March of 1979 was when I became a comedian. More speciﬁcally, it was when I told my father I was going to be a comedian. That was the hard part.
Having a son become a comedian was not what my father had in mind. His hope was that I'd follow him into his very successful wholesale health foods business. I had spent a bunch of summers working there while in college, the same summers I ﬁrst tried out at the comedy clubs in Manhattan. I knew where my heart was pointing, but it took a while to act upon it.
Then one morning that spring, I summoned the courage, and my father and I had a sit-down. Then we had a walk, followed by more sitting. We talked, we argued, we got emotional, we joked -- but I held my ground.
Finally, when it became clear he was not going to win this one, he sighed, and with utter sincerity, and nothing but love and fatherly concern, said, "Ahhhh... if only I knew you'd be successful at it."
Reaching for a note of levity, I said, "What do you need -- you want a note from David Brenner telling you I'm gonna make it? Would that make you feel better?" I was kidding, but not really.
My father, kidding but not really, said, "Yeah, it would."
That's what he was looking for. Some assurance, some morsel of hope that would allow him to believe his son wasn't about to embark on some tragically fruitless folly, destined for certain failure, ridicule and poverty.
Looking back on it now, my choice of David Brenner was quite clever. The safer bet would've been, say, Bob Hope, or Alan King -- someone more of my father's generation. But Brenner was an inspired call, I have to admit. He was the quintessential successful comic of the time, but also young enough and hip enough to serve as a viable role model for me. But even more than that, he had an undeniably impressive work ethic. David Brenner was on TV every day. And if it wasn't actually every day, it sure seemed like it.
No kidding, from around 1972-1979, Dave Brenner was in our living room with remarkable regularity, a saturation level I've never seen equaled since. He was a guest on the Tonight Show, he hosted the Tonight Show, he was on Merv Grifﬁn, he was on Mike Douglas (for weeks at a time), he was on game shows... and, it seemed to me, always with new material. That can not be overlooked. That kind of proliﬁc consistency takes a lot of hard work and dedication -- something I sensed would hit home with my dad.
But the thing about Brenner was: He made the hard work look so easy. And that was, I believe, the key to his success, and a testament to his formidable craft. Everything he said in casual conversation sounded like a ﬁnely-honed piece of written material. And every piece of written material had the magic of sounding like casual conversation. He had so much material, and it all went down so easy.
David had a unique stage presence, too. I remember the energy with which he bounded out -- a gangly, loping gait, a constant smile, and a laugh that ran as an undercurrent to his own words, as if this were all still really funny to him, an indication of his conﬁdence that it would, therefore, also be funny to us. And it was.
There was something else, too. Because he sort of stumbled -- to his own surprise -- into great, seemingly overnight success, there was about him a conspicuous awareness of his privileged role as an entertainer, as if somehow he couldn't believe he really got to do this for a living -- come out and tell everyone all the funny stuff he thought of. And that enthusiasm came through. His joy was infectious.
I realize now that that excitement was a strong part of his appeal to me-- the conscious appreciation of ﬁnally being a comedian after having struggled through not been a comedian. As a young comic-wannabe struggling to get out of my conventional day job, I was inspired by Brenner's stories about having left his job as a (successful) documentary ﬁlm maker. He seemed still aglow with the thrill of having broken free. Because that was what I wanted, too. I just needed a little help getting there.
Before I made my clean break for comedy, when I was still in college, still grasping only a blurry fantasy of someday becoming an actual comedian, I got to meet David Brenner. Well, "meet" might be too strong a word. It was in an airport. Denver, Chicago... I can't recall exactly. We were each on our way from some place, waiting for a plane to take us to some other place.
The key difference, though, was that I was on my way home from a cousin's wedding or something, whereas he was ﬂying somewhere to tell jokes. To make (I imagined) a lot of dough telling jokes to people who came just to hear him tell those jokes. And then he'd go somewhere else the next day to do the same thing again. And I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world.
