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By Norman Schreiber

David Brenner is America's hottest young comedian. You don't have to take our word for it. No less an organi­zation than the American Guild of Variety Artists recently named David the Male Comedy Entertainer of the Year. One cornerstone of his popularity is the Tonight Show where he has worked both as a guest and a substi­tute host. As we go to press, Brenner has put in a phenomenal 66 appear­ances on television's late night land­mark.
We sent Norman Schreiber to Bren­ner's Manhattan apartment. The young comic had made a brief R & R stop in New York before heading out to Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Norman settled into the barber chair that sits neatly in David's memento-lined den, and the comedian opened up about the fascinating-sometimes startling-details of his life. There have been several distinct phases to David's development. He grew up in a Philadelphia slum. His promising career as a street hustler was inter­rupted by the Draft Board. After the service, David entered Temple Univer­sity on a scholarship. His degree in Mass Communications helped him get a job in television as a writer. By the time he left that medium, he was producing and directing film documentaries.

 SAGA: You've been on the Tonight Show a lot, and I think America wants to know what Johnny Carson is really like.
 BRENNER: Well, I find that is what America really wants to know.
 SAGA: Is it?
 BRENNER: It's amazing. The way I write material is I say what do you want to talk about. Invariably someone says, "How's Johnny Carson?" I once asked Johnny Carson if anyone ever went up to him, and said, "Hi, Johnny, How's David Brenner?"
Never happened! Then, they ask what Johnny is really like. It's the question that everybody asks. My impression of him is that he's very much as he appears on the show. I think he's brighter and hipper than television allows him to be.
 SAGA: O.K., then. How's David Brenner?
 BRENNER: Comedically, very honest. What I do is honest comedy. The best way to explain this is that I was performing near my home town of Philadelphia. After the show, people were in the dressing room. One of them was a street corner guy I grew up with. A great character. He makes faces to get attention. He concentrates and he squints his eyes and stares off into space until people start to notice, and you know he wants to get something off his chest.
I noticed he was doing this in the dressing room, and I said to him, "What's up?" He just sat there and he kept going, "I don't believe it. I don't believe it."
I said, "Come on, man, what don't you believe?" He said, "I don't believe that I just spent $50 to hear what I heard all my life for nothing."
What he meant was that the jokes were different; but the style and attitude was the same humor that he had seen on the street corner from the time I was seven years old through high school.
 SAGA: What are the occupational hazards of being a comic?
 BRENNER: Everything! Death. fire, automobiles, airplanes . . . Well, first of all it's a very precarious business. They say it's the most difficult of all the art forms to do. Also, I would say it's the most difficult one for making it and surviving. Comedy wears thin. You wear thin as a personality.
 SAGA: Do you feel you're a star?
 BRENNER: Well, I know I'm a star; although I don't think of myself as a star. I don't think my values have changed that much. I live pretty much the same life I've always lived. The only thing I've done is I've gone from cheap hamburger to good steak once in a while. I still don't go to posh places. I never attend parties.
I went shopping yesterday. This will give you an example. Two places have always been my oasis. One was L.A. because the people are jaded by seeing so many performers. But living out there five months, it caught on where I was being approached all the time. I couldn't believe it.
Now, I came back to New York City. I've been away five-and­one-half months. This has always been an oasis because New Yorkers are very super-sophisticated—"How ya doin', Brenner?" That's what most of them say. If I go into a shopping center out of town, I have to be escorted out by the police. Its that wild. Never in New York City! Never! This is my home. I don't think of show business when I'm in this place.
But just yesterday, after having been back only a week, I heard girls screaming in the street like I do out of town. They were about a half a block behind. And I heard my name. So, I went into a little pillow shop on the second floor of a small apartment building. Within 10 minutes at the most, you heard running up and down the stairwell of the building and girls screaming, "He's in there somewhere."
It was bitter cold yesterday, and I thought some of them would leave. I went down there, and there were any­where from a dozen to 15 girls gathered, by then. I stood in the doorway, there, and I signed all the autographs. That has never happened to me in New York.
I went to the San Gennaro Festival [an Italian streetfair] a year ago. I always go to that. I was raised in an Italian neighborhood. I always participate in Italian events. I always enjoyed walking and eating the street food—that's one of my key enjoyments. I went down there and I walked a half a block and I had to have the police take me to a cab.
I know I'm not ever going to be able to go to that festival. It's a very uncomfort­able feeling. I'll tell you another thing I don't like. I don't like when people grab me. I guess it's an instinctive reaction from the street corner days. On the street corner you usually start swinging when you're grabbed.
The other thing is when you eat, if you order food hot it arrives at your table hot; but you don't eat it hot. You cut into your first bite and people start coming over to the table. They all mean well; but there's no way to get the meal down hot. That annoys me a lithe bit.
The overall thing is—and this is an old So, here's the thing I do. I play a little game in my head. When I'm walking down the street and somebody asks for an autograph or talks to me, that may be the 50th person that stopped me. If I think, "here comes number 51," I'm going to show annoyance. You know, I'm trying to get to the dentist. I'm already 10 minutes late. I say in my mind, "This person coming up now believes he or she is the first one to approach me. This is number one." And it's not a bother with the first one.
 SAGA: Musicians have groupies. Are there groupies for comics?
BRENNER: Comedians historically don't have it. Lenny Bruce had it, and a few here and there.
At the beginning of my career, there was a large female following. This kept building and building and building.
There was a certain kind of thing happening between me as a performer and the female as an audience. I was in Milwaukee to do a summer festival—a wonderful, great, outdoor event. This was not quite two years ago. A tent that sat 400 people was set up. The sides of the tent were closed- but they could be opened. They had me do four shows there in two days. There were hopes that I would bring 400 people to see each show. It would be nice.
I went out to the grounds about two in the afternoon and I noticed there were about 100 people sitting in the tent. I said to somebody, "I see these people came here to relax."
He said, "Relax? They came here to see you; to get a seat. By four there wasn't a seat left. I returned at eight. The police said there were 2,200 people in a 400-seater.
They had to open the sides of the tent and there was no room to stand. When I came offstage, my brother was waiting. He's a professor who lives near Milwaukee. So, the professor comes up to me . He's very serious, and very low key. "If you analyze this from a psychocybernetic point of view ..." That's my brother.
I come offstage, and he's there. And it's madness! I thought they were going to rip the tent down. My brother's walking casually because he's always walked casually with his kid brother.
I grab my brother's arm and I say, "Come onl" I have four state troopers around me and they're racing to get me to the limo.
He said, "What're you doing?" I said, "Just keep moving. Just move!"
He said, "What's the matter with you?" I'm grabbing him and we get into the car and lock the doors. The police are around. Now, people are banging on the car. Girls are jumping up on the car, screaming at the windows. One of the cops on the way over to the car said, "What are you—a rock star, Brenner?"
My brother said, "What's going on? What is going on?" He got scared because to him, he's sitting in the car with his kid brother. He never thinks of me as a performer, like I don't think of him as the professor. It's my brother.
So, am I a star? I guess so. Is there a groupie following? I know so. I call them jokies, by the way. It's not only the teenybopper and the teen-ager. It runs the gamut. A woman, with her husband, stopped me on Fifth Avenue in New York. I think she said she was 68 years old. She said, "You appeal to me as a comedian, and you appeal to me as a man." That's a hell of a compliment from a little old lady.
So, there's something there. I never tried to analyze it. What's the sense of analyzing why. You do it, and whatever happens happens. All this shrieking and screaming and whistling, the lines at the stage door and the dressing room door, the girls chanting and yelling, and the phone calls, and the love letters—
 SAGA: Sounds realty exciting.
 BRENNER: It is. I read all my mail, so I'm very aware of what is going on in my career, as far as public reaction.

