Despite Success As A Stand-up, David Brenner Asks, `What If?'

Posted: January 29, 1999

Not that he's doing all that badly professionally, but comedian David Brenner laments what might have been. There was a time when he was the hottest thing going on the talk-show circuit. Brenner would be on 110, sometimes 130 times a year, making appearances and guest hosting. He was with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show 158 times.

``Back when I made my first appearance with Carson in 1971, there just weren't that many comedians around,'' Brenner recalled before beginning his current (and sold out) engagement in the Superstar Theatre at Resorts. ``Now I'm lucky if I do 20 a year.''

During the '70s and much of the '80s, the Philadelphia native was swamped with offers to do movies and sitcoms, too.

``I felt I didn't need any of that at the time,'' he said. ``I was making all the money I needed - a lot more than I could have made with a sitcom back then. I was working 10 months a year and spending the rest of the time in the south of France or sailing the Greek islands.

``Well, don't get me wrong, I'm still doing OK, but not as good as before, but then the nightclub business isn't as good as it had been for entertainers. Meanwhile, television has upped the ante for these sitcoms. Those guys who have series are now making $500,000 an episode. Tim Allen just signed for $1 million an episode. Can you imagine that - a million dollars a show.

``Well, those sitcoms and movies were being offered to me on a silver platter and I turned them down. Now I'm saying, `Hey, guys, I want to come in.' And nobody's listening to me.''

To make himself more available, Brenner and his significant other, Elizabeth Slater, moved with their three children from Aspen to Los Angeles in September.

No luck so far. ``The problem is that today television is geared to people 18 to 25, maybe 30,'' said Brenner, 54. ``They're all aiming for the youth market. It's the old flavor-of-the-month thing. They want young people to play young people. The days of shows such as The Golden Girls are gone.''

Brenner actually did have one fling with a sitcom project back in the mid-'70s, an aborted series called Flip, which was a spoof of the warren Beatty movie Shampoo.

``It was produced by Jimmy Komack, who had hits with such shows as Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico and the Man,'' Brenner said. ``Leslie Ann Warren was in it and I had the Warren Beatty role. Five episodes were in the can and there were rough cuts of two others. . . . At the last moment NBC pulled it. You know why? There was a gay guy on the show, and NBC was scared to death of that. Today you can't have a series without a gay guy in it, but that scared them back then.

``Jimmy ended up sending those five completed episodes to a station in Australia, where it was a big hit.''

Brenner, who grew up in South and West Philadelphia and majored in mass communications at Temple University, went on to write, produce and direct 115 documentaries for Westinghouse Broadcasting and Metromedia Broadcasting before taking time off to try his luck at stand-up comedy. Obviously, his luck was good and he never went back to the documentary game, but he has thought some about calling on that experience as an entertainer.

``I had this script for a feature film titled Shaboom Shaboom, which was set in Philadelphia,'' Brenner said. ``Four or five years ago, I met with Mayor Rendell and about 40 of the city's movers and shakers. I gave a copy of the script to everyone at the party. The Mayor was very supportive of the idea, but that was it. I could not raise the $7 1/2 million needed to make the movie.''

Lately, Brenner has been shopping around Hollywood a documentary idea that would gather all of the retired or semi-retired comedians in a room and just let them talk and have a great time.

``If someone had done that years ago, well, can you imagine the Marx Brothers with Abbott and Costello?''

The comedian said that success is a matter of the Three T's.

``The first T is talent, of course, and then there is tenacity,'' he said. ``Well, those are things you have some control over. Everyone has talent; it's just a matter of finding out what it is. The third T is timing, and that is something you have no control over. If Johnny Carson had quit five years before he did, I'd be sitting behind that desk right now.''

IF YOU GO Where: Resorts Casino Hotel, Superstar Theatre, Boardwalk at North Carolina Avenue.

When: 9 tonight and Saturday night, 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Cost: Sold out.

Phone: 1-800-322-7469.

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