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David Brenner, R.I.P.

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It is a rare comedian who isn't hated by at least one of his peers. David Brenner was a rare comedian. When he was starting out, there were some who didn't like his comedy because he wasn't nasty enough and he was often wearing a leisure suit. There was a flurry of such comics in the early seventies and a lot of them haven't worked since Make Me Laugh was canceled. But Brenner proved to have the chops and the staying power and he matured into a first class monologist. He also gained a stellar rep as a nice guy who was never too busy to help other comics.

I don't think he quite got his due as a stand-up but if you ever got to see him live — as I did — you know he was a first-rate storyteller. The last time I saw him, he did a long set that was hilarious and skillful. He started telling Story A and halfway through, something he said took him off on a tangent and he was suddenly telling Story B and that led him to Story C and Story D…and I think he got up to Story G before he finally finished one.

But then the amazing thing was the finish of Story G led him directly and unexpectedly into the conclusion of Story F and the end of Story F led him seamlessly back to the dénouement of Story E…and so on. He was supposed to do exactly 45 minutes and at 44 minutes and 10 seconds, he expertly finished Story A to a huge, explosive laugh and bowed-off to fifty seconds of laughter. 45 minutes on the friggin' nose…and the guy, though he made it look so natural and casual, knew exactly where he was every millisecond of the way.

I spoke with him a few times…once when he was trying-out what he was about to tape for a Showtime or HBO special and he said to a bunch of us, "I don't want compliments. Tell me every damn thing you didn't like…every joke you thought wasn't strong." He was thick-skinned and serious about what he did.

Only once did I see him being truly awful. I am among the few human beings who will admit to having seen episodes of Snip!, a never-aired sitcom he did for NBC in 1976. Seven were taped, none were broadcast. At the time, the excuse was that the network was antsy about putting on the series because of a gay character. That ain't what I heard, working on another show for the same producer. I heard it was because the show was terrible — and what I saw sure was — and that Brenner had gone to NBC and talked them into dumping it. He'd said something like, "You know it's going to bomb. Why put it on and devalue me as a performer you have under contract and could use in other projects?" If he really did that, he was even smarter than I thought…and I thought he was pretty smart. And pretty funny.