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David Brenner at Zanies: "This is What Comedy Was Meant to Do"

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When groundbreaking comedian David Brenner takes each of Zanies' stages this weekend (November 20 in Chicago, November 21 in St. Charles, and November 22 in Vernon Hills), he will have the daunting challenge of trying to find the funny in depressing times.

As a topical comedian, Brenner is not wanting for material that he painstakingly mines from newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and the 24-hour cable news channels. But when we spoke by phone, Brenner was still debating on how best to approach the news at a time when most of it is so dire and devastating. "Maybe, just maybe, it's time to lay off for awhile," he pondered. "Jobs, unemployment, foreclosures, people losing their savings. Is there anything we can talk about that isn't ripping into people's hearts and guts?

"The job is to make things funny, but things are so bad in so many different areas. You pick up the paper and you see that the Sands Hotel is laying off 11,000 workers. You can buy GM for $5 a share. Ford is spinning in his grave. The anti-Semitic bastard should anyway."

Entertaining audiences in tough times is nothing new for Brenner. He actually performed the night of Sept. 11, 2001, and immediately embarked on a tour he called, "Laughter for the People." "I just knew that what was needed," he said. "This is what comedy was meant to do."

Brenner, sixty-something, is the quintessential old school/road warrior comedian. Richard Nixon was president when he made his 1971 television debut (on "The Tonight Show," no less--he would go on to appear a still unprecedented 158 times). Never mind trying to recall the first time he appeared at Zanies, which is itself celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Brenner can remember playing Chicago's once premier nightclub, Mister Kelly's, which closed in 1975.

Name a comedy personage, and Brenner likely has a story about him. He has not read Steve Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up, but in it, Martin does credit Brenner with advising him how to make the transition from opening act to headliner. "He didn't tell the whole story," Brenner said. "It was in Chicago, by the way (where both were appearing in separate venues). We were friends, and we were having lunch at an outdoor café. Now, you have to picture this. Steve Martin, at this time, had real long hair. He had a total face beard. He looked like one of the Smith Brothers from the cough drops. He had on work boots. I told him, 'You've got to counterpoint your zaniness. When you walk out onstage, you look like a guy who would have a fake arrow sticking through your head. Cut your hair, shave (your beard), and put on a suit and tie. Then, when you walk out on stage and put the arrow through your head, it's funny.' I got a call from him a few weeks later. He said, 'I'm doing what you said with one change: I'm wearing an all-white suit."

George Carlin? Brenner met him when both appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." "I was such a fan," Brenner said. "I said to my manager, 'Don't let me leave me here without meeting George Carlin.'" After rehearsing his routine, Brenner sat out front to watch the other acts. "A stage hand comes along and he sits next to me," Brenner said. "He's got a beard, he's wearing a cap and he's got on old jeans. I made a couple of comments and he laughed, and he made some comments and I laughed. We sat there about a half hour watching the show. And then he got up and said, 'Nice meeting you,' and he walked away. I went backstage and I said to my manager, 'Look, they're taking a dinner break. You gotta get me to George Carlin. Don't screw this up.' He said, 'You were just talking to him for a half hour.' I said, 'What are you talking about? That was a stagehand.' He said, 'That's Carlin. That's his new image. The Hippy Dippy Weatherman (one of Carlin's early career signature characters) is done.'"

And, of course, Rodney, who gets nothing but respect from the comedians whom he took under his wing and gave career boosts. Brenner credits Dangerfield with getting him on The Mike Douglas Show, and offering sage advice. "He came up to me one night and said, 'You know, your stuff is very hip.' And by the way, he was one of the hippest. He asked, 'What percentage of Americans do you think are hip?' I said, 'I don't know, maybe 10 percent.' He said, "I'll tell you what. You take the 10 percent and I'll take the 90.' And I went home and de-hipped my act."

These days, Brenner riffs on current events from index cards that contain premises or clips from articles that might provide him with comic fodder. His unflinching world view was informed, he said, by his stint as an Emmy-winning documentarian in the 1960s for WBBM-TV Channel 2.

Brenner is a Philadelphia native (congratulated on the Phillies' World Series victory, he graciously offered condolences for "the poor, poor Cubs"), Brenner's voice is informed by a tough street corner sensibility. Not one to mince words, he says, he has no qualms about confronting other comedians who have lifted his material, among them, Robin Williams. "You're damn right I called him on it," Brenner said.

Joke thievery is nothing new, but it violates Brenner's tireless work ethic, not to mention the spirit of camaraderie amongst fellow comedians. He fondly recalls when he and other comedians, such as peers and best friends Steve Landesberg and Richard Lewis, would meet after their respective gigs in restaurants and talk until dawn. "Each of us had his own style," Brenner said. "Nobody would ever, ever, think of stealing a joke, ever. We used to write jokes for each other. One day, I just said to myself, 'I can create faster than anyone can steal,' and that was the end of my angst over it."

For Brenner, it's always been about the stand-up. He did film a pilot episode for "Snip," a sitcom set in a salon that was to have aired on NBC in 1976. But, two years before "Soap" and its breakthrough gay character, the network, Brenner said, had reservations about a gay character on the show. Even if the show had been a hit, Brenner said, he suspected he would have soon soured on television. "I'm not used to going to a place at nine in the morning, staying all day and rehearsing," he laughed. "I might as well go back to the neighborhood and work for Cooper's Supermarket."

Nor did he imagine he would get along with "the suits" or suffer network interference. He imagined walking into an executive's office and demanding they rearrange the furniture. "He'd say to me, 'You're a comedian. What the hell are you doing telling me how to run an office?" And I'd say, 'You run an office. What the hell are you doing trying to tell me about comedy?'"

Brenner is not one to rest on his considerable laurels. His most recent book, his fifth, is I Think There's a Terrorist in My Soup. He is developing funnydeli.com, a labor of love comedy website that will be geared toward baby boomers.

But he still answers the call of the road. "I'm King Arthur," he said, "too old to fight, but I won't give it up."

From Chicago, he will head for Cleveland. Then it's Christmas in San Francisco and New Year's Eve in Sacramento. In an increasingly polarized country, Brenner doesn't think in terms of blue state/red state. "I'm the epitome of a liberal," he said. "I want to make conservatives laugh as much as I wanna make the liberals laugh, because to me, it's all people."

Which is why, ultimately, Brenner takes his cue from Morey Amsterdam and from the generation that built the Old School. "It was very early in my career," Brenner said. "He came backstage (where I was performing), and I asked what he was doing there. He said to me, 'I just came in and delivered 12 pounds of jokes and I'm leaving in the morning.' So (this weekend) I think that I'll just deliver 100 pounds of jokes."