National Observer

Legendary comic David Brenner is a pioneer of observational humor

May 10, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Over the years David Brenner has proven to be one of the most influential comics in America. One of the first to embrace so-called “observational” humor in the 1970s, his quick wit spawned a legion of like-minded comics. A fixture on TV ever since, he holds the record for the most talk show appearances in the history of that medium.

“If I go over to the cashier (at a restaurant) and say, ‘I’ve been on television talk shows more than any other entertainer in the history of television,’ she would say ‘That’ll be $32.14,’ ” Brenner says with a laugh. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Being an inspiration to a generation of comics wasn’t as profitable as one might think either.

“Someone once (said to) me ‘You must be very proud that you opened the door for so many comedians’ and named a few who really in a sense were doing a warmed-over me,” Brenner says. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I just wish I would have gone through the door instead of holding it.’ You know, guys had series and walked away with $400 million doing me. It was unbelievable.”

These days Brenner concentrates on current events, which he finds more challenging.

“About six or eight years ago I got bored doing … strictly (observational comedy),” he says. “I challenged myself to do the most difficult thing which is work off current events, because they're so fleeting. You write a joke on Tuesday and it’s dead by Friday.”

Doing mostly political comedy, he has become somewhat of a political pundit in recent years and has been a guest on several news-oriented shows in the recent past, including programs on MSNBC, CNN and Fox. Currently, he can be seen on HBO’s David Brenner: Back with a Vengeance.

Still, he will on occasion throw in one of the “hits,” such as his signature bit about sitting on a newspaper while riding the subway. A fellow rider asks if he’s reading that particular paper. It was based on a true story, and he took it on stage right after it happened.

“The audience screamed,” Brenner recalls, “and I thought ‘What the hell are they laughing at?’ So I did it another night and it was like ‘Wow!’ It was one of these homeruns that cleared the wall and I kept doing it and I realized ‘I just stumbled onto something.’ I bring it back every once in a while because people keep asking for it. And it still gets that tremendous laugh.”

It’s that kind of instinct that's made Brenner so successful.

“I’m not the kind of person who thinks things out and plans and plots,” he says. “I kind of count on myself to do the right thing at the right time or say the right thing at the right time, and as a child I was the same way.”

It sometimes takes some tinkering, however, to get the joke just right.

“The number you use is very important,” Brenner explains, citing a joke about the number of muggers in New York, which originally went some thing like this: “The FBI came out with their crime report for the year and what was amazing to me is they said that there were 4,000 muggers in New York City … per person."

Brenner says the joke didn’t get a big laugh. He liked the set-up, so he took a look at the punchline and simply changed the number: “There are 47 muggers in New York City … per person."

"It got a scream, and I realized that 4,000 is unbelievable," he says. "I mean, it’s believable that there are 4,000 muggers, so there’s no humor in that, and then it’s too much of an exaggeration (for) the punchline. But 47, you’re amazed that there are only 47 muggers in New York City, and that sets people up to hear the surprise in the punchline.”

Speaking of numbers, Brenner is amazed at how many people are doing stand-up today versus when he started in the 1970s. He cites a book written back then that attempted to count the number of folks making a living doing stand-up comedy.

“It ran from something like (people earning) $25,000 a year to those of us who were making millions," he says. "And (the author) had found like 265 comedians. Someone told me now there are between 14,000 and 17,000.”

People often ask Brenner how so many people can be funny in this short form. He responds simply, “They can’t, and they’re not. When I became a comedian, comedy was a real specialty. You knew you were funny in your neighborhood, the classroom, on the job — some of these guys belong in accounting.”

DAVID BRENNER performs Thursday at Cincinnati Hillel Jewish Student Center at the Mayerson JCC (8485 Ridge Road, Reading/Amberley Village). Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.