbi, was outraged that he would have to perform on Friday night, so he gave it up. It’s pretty clear that Brenner’s father regretted this and was very supportive of talented son. We do know that Brenner idolized his parents and gave them a ton of money. In fact, they both died of heart attacks while sailing on the QEII, on different trips. In any case, Brenner largely grew up on the streets and was part of kid street gangs. He very quickly found he could help himself by making people laugh.

Brenner graduated from high school, spent his two years in the Army, and then went to Temple University. He graduated with a degree in mass communications and then got a job with Westinghouse Broadcasting and Metromedia Broadcasting, where he rose to write, produce, and direct documentaries. I guess a lot of them are about poverty, which is quite interesting, though I can’t seem to find much detail. He worked on a total of 115 documentaries, which is a lot! Anyway, he later admitted to growing pretty cynical that none of the films he made did anything to create change. So he decided to try and change the world by making fun of it.

Brenner got a pretty interesting start. The Mike Douglas Show was filming live in Philly. Some comedian was supposed to show up and didn’t. They had 10 minutes to kill. Douglas sang some song for 5 minutes. They gave Brenner the other 5 since people on the crew thought he was funny and they had to find something. He did well. So he started performing in comedy clubs and on local television shows. He started getting paid gigs in New York in 1969. This led big time talent to see him work. He was performing at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village when a talent scout for The Tonight Show saw him. This was his big break, well, sort of anyway. He was recommended for the show, but The Tonight’s Show top guy hated him. So Brenner took this as a challenge, started studying the show, and developed a more tame repertoire that would sell. His first appearance on the show in 1971.

It would most certainly not be the last. Johnny Carson loved Brenner. That first bit was huge. He said the next day, he had $10,000 worth of offers thrown at him. He made 158 appearances on The Tonight Show, the all-time record. In fact, he may hold the all-time record for talk show appearances as a guest, period. He was frequently on Letterman and later in life on everything from The Daily Show to Bill O’Reilly. He also guest hosted for Carson 75 times, placing him 5th on that list. He was supposed to have a sitcom of his own in 1975 that was a spoof of the Warren Beatty film Shampoo, but NBC pulled it at the last minute because there was an openly gay character on the show and that scared the network.

Brenner got his own syndicated half-hour late night show in 1986, but it only lasted a season. He had a couple of radio shows over the years too. He also was quite generous with other comedians. His last comedy tour was designed to promote four other young comedians. He was the headliner of course, but the whole point was to give these people Brenner liked a shot.

By the 1980s, Brenner largely left the road. That’s because he had nasty custody battles with both of the mothers of his children. When a judge told him he could not have custody if he was on the road more than 50 days a year, he basically stopped touring and just worked in Los Angeles and New York. This was the era when he was everywhere on television because he was always around. In fact, in 1991, his ex-wife disappeared with their son for a week and he went on Arsenio Hall and Joan Rivers to publicly appeal for his return. His ex-girlfriend had done so after refusing to submit to a court-mandated drug test, which ended up with Brenner winning custody.

After 9/11, Brenner quit a 48-week gig in Vegas to do a national tour, figuring the one thing he could do is make people laugh around the nation in the aftermath of the tragedy. He wrote a book in 2003 titled I Think There’s a Terrorist in My Soup: How to Survive Personal and World Problems With Laughter — Seriously. In fact, I think his politics got quite a bit more conservative later in his life, as he began to appear on Fox News as a political commenter. While I am not going to go down this rabbit hole too far, because I don’t want to depress myself, it seems he was no rabid conservative. But still, he was someone they were comfortable with. That’s too bad.

Brenner died in 2014 at the age of 78 of pancreatic cancer.

Let’s watch David Brenner work.

Some good James Watt jokes in the middle of that one!

David Brenner is buried in Mount Sharon Cemetery, Springfield, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Thanks!!! If you would like this series to visit other guest hosts on The Tonight Show, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. McLean Stevenson, who did the job almost as often as Brenner, is in Los Angeles and Sammy Davis, Jr., who became the first Black man to host a late night show when he subbed for Carson, is in Glendale, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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