Aspen Laff Fest: David Brenner laughing all the way

Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoFormer Aspen resident David Brenner closes the Wheeler Opera House's Aspen Laff Festival with a performance Saturday, Feb. 25.

ASPEN – Before he turned 10, David Brenner took a job as a stockboy in the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood where he lived. Brenner took the job seriously – showed up on time, worked hard even when others weren’t.”I said, ‘I’m in training. Because I know if I can do this for a job I hate, for a boss I hate, imagine how great I’ll be for a job I love,” he recalled.Brenner worked hard enough – as a butcher’s assistant, in an amusement park, at a toy store, as a proofreader and messenger for The Philadelphia Inquirer – that he took something of an early retirement. At the age of 33, after several years of writing, producing and directing documentaries for CBS, NBC and Westinghouse, Brenner left his job of making documentaries for PBL, to take a year off. Brenner went to the Caribbean island of Nevis, where he was one of very few white people. Living in a tiny house with no TV, he whiled away a three-day stretch of nonstop rain by listening to the somber news as reported by BBC radio. “And I thought, you know, people have got to start laughing at what’s going on in this world. Because it’s getting pretty depressing,” he said. “So I figured, I’ll do stand-up comedy for a year, then decide what to do.”By his reckoning, Brenner never worked another day in his life. Instead he became a comedian, an occupation which, even after four-plus decades, he cannot quite see as work.”What struck me, when I first did this and got paid for it, was, I got thrown out of schools for being funny; I got in trouble at jobs for being funny; I got in fights for being funny – and now I’m getting paid for being funny? Wow!” Brenner said a few days ago at The Aspen Times office.Brenner performs Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Wheeler Opera House, as the closing act in the Wheeler’s Aspen Laff Festival. The last time Brenner, who lived in Aspen for several stretches in the ’90s, performed here was at 2008’s What’s So Funny? – a series he co-produced with the Wheeler. During his appearance then, Brenner explained that doing comedy was, for him, the most natural thing imaginable. “I’d be saying the same things, whether I was onstage or not,” he said.••••The reason comedy comes so naturally to Brenner is Lou Murphy – aka Lou Brenner, aka David’s father, aka half of the Vaudeville comedy team of Brenner & Buster. Murphy was, by his son’s account, a singularly funny man, talented enough to land a contract to make a series of movies with The Three Stooges. But Murphy’s grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi, who forbid Lou from working on the Sabbath. There went the Three Stooges gig, and the entertainment career.”Unlike Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson” – sons of rabbis who defied their father’s commands that they not be entertainers – “he never did comedy again,” Brenner said of his father. “He became a bookie. And he made everyone in the neighborhood laugh.”And for comedy, he lived vicariously through me. Which was great.”Brenner gave Murphy much to experience, second-hand. Focused almost entirely on the art of stand-up, Brenner became one of the greats. He holds the record for most appearances – 158 – on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” He was ranked No. 53 on Comedy Central’s list of the greatest stand-ups of all time. He has done four HBO specials, spanning some 25 years.Brenner passed on attending Woodstock – he wasn’t much into getting stoned, or camping out in the rain and mud, though he would have loved to see Jimi Hendrix play his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – to take his first paying gig, in the summer of 1969, at Pips, in Sheepshead Bay, Long Island. Brenner says it was America’s first comedy club, opening a year before the Improv in Manhattan. He earned $35 for doing two shows.”Before that we didn’t get paid,” said Brenner, who worked up to the paying gig with appearances at such pass-the-hat spots as the Gaslight and Caf Wha?. “Which I think was good. It made us hungry.”Brenner wasn’t sold on pursuing comedy. He enjoyed doing documentaries. And in his mind he heard the conflicting advice his father gave him.”My dad talked about being secure,” Brenner said. “But at the same time he said, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to have 2,500 people in an audience, you’re onstage, and they’re all laughing. So at the same time he was saying, ‘Security, security,’ he was also spinning this web – telling about shows, giving autographs.”And Brenner wasn’t hot on the idea of moving to Los Angeles. But doing some stand-up in New York while he contemplated other career options was perfectly acceptable. And Brenner really wanted to make one TV appearance – proof for years later that he had, at one time, been a performing comedian. With that goal, he went one night in 1970 to the Bitter End and broke out some hardcore left-wing material for what he assumed would be a leftist crowd. But the scout from “The Tonight Show,” in attendance that night, didn’t see the material suitable for TV. “David Brenner does vomit material,” was the scout’s report, according to Brenner. “Not only were they not going to let me do ‘The Tonight Show,’ they said they weren’t going to let me inside the building at 30 Rock,” Brenner said. “I heard that and I got angry. I said, ‘I’m going to do ‘The Tonight Show.'”Brenner landed an audition, and devoted himself to his act. A few days after auditioning, he got a call from the same scout, now in apologetic mode: They wanted him to be Carson’s guest the following night. His appearance was a hit.”The next day I had $10,000 worth of job offers. Carson wanted me back the next week. ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ wanted me; I was the last comedian to do the show live. Buddy Hackett got me into the main room at the Sahara Hotel with Frankie Avalon opening,” Brenner said. “I said, What am I doing looking for a career? This is a career.”••••Performing comedy might not be work to Brenner, but he can put some real effort into it. What he said as a kid – that if he found something he loved doing, imagine how much energy he would put into it – has rung true in his stage career. Brenner began his career as one of the first comedians to do observational humor: “making observations of the most mundane things that everybody sees, but no one sees the humor in,” he said. For example: pointing out a sign in a New York City club that read, “For bathroom, use staircase.” “And in New York, they will,” Brenner added.But when observational humor became the norm in comedy clubs, the style began to bore him. (He says he has never been concerned about other comedians stealing his jokes: “I create faster than they can steal.”) He made a sharp turn, moving into a brand of performance that pulled humor out of news and current events.When he got into a nasty battle with his ex-wife over custody of his sons, Brenner retreated to Aspen for the early ’90s. He returned here several times, finding it an ideal spot to work on writing books.In 1999, looking to jump-start his stage career, Brenner went to HBO with the idea of doing a show at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. The show he pitched would focus on current headlines, which was risky enough. But he also wanted to do the show live. “But not live like a guy does two months of shows, gleans it, perfects it, performs the show and picks out the best parts,” he said. “I wanted to go out live – work on the news of that month, that week, that day. So the next day, when the agents are talking, it’s not, ‘Yeah, Brenner was funny … where do you want to have lunch?’ I wanted to do something different.”Backstage before his performance, Brenner watched CNN, and took notes of that day’s news for material. He capped his performance by getting married onstage.”I was living as dangerously as you could for a comedian. Broadcasting live – no one ever did that. And I don’t think anyone’s done it since. It’s too dangerous,” he said. The next day, Brenner overheard people at the hotel talking about his set, and he had a frightening realization: That night, he would have to do all new material. Which he did. “That gets the head spinning. But it worked. I got into the main room of the Golden Nugget for a year and a half.”Scheduled to play Vegas on Sept. 11, 2001, Brenner honored his contract and appeared for the show. He was surprised to find that he wasn’t the only one in the room; he found that people still craved laughter. He told his agent to send him out on the road; the Laughter to the People tour lasted 18 months.”My reaction was, this is why laughter was born,” Brenner told The Aspen Times in 2006. “I started my tour the 14th of September. When I was out on the road, I heard no one was doing monologues, audiences are uptight. And I went out there getting huge houses, thinking, ‘Wait – they must be wrong.'”••••With Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert bringing headline humor to mass TV audiences, Brenner figured it was time again for him to stake out new territory. Again, he wanted to do something unique – “something that I’m one of the only people who can fit that comedy suit on their body.”Brenner has decided to take advantage of his age (76 as of Feb. 4 – not the 67 posted on his Wikipedia page). “I’ve been doing stand-up longer than these younger comedians have been alive. I’m the senior guy,” said Brenner, who will break out his new material – about aging, health and medicine – at the Wheeler.Brenner, who looks fit and hip, doesn’t expect to limit his new set to appearances on the senior-center circuit (although he did debut the material over a recent weeks-long stretch in Florida). He believes the appeal is universal.”Anyone who has not experienced this in their life has a parent or grandparent who has,” he said. “They see Mr. Stanley walk onto the porch, stare into space, tap his head, then walk back inside. Or they see their grandfather falling asleep in front of the television.”The niche of geriatric comedy is a tiny one.”It’s pretty lonely in there,” Brenner said. “I tell you, I’d rather be in the young man’s pool, doing observational humor.”Still, it beats work. The adage that dying is easy, comedy is hard doesn’t apply to Brenner.”It’s not because he has the talent. It’s because he has the genetic gift from his father,” Brenner said of himself. “I listen for those glistening, golden hooks that hang down around me onstage. Those have always been there for me to make a joke out of.”


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