Comedian David Brenner, who vaulted to fame through his appearances on the "Tonight Show" in the 1970s, died at home in New York on Saturday. The cause was cancer, said his former publicist, Jeff Abraham, who issued a statement on behalf of Brenner's family. He was 78.
Brenner was working as recently as December, with club dates in Toronto and other spots, Abraham said.
The comedian was a favorite of "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson at a time when appearances on the late-night program could ensure success for a comic. Brenner has said in interviews that he was on the show 158 times, starting in 1971. He guest-hosted the show on numerous occasions when Carson was away.
His first audition for the show, however, went terribly when his then-agent brought a "Tonight Show" talent coordinator to see Brenner's highly topical stand-up routine at a New York club. "The 'Tonight Show' was very safe with its topics then — Johnny never got political," Brenner told the weekly Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia last year. He was turned down for the TV show but then started to attend weekly auditions for the program, pretending he was a manager. He just wanted to observe what kind of material the show wanted.
"So then I wrote a monologue in keeping with what they were searching for," he said.
Brenner, known for his observational brand of comedy, said in a 2012 interview with the Courier Post of South New Jersey that on his first appearance on the "Tonight Show," he used his trademark "Did you ever notice..?" bit three times.
Richard Lewis was one of many comedians influenced by Brenner. He issued a statement saying, "David Brenner was a huge star when I met him and he took me under his wing. To me, historically, he was the godfather of hip, observational comedy."
In addition to the "Tonight Show," Brenner appeared on numerous other talk shows as well as game shows, and as his fame grew he went on the college circuit.
Brenner was raised in Philadelphia, but the date he gave for his birth changed at various points in his life. He admitted to shaving several years off his age during the time he played colleges to appear more relevant to his audiences. Abraham could not confirm the correct birth date, but the family said he was 78 at his death.
In recent years he played casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere in the country, and he took a light-hearted look at social and political issues on venues as divergent as MSNBC and the Fox News Channel.
One of his most memorable performances was at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks. Though the room was half-empty, Brenner went on with the show. At the finish he told the audience, according to a 2002 article in the St. Petersburg Times, "I'm supposed to end with a joke. But for the first time in my career, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to end by telling you that I learned tonight that if you can laugh, you can live. And that means we are going to get through this." He got a standing ovation.
Brenner is survived by his wife, Ruth; sons Cole, Wyatt and Slade; and a grandson.