Slaton: David Brenner — a stand-up guy
I first met David Brenner when he showed up at my office one day in 2006. That was David’s style. Just show up. “How ya doin?” He had Tai Babilonia, his girlfriend at the time, with him, and they entered doing an improv comedy bit on how David couldn’t get the name of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” straight.
Everyone was cracking up. It was a good hour later that he pulled me aside and told me the real reason for his visit: He was hoping that there was something the Wheeler Opera House could do with Tai so that she’d come to have the same dug-in affection for Aspen that he did. I, of course, had been pursuing how I could get him on the stage, so his confession was a bit in the form of an apology.
That was the David I got to know. He liked having the spotlight on himself, but he really was happiest when he was helping others. I did get him on our stage, five times in fact, at a time in his life when he said he didn’t really want to do stand-up anymore. What he wanted to do was get back to the Aspen he had discovered around 1990, when snowy grey days were for working on his books, and bluebird days were for knocking off and skiing.
He asked me to help him get back to skiing, which I did with the kind of awkward pleasure you have when you’re just a working stiff and your new best friend is an international celebrity. But David wasn’t one to tolerate that kind of cultural divide. He insisted that we have lunch together, or I come see how he’d screwed something up at his rental house that we could both have a big laugh about or work on putting together a comedy series for the Wheeler with undiscovered talent.
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We would work through the night on the Internet from our separate homes, screening endless video snippets of horrible comedians. And oh, how the man could bitch about it, but you knew he was loving every second. And so through the guise of work, we became close friends.
It may have been the last time we skied together that he told me his sister had died the night before. We’d been skiing for a couple of hours already and were on the old, slow lift at Tiehack. Just out of the blue he said it, knowing how well I knew how much he loved his sister. Then he said very quietly, which was extremely rare for David, “You’re the first person I’ve told.” I felt so extremely privileged, sad and inadequate for helping this man in his pain. But we were skiing, which is what he wanted to do, and he got us right back to sharing jokes and stories. David liked to live in the moment, even when being chased by sadness. No matter what, he always refused the sadness.
David Brenner was a tough nut. He grew up on the hard streets of South Philly, where he had to use his fists as much as his humor to get from day to day. He busted out of there to become an award-winning documentarian for TV. And at the height of his career as a filmmaker, he walked away from it all to spend six months in an all-or-nothing bid to become a stand-up comedian. This was 1969, when — as he would often tell me — there were only 200 working comedians — quickly followed by “instead of the 20,000 so-called comedians that are listed today”. He got the break of a lifetime on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” and the rest was history.
He became the best-known and highest-paid stand-up comic sometime in the 1970s and rode it all through the ’80s. But when the welfare of his child during an extremely acrimonious divorce was threatened, he walked away from it all and came with his young son to Aspen to start a new life in a safe haven. He walked away at the top of his career and never really got it back. And while I knew that always bothered him more than he would tell, I also knew he never regretted it. He did what he had to do. There was never any real question about it.
In his last year or so, David moved back to New York from Las Vegas — that city in the desert he despised but had spent so many years based there, again because it’s what he had to do to protect his two younger sons. As a young man, David and some friends had pulled a road trip to New York and stayed withfour guys in a one-guy hotel room in midtown Manhattan. As the other three went to sleep, David was gazing out the window. When they woke up, he was still there. New York was going to be his town, and eventually it was. And after a 23-year gap, it was going to be again. He called me last year to tell me — very excitedly — about what he was doing, how he had discovered all this great new talent again, and he was putting a comedy package together that was going to be his legacy, his last round of stand-up as he got four unknowns their shot of fame, using his coattails.
He called me a few weeks later, still excited, trying to sell me this package for our Aspen Laff Festival for 2014. He still equated making it in Aspen to making it on the world’s stage. I tried to make the numbers work, find the right slot for it, but ultimately had to tell David that we’d have to wait a year, maybe more — one of the hardest phone calls, ever.
He took it well, because we always could be honest with each other. He got it. Then he asked me about my health, which he always was anxious to hear good news about, and wanted all the details. When I finally got my turn and could ask him about his, he was dodgy, as always. Didn’t want to make a fuss. But clearly something was wrong. He really wanted one more trip to Aspen.
David used to talk to me about his “dybbuk,” which is Yiddish basically for what is your Achilles Heel. For him it was women. David Brenner loved women, and women were always his downfall. After he broke up with Tai Babilonia, he went a long time without a companion, and I knew that this was worse than losing his career to him. Finally, after he made the move back to New York, he met an absolutely gorgeous young woman through his nutritionist. He called and told me all about her like he was a teenager again. He desperately wanted me to meet her, and he brought her to Aspen in May where we all were supposed to have dinner. But the timing screwed up, and we never got together. I never got to meet Ruth.
The comedian Bobby Slayton called me Saturday afternoon to tell me David had passed. In true David fashion, he was trying to keep his illness quiet but word had gotten out. I’d asked Bobby to call me because I knew he would know the real story. Among the details of the rapid progression of David’s illness, Bobby mentioned that in his last weeks, David had married Ruth. You would have to know David to understand what a huge step that was. In his last days, he had made peace with his dybbuk.
The man who had grown up in such violent streets, who had to fight for so much of everything his entire life and turned his anger into some of the greatest stand-up comedy the world has ever known, was accepting love as love. In the grief that is following in the aftermath of the shock of his death, this small detail gives me such joy. He left the stage on a high note. Standing ovation, David.
Gram Slaton is executive director of the Wheeler Opera House.
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