“I like to sit back, smoke a cigarette and laugh for six minutes,” Brenner, in a 2013 interview with CBS, recalled him saying.
Carson’s regard for Brenner, who died in his New York City home Saturday at age 78 after battling cancer, made him one of the most frequent visitors to “Tonight” as a guest and substitute host who was on more than 150 times.
And NBC’s late-night show, in return, made Brenner’s career.
It made the former documentary filmmaker into a hot comedian, one who was ubiquitous on other talk shows and game shows.
Brenner moved with the times, trading routines about the humor of everyday life for jokes about social and political issues, and appearing on MSNBC and Fox News Channel cable programs.
Although his career faltered, he worked steadily through 2013 doing standup. A four-day gig last December included a New Year’s Eve show at a Pennsylvania casino-resort in which he showcased young comedians.
Brenner, who was raised in working-class south Philadelphia and graduated with honors from Temple University, was “always there helping a bright young comedian, whether it be Richard Lewis, Freddie Prinze or Jimmie Walker, and he was still doing it until the very end,” said his friend and publicist, Jeff Abraham.
In a statement, Walker called Brenner “a true comic genius” who was “my mentor and taught me about life and comedy.”
The lanky, toothy-grinned Brenner’s brand of observational comedy became a staple for other standups, including Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.
“David Brenner was a huge star when I met him and he took me under his wing. To me, historically, he was the godfather of hip, observational comedy,” comedian Richard Lewis said in a statement. “He mentored me from day one. … His passing leaves a hole in my life that can never be replaced.”
Brenner took a brief stab at upping his TV fame with the 1976 sitcom “Snip” and the talk show “Nightlife” he hosted in 1987. But he didn’t achieve the success of Seinfeld’s self-titled NBC sitcom or Reiser’s “Mad About You,” and he saw Jay Leno follow Carson as “Tonight” host.
Brenner’s take on his career, as he described it in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, was that he put family before stardom.