Brenner prescribes a dose of laughter
December 20, 2006
One of the most immediate casualties in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was comedy. Late-night TV show hosts abandoned their monologue format, pundits predicted the demise of irony, and comedians contemplated what sort of humor would work in the new world order – that is, if they weren’t thinking about what other line of work might suit them. It was a time for grieving, not laughing.The death of humor, of course, was premature. Comedy Central didn’t change to Tragedy Central; Leno and Letterman returned to their usual schtick. The parade of comic films continued unabated, thank God. Why 2002 alone gave us “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “Scooby Doo” and “Eight Crazy Nights.” Comedians even began to work Islam, terrorism and nightmare travel scenarios into their sets. In Aspen, in early 2002, Bill Maher – whose politically daring material led the White House press secretary to advise Americans to “watch what they say” – used the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival as a stage to deliver Sept. 11-inspired laughs, proving that comedy can be a most effective route to insight.A month and a half after 9/11, David Brenner was watching a televised press conference at which the return of comedy was officially announced. A comedian, whom Brenner won’t name, said it was time for comedians to go back to work. Brenner, a comedian in good standing, should have been relieved to hear the news. Instead, he was exasperated.”I said, ‘What the hell do you think I’ve been doing for six and a half weeks?'” said Brenner by phone.What Brenner had been doing, of course, was what he had done consistently for some three decades: Tell jokes, make people laugh, use humor to get at the issues of the day. The night of Sept. 11, 2001, Brenner honored his agreement to perform, appearing in his long-running gig at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Brenner’s first line to audience was something along the lines of, “I know why I’m here – I have to be. But what in the world are you doing here?”Quickly enough, Brenner realized why a crowd had turned up on those most horrific of nights for America. They were there to get a dose of the best medicine. Seeing how badly people craved laughter, Brenner was more than willing to deliver it. While other comics holed up and waited for someone to let them know jokes were back in season, Brenner hit the road as hard as he ever has.
“I heard it,” he said of the audience’s response. “My reaction was, this is why laughter was born. 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.'”Brenner’s firsthand experience told him that his instincts were right, that the most difficult of circumstances makes for the biggest demand for humor.”Didn’t they know they were joking in the trenches? They were telling jokes in the Nazi death camps?” said Brenner. “Humor gives you buoyancy. It’s what gets you through. There’s a correlation between how bad times are and how much comedians make. In the Depression, that’s when comedy goes through the roof. That’s when comedy films were at their height.”Brenner points out that when he started making a living in comedy in 1971, there were 265 working comedians who earned enough to make a living. Now, there are more than 14,000. (Numbers are courtesy of Brenner Polling Services, with a margin of error of plus or minus several thousand.) In Brenner’s formulation, that means 1971 – with allowances for Vietnam, the Attica riots, increasing inflation and the defeat of World Wrestling Federation champion Bruno Sammartino by “the Russian Bear,” Ivan Koloff – must have been good times in America, relative to today. Some 14,000 comedians busting their humps to make people laugh means the spiritual mood is on a downswing.”When people are happy, when the world is in balance, that’s when there should be no need for professional comedy,” said Brenner. “Comedians should hope for a time when no one shows up to see them. Because that means people will be having enough joy in their lives that they won’t need us.”Brenner appeared at a gig in Palm Springs on Sept. 14, 2001, and saw how much he was needed in those times. Only a small percentage of ticket-holders failed to show up. The next day he called his agent, with instructions to book Brenner on the road every weekend possible. Brenner decided to conclude his tour – dubbed Laughter to the People – with a weeklong run in the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, in midtown Manhattan, in January 2002. After one of the shows, a New York City fireman who had escaped the World Trade Center, while several of his co-workers had not, thanked Brenner for making him laugh and giving him a fresh perspective. The next day, Brenner called his agent again, this time with instructions to continue the tour. Brenner ultimately stayed on the road for some two years. Driving his decision was the way people seemed to crave laughter.”I had never played to audiences who needed laughter like that before,” he said. “I never had people run up to the stage like that, thanking me for making them laugh.”Rooted in comedy
