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July 24, 2014

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‘A sad day’: Comedians lament loss of irreverent legend David Brenner

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Steve Marcus

Comedian David Brenner and his sons Wyatt, 11, center, and Slade,14, watch a boxing match Friday, Aug. 21, 2009, at the Orleans. Oliver McCall won the 10-round fight by unanimous decision over Franklin Lawrence.

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David Brenner, Penn Jillette, Lorena Peril, Teller and Nathan Burton at the 10th anniversary celebration of Penn & Teller and their new three-year contract at The Rio on Oct. 26, 2010.

If you tell jokes for a living, it is likely you have been inspired or influenced by David Brenner.

“He was my hero,” Flamingo headliner George Wallace said when asked about Brenner, who died today in New York of pancreatic cancer. He was 78. “We dined together frequently. He was the first, young, flashy dresser in the ’70s, and we used to have monthly lunches, us comedians, with Mayor (Oscar) Goodman. The memories.”

Brenner’s friend and publicist Jeff Abraham said the veteran comic died peacefully surrounded by family and friends. Media outlets have reported that Brenner was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer and had slipped into a coma overnight in New York.

The comedy-club lunches mentioned by Wallace included the likes of Penn Jillette, Carrot Top, Gilbert Gottfried, Bobby Slayton, Dom Irrera and comic hypnotist Anthony Cools.

In that group, which met at Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas, Brenner was doubtless the elder statesman.

“He was a comic genius with a style like nobody else and someone I always admired,” Carrot Top said via text today. “He would make me cry laughing. A true pioneer and a great friend. … It is a sad day.”

“He was a real buddy, a partner of mine on the game show ‘Cash Cab’ with me, and we grew up in the same neighborhood in Philly,” Goodman said today in a phone conversation, adding that a memorial is being organized by Cools and longtime Las Vegas entertainer Tony Sacca to pay tribute to Brenner.

Goodman and Brenner appeared on “Cash Cab,” the Discovery Channel trivia show set, literally, in the backseat of a taxicab, in 2010. The duo won $2,800 for charity, with Goodman donating his share to the Mob Museum.

“David was so smart and so irreverent,” Goodman said. “I always ordered soup at these luncheons we’d have, and I was laughing so hard I couldn’t even eat my soup.”

To millions of TV watchers, Brenner was well known for his myriad appearances on talk shows, especially “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson. He made 158 appearances on show, the most ever with Carson as host, and was also one of Carson’s busiest guest hosts with 58 performances. Through the 1990s, Brenner was a popular celebrity guest on network and syndicated game shows.

“I always thought he would be the heir apparent to Johnny Carson, that he would slide in there and take over as permanent host,” Plaza headliner Louie Anderson said today by phone. “He was a good friend and mentor. All through the years I would run into him, in Vegas or on the road someplace, and he was always upbeat and friendly and very helpful to other comics, always.”

Anderson added that Brenner, famous for referring to his Jewish heritage, “paved the way for the modern-day, observational style of standup we see today. Certainly I think he cleared the way and bridged a cultural gap in the way you didn’t need to be a Jewish person to find humor in his Jewish material.”

Brenner was involved with Tai Babilonia for many years (though she refuted reports that the couple married in March 2011) and held a residence in Las Vegas for several years late in his career. For a time, he frequented gala events, often talking of establishing a one-man headlining production on the Strip, a concept that never did lead to a headlining residency. He spoke frequently with Slayton, especially during the time “The Pitbull of Comedy” was headlining at Hooters and starting a comedy club at Tropicana.

“David gave me a couple of my first national TV shots on his show ‘Night Life’ and would always call and check in when I became a resident performer in Vegas and give me advice and support,” Slayton said in an email. “I loved hanging out with him, and listening to his great stories about Old Vegas over a good meal and a martini was always a highlight of my time there. I already miss him so much.”

Brenner was called on to perform at the 2006 Nevada Ballet Theater Woman of the Year event at the Wynn, one of the first large-scale galas at the then-new resort. The honoree was fellow comedy star Rita Rudner.

“He never lost his enthusiasm for comedy and was always looking for the next big project,” Rudner said by phone today. “He told what is still one of my all-time favorite jokes: ‘I was flying over Beverly Hills today, and I looked down and all I saw were people driving around in Mercedes-Benzes. It looked like Nazi Germany with palm trees.’ That was a David Brenner joke.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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