The most amazing thing about David Brenner's career is that he didn't labor for years in dimly lit basement comedy clubs before he made it to the big time.
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"I didn't even want to be a comedian," he related. "I was just biding my time trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life."
It wasn't easy being a comedian four decades ago. "At the time folk singing was big . . .the clubs featured singers. There would be maybe nine acts on the bill and one would be a comedian. They would say, 'go up and do five minutes.'"
Almost six years passed between the days of Robert Klein and David Steinberg in the late sixties and next wave of great comedians – Brenner among them.
Many of his contemporaries are now legendary: Steve Landesberg [later of "The Barney Miller Show"] was one. "No one was funnier. He used to crack me up all the time," Brenner said. There were Freddie Prinz, Jimmy Walker, Albert Brooks, and Steve Martin, to name a few.
"We were all different," Brenner said. "We all wrote our own stuff. We created our acts." He said once Jimmy Walker made it he "liked to hire writers." Two of them were Jay Leno and David Letterman.
Brenner grew up in a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia and was a gang member. He managed to get into Temple University, Bill Cosby's alma mater. "When I heard he quit I told him, 'You know people with college degrees make an average of $100,000 more during their lifetimes.'"
Brenner made it to "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson in a year, and ended up coming back 157 more times – a record.
"I was doing social commentary at the time – my background was in documentaries." But when his agent landed him an audition with "The Tonight Show" Brenner boned up. "I understood what they were looking for. I wrote an act that was perfect for the show. I did the audition and they called right back. 'Can you do the show tomorrow?'"
Carson, famously reserved, obviously liked Brenner – professionally.
"I didn't know him any better after 150 shows than I did after the first show. I knew he was bright, funny, and considerate but I didn't know the man. I did the job."
Brenner related that he always did his stand up act on Carson's show, as opposed to being brought right on to the panel, to sit next to Johnny and other guests.
"One night he asked me during a commercial if I ever wondered why? I said 'of course.' He told me he liked to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show for the five or six minutes I was on."
Brenner is coming off yet another career high. His HBO special, "David Brenner: Back with a Vengeance," performed live, was one of the highest-ranking shows of its kind.
One of the casualties of being on top for so long is the old videos and TV clips. There is Brenner, with his bell-bottoms on. Brenner, with his flowery shirts. And then there were the gold chains. "First me, and then Sammy Davis Jr. took it to another level, and then Mr. T went over the top. I think he injured himself." Brenner said he tried to wean himself from the look only to get letters from fans who wanted him to wear his chains again. He solved the problem, he said, "By only wearing turtlenecks for a year."
Brenner said that's the nature of the changing times. "We don't realize what we wear now will look silly in 20 years."
Brenner will be on stage live at The Bay Street Theatre Monday. He always sells out there, so be forewarned. Tickets can be reserved by calling 631-725-9500. Despite his affinity for Bay Street, Brenner said he has no intentions of moving to the Hamptons. "I like to live near poor people," he said with a laugh.