Staring at him longer than I should have, and lacking the self-control to leave him alone, I went over to him and said, "You're David Brenner, aren't you." (It was less a question and more of me showing-off how astute I was.) He didn't seem particularly thrilled to be thrust into conversation, but he smiled graciously and acknowledged I had him pegged correctly. "Well, I'm a big fan," I said, followed dopily by, "I'm a comedian, too," a very generous deﬁnition of the term. He smiled and said, " Oh, well... Good luck. I hope you like airports."
I smiled and as I walked away I thought about it. Not having traveled too much at that point in my life, I didn't particularly have feelings about airports one way or another. But now that he mentioned it, I kind of liked them. Because having seen David Brenner sit in an airport, luggage at his feet, waiting to go from Town A to Town B, I began to see in real, tangible terms, what it meant to be a comedian. And if it involved sitting for hours in airports, sign me up. It all seemed pretty grand to me. I wanted to be like David Brenner.
I'll tell you something else, just between you and me: that image of David in an airport is something I think of to this day. It's my "go to" Airport Nightmare Picker Upper. Even if I'm traveling on non-performing business, anytime I'm stuck, delayed for hours in some dismal, crowded terminal, I think of Brenner and his bags at that airport and I pretend that, like he was, I'm on my way to some cool gig somewhere. And that when I land, we'll be a little late but not too late, and I'll hop into a car and rush to the theater, and the crowd will be primed, and I'll hit the stage and Comedy Magic will ensue. Guess what? It works. Time goes a lot faster when you imagine its all for some higher calling. I know it sounds silly but David Brenner made sitting in an airport seem somehow noble and elegant.
There was an elegance about him -- but always with a deprecating sense of awareness. I remember one night at Catch A Rising Star, waiting my turn to (hopefully) get tapped to go up and perform, when a murmur of excitement buzzed through the bar area. David Brenner was coming in to try some new material. Bad news: everyone gets bumped. Good news: We get to watch David Brenner work live and up-close.
Now, its possible I'm confusing this next part with some movie I saw, but I'm pretty sure what happened next was David pulled up in a sparkling new stunning, cream-colored Rolls-Royce, stepped out with an equally stunning woman on his arm, both wearing matching, zillion-dollar fur coats. They came in, and David went immediately up on stage -- in the coat. It was a surreal, almost comical piece of show-boating. His ﬁrst words to the crowd were, "You see this coat? Jokes paid for this." Big laugh. Then he took off the coat and worked the room like a consummate pro.
I've always felt that in the history of comedy, David Brenner has been a bit under-appreciated. And I think he felt that, too. A mutual acquaintance of ours once passed along to me words of appreciation from David for having mentioned him as a big inﬂuence of mine. He shared that for whatever reasons, he rarely got mentioned. Comics most commonly point to George Carlin, or Richard Pryor or Robert Klein -- but David much less so.
I'm not sure why that is. It could be the clothes. Look at any image of David in his prime -- mid to late 70's -- and chances are more than likely your ﬁrst thought will be, "Man, look at that shirt! That is one crazy-ass collar!"
No question about it -- Brenner took some ballsy fashion chances. And while, yes, those crazy leisure suits and pants with bell-bottoms bigger than my ﬁrst apartment went out of style, like, three weeks later, I am here to remind you that on the day he walked out on stage in them, he was pretty damn cool.
Or maybe he was under-appreciated exactly because he made it all seem so easy. David Brenner was a naturally funny guy who, in turn, reminded everyone of the Funny Guy In Your Ofﬁce or your Really Funny Cousin. As is the case with many great artists, David's craft and artistry was not readily visible to the naked eye.
I remember another night at "Catch" when David dropped in to work out some material. As an eager student of comedy, I took the opportunity to sit in the back and watch and learn. I even sat with a pad of paper and pencil and took notes. I wanted to see how the "pros" did it.
He came on stage, launched into some observation, and said, "Now there are two things I really hate." I made a note of the construction. There were two things coming. He went into the ﬁrst thing, and I got so caught up in the comedy of it, it wasn't till I got home and looked at my notes that I realized, "Hey... there was no second thing! He tricked us!" It wasn't trickery. It was skillful story telling. He got us hooked and then took us wherever the hell he wanted to. (That was also, I am happy to report, the last time I ever tried to take notes in a comedy club.)
