David Brenner stands up for pure comedy | AspenTimes.com
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David Brenner stands up for pure comedy

Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

David Brenner emerged in what he sees as something of a golden age of American stand-up comedy. By the numbers, it wasnt so impressive; Brenner says there werent more than two dozen comics in the group that made up his contemporaries. But an amazing percentage of them made national reputations and the list includes such landmark performers as Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks and Richard Lewis.Having been surrounded by such company, Brenner hasnt been much impressed with the waves of comedians bigger in number, but not nearly as well-schooled in the art of stand-up that have followed. In late 2006, prior to his appearance at the Wheeler Opera House, Brenner told The Aspen Times that he hadnt kept up with the current comedy scene.In his early 70s, Brenner wasnt exactly burning with a sudden desire to catch up on a few decades worth of stand-up talent. But while riding a chairlift with Wheeler Opera House executive director Gram Slaton, Brenner, who has lived in Aspen on and off since the mid-80s, listened as Slaton complained about the departure of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which folded up its rather large tent after 13 years in Aspen. Brenner, in turn, griped about the generally sad state of stand-up comedy.We decided to combine our griping, said Brenner from Las Vegas, where he now makes his home.The result of that bitch-fest was Whats So Funny? a series of four events at the Wheeler. The series opened earlier this month, and continues Thursday, Feb. 14, with a Valentines Day-themed show, Up Close and Too Personal. The evening features three relatively little-known comedians Joe Bronzi, from Long Island; Whitney Cummings, who has appeared on MTVs Punkd; and Dana Goldberg, winner of the San Francisco International Comedy Competition. Like all four of the Whats So Funny? events, this weeks show closes with Brenner himself, performing a fresh set of material geared to the theme.Brenner isnt done griping. The time allotted for his set 20 to 30 minutes requires a different use of time than his usual 90-minute performance, or the six-minute segments he works up for TV appearances. And for a comedian accustomed to getting onstage and letting loose whatever is on his mind, playing within a theme requires different comedic muscles.My problem is, I thought this would be easy for me: Ill get up there and do my thing, said Brenner. But then I thought, I have to tailor this to the themes. [Normally] I get up there and Im all over the place, from presidents to shoelaces. Now I have to start thinking in themes? I could do the edgy stuff [for the New and Out There show, which opened the series]. But I also have to do 20-30 minutes on relationships? And ethnic [for Colors of Laughter, on March 1]?As he outlines his grievances all a result of his own doing, mind you the Philadelphia natives distinctively nasal voice begins to rise. But while having to write and perform four new sets of material was a challenge, it was nothing compared to the other task he gave himself. Brenner and Slaton also had the task of selecting a dozen young comedians to round out the series, and that was more a chore than a challenge.The last thing I ever wanted to do was sit and look at hours upon hours of these clips of comedians, said Brenner, his agitation rising another notch. We had to really separate the crap from the good stuff. It went on for weeks, a couple hundred hours, easily.It discouraged me. To glean the 12, we looked at hundreds. Thats a bad percentage. If people had seen the 12 that I came up with [back in the 70s], they would have said, Wow!

Even more discouraging to Brenner is what he believes is the primary reason for that lackluster group of comedians. Perfecting the art of stand-up, he says, is secondary, at best, to the desire to land a sitcom deal. Ironically, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival was one of the driving forces behind that dynamic; the producers of the festival would often tout the performers who had been a hit onstage in Aspen and wound up on TV.Ive gotten tired of seeing what happened to stand-up comedy, said Brenner. It became, who can come up with 25 minutes of material in hopes of getting a sitcom and becoming a star? And then they keep doing stand-up on the side and arent any good at it.What they are is good 25-minute comedians. They get the right people to see them; they say, Oh wow, this will be a good sitcom star. But when it comes to stand-up comedy, thats not what they are. Brenner doesnt explain the reasoning behind the final installment of Whats So Funny?: Made For TV, on March 14, which features comedians who have their eyes on careers on the small screen.Brenner is proud of the near purity of his career. He has written several books. (He has often used Aspen as his writing retreat.) His film-acting credits are almost nonexistent. (The most prominent David Brenner on the Internet Movie Database is the editor of such films as Independence Day and World Trade Center.)Brenner, though, concedes that if the culture he came up in had been a little more progressive, he might have become more of a sitcom character than a guest on late-night talk shows. (He holds the record for guest appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, with 158.)In 1976, Brenner co-starred with Leslie Ann Warren in Snip, a takeoff on the risqu Warren Beatty film Shampoo. The sitcom, on NBC, was produced by Jimmy Komack, a former stand-up comedian who, in the mid-70s, was the king of the sitcoms, having had back-to-back hits with Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter. Snip was being touted as a sure hit until NBC yanked it from its schedule, days before the premiere.The real reason was, we had a beauty shop, and of course we had a gay guy, said Brenner. And it was a gay actor playing the gay guy. NBC got cold feet about having a gay person on a sitcom. [The sexual orientation barrier was broken the following year when Billy Crystal portrayed Jodie on Soap.] Now, ironically, you cant get a sitcom on TV without a gay character. If you do Navy Seals, you have to have a gay guy.NBC sold the rights to Snip to a station in Australia. The show was aired one week, Monday to Friday, and was the highest-rated program in the country. The station placed an order for the rest of the series, only to be told they already had the only five episodes that were produced. So I went back to doing stand-up. I didnt want to deal with these people, said Brenner.Real comedians, real comedyIn addition to the generally poor quality of the stand-up acts that Brenner and Slaton waded through, there was the quantity. Brenner says there were 265 people making a living from comedy in 1971; now there are 14,000. (God only knows where he came up with those figures.) Slaton says that, for the better part of a year, he and Brenner corresponded daily, exchanging notes on a hefty percentage of those comics.How did 14,000 people all of a sudden get so funny? Brenner asks. The answer is, they didnt. The country got dumbed down. If I could dig out of a trunk all the A-minus, B-plus, C, D material Ive tossed out, I could make a fortune selling it to comedians. Because its better than what they do today.Still, Brenner is enthused about the series he and Slaton have come up with. He is impressed with the talent of the 12 comedians, and with their commitment to the stand-up form. He is especially pleased with the format following each show, the comedians, including Brenner, will engage in a Q-and-A session with the audience. And Brenner says that, for every recent comedian who used stand-up to get a sitcom deal, there is another more talented, more committed to stand-up who is overlooked because they arent right for television. Its time, he says, to cast a light on those comedians who are devoted to stand-up.I am so looking forward to watching these talented guys and girls get up and hit the ball over the fence, like we did years ago, he said. Anyone will tell you, if theyre being honest, that doing stand-up is the most difficult art form. Its a bunch of strangers with their feet up, saying, OK, make me laugh.stewart@aspentimes.com


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