David Brenner, comedian and ‘Tonight Show’ favorite, dies at 78


David Brenner, who delivered his observational style of stand-up comedy on television and on stage for more than four decades, died at his home in New York City today. He was 78.

His longtime publicist, Jeff Abraham, said the cause was cancer.

Brenner was perhaps best known for his regular appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” He was one of its most frequent guests, performing more than 150 times.

He gained fame by telling anecdotes about daily life, or as he said, “the dumb things that we say and do.” Over the years, his comedy focused more on current events, and he appeared on cable news as a commentator.

Brenner wrote several books, including “Soft Pretzels With Mustard,” published in 1983, and starred in four comedy specials for HBO. He also appeared in the 2005 documentary film “The Aristocrats,” along with other comedians, who all told a variation on the same long, dirty joke.

In an interview in December on “CBS This Morning,” he recalled how Carson once explained why he was frequently asked to perform stand-up on the show: “He said, ‘Because I like to sit back, smoke a cigarette and laugh for six minutes.’”

Brenner thought there was rarely a time when humor was not appropriate. His family said in a statement today, “In David’s final request he asked that one hundred dollars in small bills be placed in his left sock ‘just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.’”

In 1986, he was given his own late-night talk show, “Nightlife,” which was taped in New York. Competing against Carson’s show and another by comedian Joan Rivers, it did not catch on with viewers.

When “Nightlife” first aired, John J. O’Connor, a critic for The New York Times, wrote that Brenner seemed happy being “an urban version of Johnny Carson” with his focus on his hometown of Philadelphia and Manhattan.

“As an interviewer, he is supportive, never confrontational,” O’Connor wrote. “He is best with other comedians, genuinely enjoying their routines and clearly eager to give their careers a boost.”

David Brenner was born Feb. 4, 1936, in Philadelphia. He graduated from Temple University with a communications degree.

He started out as a writer and director of television documentaries. In the early 1970s, he decided to give comedy a try. After his first appearance in 1971 on “The Tonight Show,” the offers to perform came rolling in.

Over the years, he tired of observational humor and turned to current events at a time, he said on “CBS This Morning,” when not many comedians were doing it, setting the stage for entertainers like Jon Stewart.

Brenner is survived by his wife, Ruth; three sons, Cole, Wyatt and Slade; and a grandson.

His final book, “I Think There’s a Terrorist in My Soup,” published in 2003, was based on a comedy tour he put together after the Sept. 11 attacks to cheer people up.

“Laughter is like a salve that you put on a wound until you can get to a doctor and he can fix it,” he told CBS. “It doesn’t take away what’s bad. But it makes you get through it.”