SAGA: Do you study comedy?

 BRENNER: No, I may be the worst student of comedy of all the comedians. I read Jack Benny's biography. I read a W. C. Fields biography. I read Woody Allen's stuff. But I've never studied—I never read Freud's analysis of comedy

 SAGA: Flip Wilson, I understand, has a book in which he writes down rules of comedy. Do you do anything like this?

 BRENNER: No! Oh, no.

 SAGA: Do you do any kind of analysis?
BRENNER: Yeah. I have all my premises for new material. Then, I go over to Catch A Rising Star (a small improvisational night club in New York ) with a little tape recorder. I do all the new material plus I get some ideas from the audience. Then, I sit down and analyze it as to how it's working, what I'm saying, how I did it, and how long it runs. But as to why something made someone laugh, I don't have any idea. I go out there, and it's sort of instinctive.

 SAGA: Are you the funniest person in your family?

 BRENNER: No, my father is way funnier. He's the one. It's his timing and his delivery, and his lines. I'm merely the student. He's the original. If my father had continued his career, he would have been one of the Jack Bennys or George Burnses. Were he able to do a Dorian Gray, he could just run all of us young guys right off the stage. Being around him and being a big fan of his—he's my best friend; he's always been my best friend—I picked it up. I emulated my father. When I was two years old and structuring sentences was joking around.

