When Johnny Carson introduced David Brenner to the world in 1971, he warned that the young comic was “somewhat warped.”
For most comedians, the operative word would have been “warped.” David Brenner, though, was all about the “somewhat.”
By looking slightly askew at the world, Brenner deftly generated out-sized laughs from the ordinary – becoming a “Tonight Show” staple for two decades and influencing a generation of comics, most notably Jerry Seinfeld. Brenner, who died
Saturday at age 78, leaves the stand-up stage as a master of observational humor.
Sure, his act, while smart, didn’t carry the intellectual heft of a Mort Sahl. And while his punchlines could be pointed when appropriate, his humor arrived devoid of the anger that fueled the likes of George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
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But Brenner’s affable relatability proved his strength, letting audience members feel like they were in on the joke as he mined everyday absurdities for material. In that first “Tonight Show” appearance, he won over the crowd with eight minutes about asking for directions, with his comic curiosity driving the routine.
“Whose the guy who makes maps?” Brenner asked the audience in Carson’s New York studio, as if he were talking just to them and not to the millions watching at home. “Why does every map have to be 20 feet by 38 feet? Everyone’s gotta get out of the car when you open them.”
The bit, which included what would become many comedians' go-to phrase – “Did you ever notice…” – offered a roadmap for future great and not-so-great stand-ups. It’s a routine that could have rolled out of the mouth of Seinfeld, whose “Tonight Show” debut in 1981 included a gag about the folly of “Left Turn O.K.” traffic signs.
Brenner never quite reached the success of Seinfeld or fellow Philadelphian Bill Cosby, whose deeper experience-driven, storytelling-style humor he came closest to capturing in his at-times achingly funny 1983 memoir, “Soft Pretzels and Mustard.”
While Brenner appeared on or guest hosted “The Tonight Show” 150 times, he wasn’t even in the running for the job when Carson stepped down in 1992 (though Brenner believed the post would have been his had Carson quit a decade earlier). Personal issues during Brenner’s later career limited his stand-up appearances.
But at his best, David Brenner took his many fans on somewhat warped journeys into the silliness of the commonplace – and got us lost in laughter.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.