- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2000

LOS ANGELES

David Brenner didn't win the network talk show, the sitcom or the multimillion-dollar contracts that enriched a fair number of his comedy peers.

He's still hoping for the last laugh, however.

The stand-up comic, who gained fame as a favored visitor on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," is betting that his weekend HBO show from Las Vegas will re-energize a career interrupted by family discord.

"I'm gonna take my place back at the front of the parade," Mr. Brenner says in a matter-of-fact tone.

He's not playing it safe. "David Brenner: Back With a Vengeance" (10 p.m. Saturday), his first solo special in two decades, is live. The jokes will be spontaneous: Mr. Brenner plans to riff on newspaper headlines of the day.

"I'm raising the wire up, high as I can get it, and I'm making it real thin," Mr. Brenner says. "I'm going to walk a wire that few if any comedians would dare to walk… . This is my moment for people to say, 'Do you know anyone who can hit the ball out of the park that way?' "

Mr. Brenner's cockiness, which could be off-putting, is instead engaging. Maybe it's the mixed metaphors. Or the endearingly goony grin, unchanged despite his 54 years. Maybe it's the sympathetic response to a talented comedian who seems to have suffered, ironically, from bad timing.

Or perhaps it's that, as Mr. Brenner tells it, he took a pass on stardom to put his son's welfare first. A long, bruising custody battle forced him to curtail his TV appearances and visibility, beginning in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Brenner lived in Aspen, Colo.

"In a nutshell, I couldn't work more than 50 nights a year [out of town] or I'd be an absentee father," he says. "That was when they were giving out the talk shows, the sitcoms."

He finally won the fight with a girlfriend over their son, Cole, now 17, who lives with him in Los Angeles. Mr. Brenner and his companion of 12 years, artist Elizabeth Slater, also are raising two sons they have together, ages 4 and 1.

No regrets over his decision?

"I didn't even make a decision. I didn't even think about it. How could you not do it? I don't mean to sound noble," Mr. Brenner replies. "Besides, I come from the slums of Philadelphia, and everything in my life is profit. My downside is what most people would strive a lifetime to get to."

What he may have lost, however, would have to rankle.

After appearing about 200 times as a "Tonight Show" guest and fill-in host, Mr. Brenner seemed in the '80s to be the natural choice to replace Mr. Carson. But it was Jay Leno, after jousting with David Letterman, who claimed the late-night throne in 1992.

Mr. Brenner's approach to comedy mining everyday events for laughs was reflected in the routines of colleagues such as Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser. That pair graduated to wildly lucrative sitcoms; Mr. Brenner stayed on the comedy-club circuit, which couldn't match such rewards.

Back in the '70s, Mr. Brenner seemed on the verge of sitcom success with "Snip," loosely based on the movie "Shampoo," from TV hit maker James Komack ("Chico and the Man," "Welcome Back Kotter"). With seven episodes filmed and unaired, NBC pulled the plug.

Mr. Brenner, who always worked "clean" and still does for corporate gigs, now brings off-color language into his club routines. He's busy writing screenplays. He knows Hollywood's current youth obsession will shape his comeback.

Network executives "are not going to offer me 'The David Brenner Show.' Those days are over," he says. "They say, 'Oh, the demographic is different, we're looking for young people.' But there's no reason I can't be a father, the neighbor, the boss. There's no reason I can't be the Peter Boyle or George Segal of a series."

Maybe not at the front of the parade, but closer.

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