I was a near-insomniac as a child — adulthood hasn’t really changed me much. Truth be told, I’m still a night owl.
Growing up, I always knew when it was safe to roam the house. The coast was clear once I began to hear the symphonic snoring that was a nightly occurrence in my parents bedroom — they have, even after all these years, retained the ability to snore in a concert-like fashion, one picking up where the other leaves off. In just the right places they manage to gurgle and snort in unison while building, ultimately, to a crescendo that bears an uncanny resemblance to Beethoven’s Fifth.
Once I was convinced that they were deeply asleep, usually somewhere around the symphony’s second movement, I would sneak into the living room and turn on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”. If I was lucky, I’d be in time for the opening bars of the theme song — BA DUM DA DA DA, BA DA DA DA DE DA — which, unlike my parent’s throat music, was something to be grateful for. When the multi-colored curtain opened up, there would be Johnny, dashing and funny, smiling and affable — as always.
As much as I loved Johnny — and boy, did I love Johnny! — what I looked forward to more than any other part of the show — even more than his signature monologue, which, even when it fell flat, could be salvaged — were the segments where he featured (and often introduced to television audiences) young comedians. Johnny had an innate sense of comedic timing, some attribute this to the years he spent honing his craft as a magician, and he recognized such in others. He also knew funny. This ability to recognize young comedic talent and the grace with which he shared it with the world was unparalleled and, really, a tribute to his generosity of spirit.
Of the comedians that Johnny regularly featured as a guest and, later, as a guest host, my favorite, by far, was David Brenner. Mr. Brenner died Saturday at the age of 78. Once a staple of late-night television and comedy clubs, he had, it seemed, fallen off the face of the earth somewhere in the 1990’s. As it turns out this wasn’t due to substance abuse or a lack of relevance, but because he chose, instead, to raise his children.
He didn’t fall out of favor because he was no longer funny. David Brenner, I suspect, was always funny. I know that his humor transcended generations and influenced untold numbers of future comedians. Simply put, David Brenner, changed the comedy landscape.
For a guy who grew up in South Philadelphia and, I’m guessing, knew his way around foul language, Brenner never worked “blue”, but that’s not what made him different or groundbreaking. What made him stand out was that he didn’t tell jokes. Not, at least, in the traditional sense. No. David Brenner told stories. Funny stories. Stories that people could relate to. Stories about his family, about growing up poor, about relationships, about a trip to the drug store — those kinds of stories.
These are the sorts of stories that I aspire to tell. I dream that someday I can count myself among the many funny people that he influenced. Perhaps, one day, I will tell my stories as well as he told his. If I do, if I can, I hope that wherever he is, he’ll be laughing.
Here’s a video of David Brenner’s first “Tonight Show” appearance (1971)