Perhaps the reason Brenner feels that humor is such an essential part of life is because it was a fundamental part of his life from the time he was a kid.Brenner has said that his late father, Lou, was one of the funniest people he knew. As a teenager, Lou Brenner was a Vaudeville comedian who went by the name Louis Murphy, half of the comedy team of Brenner & Buster. Despite their outdated tag line – “Listen to the two B’s buzz” – Brenner says his father’s comedy was sharp and smart.”He would punch holes in hypocrisy,” said Brenner. “He was the original observer to me. He was very quick. He had a nice career going.”Lou Brenner broke into film when he got an offer to appear as a regular in “The Three Stooges” movies. “But his father told him he could not do any job that makes him work on Shabbos [Jewish Sabbath],” said Brenner. “My father never went back to Hollywood, never went back on the comedy stage.”I guess the moral is, don’t always listen to your father.” (Another possible lesson is that providing laughter is the best medicine. In his 1990 book “If God Wanted Us to Travel … ,” Brenner writes that Lou died at 91, just after he completed his fifth cruise around the world, and as he was planning to spend a month in Spain, two weeks with his son in Las Vegas, and his sixth and seventh world cruises.)Instead of a comedian, Lou Brenner became a bookie in Philadelphia. “He didn’t collect numbers on Shabbos,” cracked David. And he kept his appreciation for comedy.”When I was class comedian in high school, that was big news for him. Forget that I was an honors student,” said Brenner. “He loved my career and lived vicariously through it. He always gave me very constructive criticism.”Brenner entered his comedy career through film – but not in the usual manner. After graduating with honors from Temple University, with a degree in communications, he became a writer, producer and director of TV documentaries. Eventually, he headed the documentary department for Westinghouse Broadcasting. In 1971, he moved to the comedy stage. His career since has included a minimal amount of film work, but he has been a consistent presence in theaters and on TV. Brenner holds the distinction of being the most prolific guest in talk showdom; he has appeared more than 150 times on “The Tonight Show” alone, a record.
Brenner first came to Aspen in the mid-’80s and ended up spending a summer writing what would become his first book, “Soft Pretzels with Mustard.” “It’s a great place to write, Aspen,” he said. “It’s so conducive. You have the tranquility. I’d pound away at my first book looking at the river, the trees, the mountains. It was wonderful.” Brenner lived in Aspen the first half of the ’90s and thought about opening a billiards club here. He put the brakes on that project when he learned what the rent would cost. (He is a co-owner of Amsterdam Billiards in New York City.) He returned in 1998, and currently rents a house here.Brenner’s latest book, 2003’s “I Think There’s a Terrorist in My Soup” – also written in Aspen – is inspired by 9/11. Brenner categorizes his early humor as “observational,” but says he got tired of it. For some years, his comedy has been more of the topical variety, finding laughs in the headlines. It has kept him, at 70, up-to-date.”If you can make fun of what’s relevant, you’re relevant,” he noted.His current show, which he performs Thursday, Dec. 28, at the Wheeler Opera House, uses plenty of post-9/11-related material. Brenner’s conclusion is that the official response to the attacks is one of stupidity. At the Pitkin County Airport he saw two incidents that proved his point.One man took out a hunting knife, handed it over to the security personnel, who measured it and handed it back. “With that blade, I could take out a lot of people,” marveled Brenner. Then a woman with a miniature poodle came up, and security put the poodle on the floor and waved a wand around it.”If anyone looks at these two things and thinks we have security,” said Brenner. “It’s a facade. It’s whistles and smoke. It’s made the public feel safe, not made the public safe.”Brenner doesn’t keep watch on new comedians coming up. He says the comedians he came up with – Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Richard Lewis, Jimmy Walker, Steve Landesberg – were unique in a way that younger comics are not. “We couldn’t have done each other’s acts,” he said.And his taste runs even more old school than his contemporaries, going back to Lou Murphy’s era of comics.”I was raised on my father’s favorites,” said Brenner. “Even my two sons, 8 and 11, they’re big on Abbott & Costello, the Ritz Brothers, Groucho Marx. I thought it was unusual that I laughed at that, but I look at them and think, boy, that’s amazing that they eat it up.
“But W.C. Fields said, ‘Funny is funny.’ There’s a purity about what those old comedians do.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com