David Brenner and the bravest man who ever lived

David Brenner Tonight Show

Comedian David Brenner was said to have been Johnny Carson’s favorite guest on The Tonight Show, showing up on 157 episodes.  He passed away this weekend at age 78.  Watching clips decades later reminds you how easy Carson and Brenner could fill air time with a quick chat and be able to make others laugh so effortlessly, and how much of a good guy Brenner seemed to be.  When I was a kid, I’d try to get my parents to “let me stay up to watch Carson” and they often let me, to my sleepless glee.  But I was disappointed if the show didn’t have David Brenner as a guest or as guest host.  I liked to watch him laugh as he told his jokes, and his humor, whether I understood it all or not, made me laugh.  I learned of Brenner’s passing via a nice comment by Jimmy Fallon on Monday night’s episode of The Tonight Show, where Fallon has returned to the kind of humor as the new host of the long-lived show, the kind of humor that kept audiences rolling back in the 1970s and 1980s with Brenner’s brilliant monologues.

I liked Brenner so much that when his autobiography came out before I was a teenager I nabbed it up, maybe the only autobiography I read until adulthood.  Again, some of it was outside of my understanding back then.  And here’s a strange thing.  My personal sleep habits spring from staying up late to watch Carson and Saturday Night Live, but even more so to Brenner’s own sleep clock.  I latched onto the fact that Brenner said he would only sleep about four hours each night, nothing close to the eight hours most people aim to get.  He figured if he kept it up he could live–be awake–something like 20 years longer than everyone else.  People say you need 8 hours of sleep per day, yet Brenner made it to 78.  Bravo.  It makes me wonder if he kept up that 4-hour sleep plan.  Because of Brenner I have never bought into the need for the eight-hour nightly sleep.  My own strange takeaway from this funny funnyman.

Called Soft Pretzels with Mustard (still available at Amazon here), Brenner’s autobiography is a story of a kid growing up in Philly and how he picked up his sense of humor along the way.  The book became a bestseller and I count it as one of my favorites.

Soft Pretzels with Mustard

My favorite clip of The Tonight Show with Brenner is one of the funniest pieces of television you’ll ever see and I last saw it on a Johnny Carson anniversary show.  I scanned the Web for it to no avail, but found Brenner’s own recollection of the episode:

“Johnny loved to catch someone NOT watching the “Tonight Show,” especially when they were on it.  So one night I was on the show and I did my act and I came over and sat on the couch and, if you remember, sometimes the last guest would be the author of a book.

“And when I would guest host for Johnny and I had to interview an author, I could hear people all over America start snoring.  So this author comes on, and I’m at the end of the couch, and I go off into another world.  The book is something like “Leadership in America.”  So I’m doing fine, and Johnny sees me, and he knows what’s going on because I’ve got a great big smile on my face.

“Well, Johnny says, ‘Who do you think would make a great leader in America today … DAVID?’  And I snap to and I just start talking and try to talk my way out of it because I have no idea.  ‘Well, Johnny, no one is qualified or capable of leading a country such as ours, so we must bring back and reincarnate the bravest man who ever lived.’  And I’m thinking ‘All right!  I did it.  That worked.’

“And then I hear Johnny say, ‘Well, David, who IS that?  Who is the bravest man who ever lived?’  Now I’m thinking the show is almost over, so it’s like school, the bell is about to ring, I can talk my way through this to the end.  So I start, ‘Well, Johnny, it’s hard to say of all the people who have ever lived just which person might have the exact combination…’—and time is dragging on and the show isn’t ending and suddenly I get it—‘…but actually the bravest man who ever lived was the first man who drank milk.’

If my memory serves, it was at this point that Carson looked seriously at Brenner, confused by his answer.

“And Johnny says, ‘The first man who drank milk?’  And I say, ‘Yeah, because can you imagine, they’re all sitting around the cave and this guy says, “Look at that animal over there with the balloon under it.  I’m going to go over there and squeeze that balloon and whatever comes out of it, I’m going to drink it.”  

Then you could almost see a cartoon light bulb of humor go on over Brenner’s head.

“No!  No!  Wait a minute!  The bravest man who ever lived was the first man to eat an egg, because he said, “Do you see that bird over there?  I’m just going to wait around and the first thing that comes out of that bird’s ass, I’m going to eat it.”’

Brenner and Carson

It was at this point the entire audience broke up in hysterics.  Johnny starts laughing until tears shoot out of his eyes and you get the impression the production crew forgets its timing queues because they can’t control their laughter either.  Johnny cuts to a break, and even after a commercial they come back and everyone is still laughing, with Carson closing the show without being able to gain control.  Brenner was quick and brilliant, in a league with the pantheon of comedic geniuses like Groucho Marx.

Three cheers for this very, very funny man.

C.J. Bunce

One comment

Leave a Reply