Comedian David Brenner has died, at age 78. The son of a vaudeville performer who worked under the name “Lou Murphy,” Brenner majored in mass communications at Temple University and worked on muckraking TV documentaries until he became discouraged that his work didn’t seem to be effecting actual social change. “So I decided,” he told the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, “rather than try to solve problems, I would help people forget ’em.”
He began working as a stand-up in 1969 and made his TV debut on The Tonight Show in 1971, after making a careful study of the comedians who went over well on the show and tailoring his material accordingly.
Brenner became such a favorite of Johnny Carson’s that he guested on the show a record 158 times and served as guest host 75 times. He also made repeat appearances on The David Frost Show, Dinah!, The Mike Douglas Show, The Late Show With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and Hollywood Squares. He briefly hosted his own syndicated talk show in 1987.
Unlike stand-up comics who became a hit on talk shows a few years later, Brenner never made the leap to acting in sitcoms, though he tried just once, as the star of Snip, a 1976 comedy set in a hair salon that was probably inspired by the hit movie Shampoo. The show was touted as ground-breaking in its sexual humor, partly because of carryover from the movie’s reputation, and partly because the cast included an openly gay character. In the end, NBC got cold feet and pulled it from its schedule after it had already been included in TV Guide’s annual special issue promoting the new fall shows. The seven completed episodes were broadcast only in Australia.
In more recent years, Brenner appeared in the 2004 dirty-joke documentary The Aristocrats; in Goodnight, We Love You (2004), a documentary about Phyllis Diller; and played himself in a 2010 episode of Modern Family. He also starred in the last of his four standup specials (2010’sDavid Brenner: Back With A Vengeance!), recorded two comedy albums, and wrote five books. Since 2011, he had been married to the World champion figure skater Tai Babilonia.