Aside from that one encounter in the airport, I only met David one time. It was about ﬁve or six years ago, when I was no longer a teenage comedy puppy, but somehow had still never gotten to say hello to him face to face. He was playing one night at a tiny theater in LA, once again "working on some new stuff." I called another comedy buddy of mine, and we went down and bought tickets to see this guy who had been such a big part of our comedy lives.
He came out, and was, no surprise, great. He was just as sharp and funny as he had been when we ﬁrst became fans, decades earlier. A lot of the stuff was great, and some of it was clearly "in the works." But it was great to see all of it. (My favorite detail of the night: he came out with a little hand-held cassette recorder, exactly like the ones we all used when we started. Not even a newer mini-cassette. A regular, old cassette recorder, which he put atop a stool next to him, to record his set. Never mind that the theater was fully equipped with state-of-the art digital recording system. He came out and worked old school. "I don't trust the new stuff," was how he explained it.)
After the show, I went backstage and ﬁnally got to say hello, and now -- being a bit more savvy than I was in that fateful airport 30-something years earlier -- I tried to keep my gushing in check, lest I embarrass (or frighten) him with my adoration.
I did, however, feel I needed to tell him the story about my father. That the only currency my father was willing to accept as proof-positive that his son would ultimately make it in show business was "a note from David Brenner."
Fortunately, David laughed, appreciated the place of honor he held in our home, and said, "Well, tell your father he can stop worrying."
My father was long gone by this point, but I felt grateful nonetheless to have procured for him the thumbs-up he felt he needed years ago.
As it turned out, while my original goal was simply "to be a comedian -- like David Brenner," I got sidetracked. I was fortunate enough to get work in ﬁlms and TV and in the process, put stand-up, unintentionally, on the back burner for a time. It turned out to be 20 years -- a number that still makes me shake my head.
In fact, it was only about two years ago that I ﬁnally got back to it, and was surprised to ﬁnd just how much I had missed it. It felt like a really sweet home-coming. And I've found I'm enjoying it even more than I did the ﬁrst go-round. I don't want to analyze why that is -- I am just aware that I'm loving it, and just as enamored with the minutia of comedy as I was when I started, as an 18-year-old fan of all those that did it before me. Getting back felt as good as I remembered, and then some.
Last week, I was back East, performing at a beautiful casino theater, and as I was getting ready for the show, going through my litany of made-up pre-show rituals ( "Shower? Check. Set list? Check. Opening jokes about gambling? Check...") I got an email from a friend telling me that David Brenner had died.
I have to admit, I was surprised by the depth of the sadness that rushed over me. Something about the news just rocketed me back to square one. It sent me back to when I was still a kid, hoping to some day be a comedian, to some day work beautiful theaters, some day be like David Brenner... all things that had gloriously come to pass. But the guy who was such a big part of that design, who helped make it so appealing and so accessible and so within reach -- was gone. His time was up.
It was now less than an hour till showtime, and I was feeling considerably less than funny. I worried about how I was going to pull it together. Maybe I should open the show by mentioning David's passing. No, that would just be the wrong way to start a comedy show. Maybe I should mention it at the end of the show. Nah, that would just make people go home sad.
I decided I would keep it to myself. I would "dedicate" the night's show to David -- whatever that means. Nobody would know it but me, but that was enough. It made me think of David, of what he meant to me, of how I admired his work, his professionalism, his ease, and his sense of joy. Just as I had years earlier, I thought, "I know. I'll do what David Brenner does." And in this case it meant, put on your best smile, go out there, and entertain the people who came to see you with everything you have."
Here's what happened: It was one of the best shows I can remember ever having. The "A" material killed. And the "B" and "C" stuff worked like "A" material. It was one of those shows where -- and this may be something only other comics understand -- I felt my bones grow. I took chances, I pushed harder. I paused longer. I experimented -- pulling material from here and putting it there. And it all worked. When I walked off stage at the end of the night, I was a better performer than when I walked on stage earlier. Maybe in ways that only I would notice -- but it was magical nonetheless.
Now, is that coincidence? Maybe. But I prefer to be grateful and give credit where credit is due.
Rest in peace David.
And thank you for everything.