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Other veteran comics could head straight to The Tonight Show couch to banter with Johnny Carson,but David Brenner had to do a stand-up routine when he was a guest.
Finally, Carson told a puzzled Brenner why.
“I like to sit back, smoke a cigarette, and laugh for six minutes,” Brenner, in a 2013 interview with CBS, recalled him saying.
Carson’s regard for Brenner, who died in his New York City home Saturday at age 78 after battling cancer, made him one of the most frequent visitors to Tonight as a guest and substitute host who was on more than 150 times.
And NBC’s late-night show, in return, made the former documentary filmmaker into a hot comedian, one who was ubiquitous on other talk shows and game shows.
The lanky, always sharply dressed Brenner also briefly hosted his own syndicated talk show in 1987 and starred in four HBO specials.
Although his career faltered, he worked steadily through 2013 doing standup. A four-day gig in December included a New Year’s Eve show at a Pennsylvania casino-resort in which he showcased young comedians.
Brenner, who was raised in working-class south Philadelphia and graduated with honors from Temple University, was “always there helping a bright young comedian, whether it be Richard Lewis, Freddie Prinze, or Jimmie Walker, and he was still doing it until the very end,” said his friend and publicist, Jeff Abraham.
The lanky, toothy-grinned Brenner’s brand of observational comedy became a staple for other standups, including Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.
Decades ago, he had burned out on filmmaking — “You don’t change the world by doing documentaries,” he told CBS This Morning in 2013 — and decided to give comedy a try. He was on the verge of quitting when his effort to impress talent bookers at Tonight worked.
His career soared after his first appearance in January, 1971. He went from being nearly broke to overwhelmed by a then-hefty $10,000 in job offers the day after he was on the show.
“I never thought this was going to turn my life upside down and give me my whole future,” he told This Morning.
Brenner wrote five books, including the post-9/11 I Think There’s a Terrorist in My Soup, published in 2003.
In a statement, his family said he left a last laugh: A final request that $100 in small bills be placed in his left sock “just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.”