 SAGA: When you were a kid, what was your neighborhood like?
BRENNER: I started out in a totally Italian neighborhood. Then, I moved to the West End of the city which was a very poor Jewish neighborhood. The Italian, Irish, and black ghettos bordered it. Then, it became a black neighborhood. 'I never even thought about it. I never noticed color.
I never thought of anyone as black or yellow. We used to kid each other. There was constant ethnic ribbing. The kid in our crowd who was Irish got it all the time. The Italians got it. The Jewish guys got it. The black guys got it. The gypsy got it. The Puerto Rican got it. There were constant barbs at each other; but only with love. Only with love! Because if it wasn't with love, it was a fight. I don't think I met any WASPs until I worked in television. I knew they were out there, because we were where we were. Obviously, if they weren't where we were, they were out there.

SAGA: You heard of them.

BRENNER: Well, we read the papers.

SAGA' How did you do in high school?

BRENNER: I didn't like school. I liked it because it gave me an audience. I was class comedian. I didn't like the regimentation. I didn't feel I was learning anything I was going to use.
I was expelled almost as much as I was there. But, in spite of that I was president of the class. I was the most popular kid in the school; and, in spite of not studying I was an honor student.
Some of my friends did go on to college. I didn't think of college. I was out on the streets hustling. There was a friend of mine at Termple University. Dee and I have been friends since we're seven years old, and to this day he's still my best. friend. I always say that Dee was my best friend because he was poorer than I was and he had a bigger nose,
Also, in Temple, was another friend of mine who was a good street hustler. I think he was in college to hustle. Any­way, I was meeting this other friend to go to the racetrack. I had just scored in a card game the night before, and won a lot of money. I was going to parlay it at the track. I went to a university hall where the students study and socialize.
Dee was there. I always kid him. I say he was the only guy I ever knew who worked his way through elementary school. My other friend wasn't there. I was standing there, wearing a $500 suit and a silk shirt, shoes that were super expensive—I mean really dressy. I was looking down in the courtyard at the people studying, talking, playing chess and checkers. Dee said, "Do you see what's missing?" He knew I liked puzzles. You know, if a man gets on an elevator at eight in the morning and .. . that kind of thing. I always liked to figure things out. Like my father, I'm very good in mathematics. My father once raced an adding machine. That's how great he is with numbers. Anyway, I looked at the courtyard. I'm looking and I'm looking. I'm seeing students. I'm looking for out-of-place chairs—maybe. the arrangement of the sofa—maybe the rugs. I said, "No, I don't see anything." I'm leaning on the railing and I'm looking. He said, “The thing that is missing down there is you."
I turned around and grabbed him. I said, "Let me tell you something man. First of all, you're getting into a personal area. It's only because we go back so long that's keeping me from throwing you over the balcony. You're going to go through college, and you're going to learn all this shit, and you're going to get out and stay poor.
"Right now in my left hand pocket," I   said, and pulled out a roll of bills, "there's enough money to pay for your whole tuition. I'm going over to the track and I may blow it all and it means nothing to me. So, don't tell me about this world and what it takes in this world to make it." That was my attitude, then.
I said, "We were in lhe slum for one reason. Not because we weren't educated, not because we're bad people. We were in that slum for one reason, man—money! So, don't tell me your ivory tower bullshit that I belong here, because I don't belong here. If you ever say that again, I'm going to knock you on your ass." But that connected.

SAGA: Where did you get money, the $500 suit?

BRENNER: I hustled. I was a gambler. Gamble, hustle, deal deal, deal. Never drugs! A friend of mine died from drugs.

SAGA: Then, you went into the Army?

