Comedian David Brenner, 78, was a uniquely Philly guy

Posted: March 18, 2014

DAVID BRENNER was a West Philly corner kid who made good. In many ways, he never stopped being a West Philly corner kid.

Whenever he returned from comedy tours and TV appearances, David always wanted to be taken to the old neighborhoods where he grew up.

He remembered hangouts like Moe's, Golub's Market, Barson's and Phil's luncheonette. He could recite the menu from long-gone Fireman's at 52nd and Baltimore, where you could get a full-course meal for $1.75. And the characters he hung out with: Bird, Stan the Dancer, Beans, Needles, Goobie.

He never tried to dump his Philadelphia accent and, like fellow Philadelphian Bill Cosby, took many comedy routines from his childhood experiences.

David Norris Brenner, a stand-up comedian whose use of current events to make comedy influenced many future comics; an actor, director and producer; author of five books; and an Army veteran, died Saturday after a long struggle with cancer. He was 78 and lived in New York City.

David set a record in appearances on the old Johnny Carson "Tonight Show," appearing 157 times, starting in 1971.

David's sometimes outrageous sense of humor dated to his early Philly days. Fred Lavner, humorist, author and longtime friend, recalls meeting David when Fred was a kid and David was working in a Laundromat near 60th and Market streets.

One day, David put Fred in a dryer, telling him it was a space capsule. Then he had to take a phone call and forgot the kid was in the dryer.

Fred's father rescued him. When confronted, David said, "Looks like he shrunk a little bit, but at least we got all the wrinkles out of him."

"From that point on, he was my idol," Fred said.

Kal Rudman, a broadcast pioneer and philanthropist, recalled when David was producing documentary films for KYW and trying out comedy routines using current events.

"He said to me, 'Kal, I think I'm on the right track.' And he was. He was a news junkie. He influenced a lot of people, like Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman and others.

"He used humor growing up in some dangerous neighborhoods. His theory was, 'You can't punch somebody if you're laughing.' "

Gene Seymour, onetime Daily News reporter, film critic for Newsday and now a freelance entertainment writer, remembered when David rescued a dreary fundraising concert to benefit the people who had lost their homes in the 1985 MOVE conflagration in West Philly.

Seymour wrote on Facebook that everybody was in a sullen mood that August night, including Mayor Wilson Goode, Jesse Jackson and host Bill Cosby.

"I thought I was going to write about a well-meaning flop," Gene wrote. "Then Brenner, who'd earlier told us press people how infuriated and sickened he was by the MOVE incident, came out at the end and electrified the audience with one of the best stand-up recitals I'd ever seen him do, anywhere, anytime.

"It was like watching a surfer catch hold of a monster wave and riding it home. And for the only time that night, the audience, most of them Osage Avenue homeowners, gave back as much love as he delivered."

David recalled in a 2011 interview with then- Daily News editor Larry Platt how, when he was attending Sayre Middle School, the class had to go next door into a church basement to hide under tables in case of a nuclear attack.

One day, he raised his hand and asked the teacher, "Are you telling me that if they drop an atomic bomb on West Philly, we're gonna live because we're under tables in a church?"

He estimated that he was suspended from school 200 times for bad behavior.

David was born in South Philadelphia to Louis and Estelle Brenner. His father was a vaudeville comedian and singer known as Lou Murphy. The family moved to West Philly when he was a boy.

He graduated from West Philadelphia High School and entered the Army, serving two years with the 101st Airborne Division as a cryptographer in the 595th Signal Corps in Boblingen, Germany.

After his discharge, he enrolled at Temple University, majoring in communications. He graduated with honors.

Early in his career, he was a writer, director and producer of 115 TV documentaries, and headed the documentary units of Westinghouse Broadcasting and Metromedia, winning awards, including an Emmy.

Brenner released a comedy album, "Excuse Me, Are You Reading That Paper? " The title came from an incident on a bus when he was sitting on a newspaper and a fellow passenger asked him if he was reading it. He told the man he would stand up, read a page and sit back down again.

He also wrote five books .

Brenner lived for years in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, but recently had moved to New York.

David appeared in many TV shows, kibitzing with Ed Sullivan, David Frost, Mike Douglas, David Letterman, Bill Maher and Howard Stern.

He was married three times: to Philadelphian Geri Leno and to Elizabeth Slater - those marriages ended in divorce - and to Ruth Brenner. He also is survived by three sons, Slade, Wyatt and Cole; a grandson; and companion Tai Babilonia, a former Olympic figure skater.

comments powered by Disqus