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David Brenner: Laughing All the Way to the Casino
One of West Philadelphia High’s most famous delinquents will be back in the area this week.
David Brenner, former teenage gang member, Emmy-winning documentarian (for his 1969 special, Paging Dr. Amato) and holder of the record for most appearances on The Tonight Show at 158, will be bringing a new comedy revue to Valley Forge Casino beginning Dec. 27.
In a nod to the invaluable assist Johnny Carson used to give to budding comedians — in the days before cable television, landing a stand-up spot on The Tonight Show was tantamount to being given the keys to the comedy kingdom — Brenner went through the routines of thousands of comedians to winnow out four — Jay Black, LaTice Mitchell, Vicky Kuperman and Rich Harkaway — to perform with him.
The 77-year-old Brenner spoke by phone from his Las Vegas home in an interview conducted in advance of his shows here.
Did you really get kicked out of school over 200 times?
Back then, you got expelled for two things: fighting and joking around. So you grow up thinking that making people laugh gets you into trouble. Go figure that I made a whole career out of making people laugh!
With that kind of disciplinary record, how did you deal with your sons (he has three sons — ages 15, 18, 31) when they got in trouble at school?
I tell them that they’ll never beat me — I have the record. School bored the hell out of me. The system at that time was, you didn’t advance in teaching until the dumbest kid in the class got it. So we would take these kids and threaten ’em. “You need to get The Louisiana Purchase down by tomorrow, or we’re gonna beat the hell out of you!”
Did you always want to be a comedian?
I didn’t know. I was always lost. Then I got a writing job in Philly — writing eight documentaries. The documentaries stretched from 8 to 11, they won some awards, and I wound up directing 115 documentaries. When I left that career, I had to think about what I really wanted to be. I never thought I was going to make comedy a career. I just wanted to make one TV show so I could show it to people, to prove to them that I was a comedian once.
That’s a pretty big leap from just wanting to appear on TV once to landing a career-making gig on The Tonight Show. How did that happen?
I had a young agent who brought The Tonight Show’s top talent coordinator in to one of my gigs at The Bitter End in New York. It was a hip, liberal cutting-edge place for comedians and magicians. And this guy was straitlaced out of the Midwest. The Tonight Show was very safe with its topics then — Johnny never got political. So this coordinator insulted me and my material after the set, telling me I would never make it onto the show. I decided right then that I was going to do comedy until I got on The Tonight Show. True story!
How much time elapsed between this confrontation and your first appearance on the show?
It was a few months. I used to go over to where they held The Tonight Show auditions on Wednesdays in New York. I would wear my one suit and tie and act like I was the manager of one of the performers. They had great finger sandwiches, so I knew where I would eat dinner every Wednesday. I would watch all of the auditions and see what made the talent coordinator and the show’s producer laugh. So then I wrote a monologue in keeping with what they were searching for. If it wasn’t for an insult and my West Philly anger level, I would have just done any TV show and then figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
And now you have become a talent scout/producer yourself with your new show. How did that happen?
I was talking with a comedian friend of mine about how there were maybe 20 of us in 1971, and pretty much every one of us made it. Now, it’s estimated that there are somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 working comedians out there. I said to my friend, ‘These guys can’t make it — there’s just too many of them.’ My friend said, ‘Yeah, but the cream always rises to the top.’ I said, ‘Sure, but how do you find it in an ocean of milk?’ I thought about that, and I decided to try to find a few comedians who, if they were around when I began in the 1970s, would have become stars. I looked at a little over 2,000 comedians on the Internet to find these four.
It’s not too hard to do. There are sites on the Internet, and sometimes I would just watch the first two jokes a comedian told. I don't need to eat the whole egg to know it’s rotten.
My research was very discouraging. Most comedians are not funny. What bothers me most is that most of them are one-trick ponies. If someone is Mexican, he does 20 or 30 minutes about being Mexican. Or if someone is fat, their whole act is about being fat.
Will you be doing observational comedy or current events?
I will actually be talking about what it was like to be a comedian when I was first starting out. When all of the comedians started doing the observational comedy I had been doing since I was a little boy and I got bored doing it, I switched to doing what I think is the toughest thing to do, which is commenting on current events. I had that market sewed up for about five years before a few comedians like Jon Stewart and Lewis Black came on the scene — all of a sudden, there were all these comedians doing current events and the news. Once again, I became an also-ran rather than being seen as the founder of it. Luckily, I’ve outlived my own career. That’s why, if this is successful out at Valley Forge, I’m going to take this on the road. I’m trying to get away from traveling to Minneapolis for three dates or doing corporate shows. I’m too tired for all of that.
You were one of the most popular comedians in the country throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s and then your career seemed to lose momentum. How would you describe what happened?
I got sidelined a few times. I spent five years in the 1980s and ’90s fighting for custody of my son, Slade, and then I spent three years in the 2000s fighting for the custody of my other two sons, Wyatt and Cole. The courts say you can’t be away from home more than 50 nights a year or you’re an absentee father, so I had to give up on a lot, including The Tonight Show.
When I finally won custody, which was a miracle, I had become one of the forgotten men of comedy. I had been out of the scene for so many years. I wouldn’t change it — how can you not fight for a child? — but I wish it never happened. I would have been a bigger star for longer, that’s for sure.
How has your Jewish upbringing impacted your comedy?
I think it’s a hereditary thing for all Jewish people: The people who have suffered the most are the ones who are the funniest. It’s the escape hatch. If you can’t look at certain things and see the humor in them, then it becomes a knife or a gun. People joked in the Holocaust. Most Jewish people are very funny. Now, you have a lot of black comedians. Well, that’s because they were pushed around. We’re the funniest because we have a 5,000-year head start on everyone.
Is there anything you look forward to doing when you come back to the area?
When I come in with my boys to show them the old neighborhood, I take a bite of their hoagies. They love Philadelphia. They tell me, ‘You should move back here, Dad, everyone loves you, everyone says hello to you.’ I say, ‘Yeah, it’s true, but I also owe a lot of people a lot of money. I think I’ll stay away.’ ”
David Brenner Introduces Comedy Stars of Tomorrow
Dec. 27, 28, 29, 31 at 8 p.m.
Valley Forge Casino
1160 First Ave., King of Prussia