BRENNER: I got drafted. I hated the service because it was like school.
First, I was in the 101st Airborne. When it was time to jump out of the plane, I said, 'What are they? Nuts? Get me out of this." One day, a mysterious visitor came in the middle of the night. They woke me up and called me into a special room. He called himself Captain X, or something. I'm serious. He said he went through my records and because of my experiences on the street and the scores I got on certain areas of my aptitude test, they wanted me for secret work.
Secret code work! Very hush-hush! They take you out in the middle of the night to a school that's away from everything else. Wow, that was intriguing in itself. That was like breaking into a house when I was a kid.
It changed my life around. There were 12 of us and the other 11 were all college grads. I had two environments. I hung out with street corner guys—blacks and Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Jews, Italians, Irish. But, when I went to work, I was around men who were
professors and men who were going to be doctors. I remember one time in the barracks—this is a great moment actually—I was having a discussion with one of the guys from my work unit. There were some street corner guys around: I was zinging him. Everything he said I was putting down.
Everyone was laughing, laughing, laughing. I mean I was doing such a number on him. All of a sudden, he said, "Do you know why, whenever we have a discussion around here, you joke around?" I said, "No, tell me why." I said something funny and we laughed.
He said "The reason for it is that you have nothing intelligent to add. I came back with a wisecrack and everybody laughed. But that remark haunted me. I may have disguised things and hidden things away: but I never lied to myself. I knew that guy had hit the bullseye right on the nerve center.
Interestingly enough, I was on duty one night and he came down. He said, "Look, I couldn't find all your information in the records, so I filled in as much as I could."
He had filled out an application for entrance to college. He said, "You fill in the rest, and get your ass into college. Do something with your life. Don't give me any back talk. I don't want any of your wisecracks." And he walked out.
I filled out the application, applied for a scholarship and got it. That was it—another turning point in my life.
I majored in mass communication. One thing that college did for me is that it helped smooth off some of those rough street edges that had to be smoothed off. But I can honestly tell you that of everything I learned in college, I use only three percent of it.
After I had won some award as a documentarian, I was brought back to the university as a guest lecturer.
I said, "What's important? What's really important. You're all students of mass communications. I'll pose a question to you. When you go to do daytime outdoor shooting in northern New Jersey, do you or do you not have to call the union to have a light man ready? Who has the answer?"
No one had the answer. I gave them, maybe, 10 questions. I ended up by saying, "What you're learning in the books and what you're learning in the footnotes and what you're learning in the classroom is practically worthless. The only way you're going to learn is by working, by going out on the job." I was never invited back as a guest lecturer.
SAGA: How long did you work in television?

 BRENNER: About three years.

SAGA: And then you decided .....

BRENNER: To take a year off. I didn't decide to become a comedian. I had a very good job as a filmmaker; but what happened is that I felt like I'd done everything. I was in news specials, children's programs, women's programs, discussion shows, variety shows. I did a lot of documentary films. Even though it was a great career, I felt as if I were going to carbon copy the rest of my life. It was go on location, do a film .. . new subject but something related to another subject I had done. Here we go, another poverty documentary. Another farm worker documentary. Another . . . And there's the frustration of not seeing results from the documentaries.
I decided to take a year off. I put away enough money. If I really cut it close, I could survive the year with no income. I thought of what to do in that year. I had three ideas. One was to direct feature films. The other was to write a feature film. Way down there stood comedy because I'd always been fond of it. I was plagued all my life by people telling me to be a comedian. My father was a vaudeville comedian and I kind of wanted to ... I thought he was the funniest man in the world. He quit it, and I always thought he could have been really somebody, one of the classic comedians.
I had gone away to a little island, and I was listening to the news on a transoceanic radio. It was 24 hours of news and weather. You're being inundated with problems here, problems there. I said, "Jesus, people gotta laugh." Then, I thought, I've made people laugh all my life. Why don't I take the year off and concentrate on being a comedian.
I loved that year. I was poor again; but I loved the adventure of doing it once I got over the stage fright which took about three-and-a-half months.
At the end of the year I had literally run out of money but I was making enough to get by. I thought I shouldn't quit this until I go on television once. I should do the Tonight Show. That way I can tell people, "I was a comedian once." They'd say, "Come on, you're bullshitting." I'd take out this little film projector, put on this little kinescope and—Do the tune of Tonight Show theme ] Da da da daaa da, "Now making his television debut—David Brenner!"
I gave myself another six months to try to get on the Tonight Show. Right when that year-and-a-half was up, I made my debut on the Tonight Show. Within three days I had about $10,000 worth of job offers and the whole world blew open.

SAGA: You said that in that first year you had stage fright. What's it like to go out on stage when you're afraid?

BRENNER: The major part of fear is the unknown. I had never been onstage. I never stood in front of an audience in an organized situation. I was always the guy at the party or on the street corner or in school who had everybody around him laughing. I had never walked up as an unknown person to an audience, stood on a stage and talked into a microphone, I didn't know how a microphone worked. I didn't know how to put the stand up and down. I didn't know how to take the microphone off. I didn't know anything.
One night, I was with my friend Steve Landesberg at the Gaslight in the Village. I bombed. It was such a bad bomb he abandoned me. He waved to me from the audience and walked out of the club. You have never seen anyone bomb that badly. It wasn't that they didn't laugh or smile. They were grimacing. They disliked me.
But I walked out after that and said my ego's damaged a little bit; but I'm walking, I'm talking; my arms, every­thing works. Why the hell am I so scared about getting up onstage; I took my tranquilizers and threw them out on MacDougal Street. From that night on, I've never had a case of the nerves, or what they fall flop sweat. My friends call me "Ice blood."

SAGA: During the year in which you became a comic did you notice any changes in yourself?

BRENNER: Well, first of all, there's a shock factor. I had grown up in a slum where you just had to get your own respect plus the respect of the people around you, because the people outside of that .slum don't respect you. 'Then, I got into television. It's kind of prestigious: Boom, boom, boom; I get in and things go well. It's a very good income. You see your name on the screen every month. Here and there, you're in the trades. It felt good.
That was all wiped out overnight. As a stand-up comedian and a newcomer, I was another piece of crap waiting to get on the stage. I was treated that way. All of a sudden, you're nothing. You're nobody. You wait in line for four hours in hopes of getting 10 minutes, and then the guy won't put you on. Treat you like dirt! Treat you like dirt! Plus, within myself, there was the idea that I gave up a career and I'm nobody again. I'm poor and I'm nobody again. Being poor was an easy thing to adjust to, but being nobody again was a very difficult thing to accept psychologically. I had to accept it; because I was nobody again.
Now, on the positive side there was more of a camaraderie among new comedians, than there was in television among producers, directors, and writers. There's a common bond that you're really fighting the odds together. Everyone was helping everyone else.
Then, it was great being with characters again. I grew up with characters. I'm a Philadelphian. Philadelphians are characters just by being Philadelphians.
I loved hanging out again—going from an executive position back to the benefits of the street corner—exchanging funny things, stories, pitching in together to get enough money to get a cab to go to the Village to go to a showcase.
 SAGA: I once saw you backstage at the Tonight Show when it was in New York. I remember you standing in the corridor looking very spent while everybody was telling you how good you were.
 BRENNER: It's interesting that you bring that up. I was never nervous on television. I was perfectly calm going out there—usually rapping with the stage hands, A psychologist or physiologist would have fun with this; because after the performance I would get nervous—plus I would start getting pains in my leg that in the next hour were excruciating. This happened whenever I finished the show for maybe the first 20 television appearances. I was in another world. I would tell friends that went with me, "Look I'll be a little strange after I come offstage. Don't let that bother you."
 SAGA: Have you had any unexpected reactions to your work?
 BRENNER: Very recently. Two things. On the Tonight Show, I had made a joke about the Swine Flu. I said, "The government's idea of innoculating 205,000,000 people is insane." I said, "Why don't they give the needles to the pigs. How many pigs could there be? I'll be glad to take a pig to a doctor. I've taken them to dances."
Well, I got a very nice letter from a fan who happens to be the head of the swine marketing organization in America. He said there's a tremendous  hurt in the industry, although the flu has nothing whatsoever to do with pigs. The shape of the virus looked like a little pig to the scientist, so he called it the swine flu.
I apologized and I said, "And if any pigs were offended, oink, oink, oink, oink, oink!"
O.K., the next week Peter Strauss from Rich Man, Poor Man. He said he comes from a tough neighborhood and I didn't believe it. He looks like the kind of kid who had his bike stolen. He said the town was made up of two classes—the former railroad ,people and the neighborhood he lived in which was a tough Italian neighborhood. So, people in the audience applauded. I ad libbed. I said, "Oh, look at that. They put down their guns to applaud. That's nice."
An Italian mayor of a town in the East wrote letters to the head of NBC, the head of the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson, and he called the Associated Press and gave a statement that he was really offended by what I said about Italian Americans. It was in every newspaper and I never got a chance to answer.
Next week, I was hosting the Tonight Show, again. I mentioned that the guy made a comment and there was no cause for this. "I'm from South Philadelphia," I said. "I was raised by Italian people. Second of all, I am an honorary member of the Sons of Italy. This is for what I have done for Italian Americans as a performer and personality. Third of all, I said, I wouldn't pick on Italians because they're too big! So, if you found my remark offensive, you know now it was done good-naturedly and in good humor. If the politician wrote a few letters because he wanted publicity, you'll notice I didn't mention your name. The audience applauded and I said, "My next guest is a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant."
SAGA: Is there anything I haven't asked you that I should have?

BRENNER: The only thing I would say to you is that there is a way to know a greyhound dog is through racing. He waits for the rabbit to come around. He gets smart. He suddenly realizes that instead of chasing it around the track, why don't I just wait here. That rabbit's going to come back.
Alright, you've got to know when things are through. One of two things would have to happen for me to chuck this career for the next. One is when it stops being fun on the stage. The day I do a show and there's no- fun in it for me, that's the last show. The other is if my popularity wanes and I don't know how to rejuvenate it. I will step down gracefully. I'm not going to end up in a lounge somewhere with people saying, "Weren't you David Brenner?"