Saturday, March 03, 2007
The first time I met David Brenner I was at a club in New York and he was standing at the edge of the dance floor. I walked over to him and pretended to watch what he was watching so I could talk to him. I probably said something very mean, yet surely true, about the people dancing and he laughed. He was incredibly nice and very funny and we went back and forth for about fifteen minutes. Then I noticed that my boyfriend, The Doctor Howard, was glaring at me from our table and I ended the conversation. As I walked away David said, “You should do standup.” He said that if I did I ought to contact his agent at the William Morris Agency. I was naïve back then and thought I had about a hundred years to come up with an act and that William Morris would automatically accept my calls at any time in the future. I was wrong, as I usually am about my career. The men I date. Or picking the right cantaloupe.
Many, many years later we met again on the New York set of Every Day with Joan Lunden, and David was the guest co-host. By then I was doing standup full time. Talk shows are impossibly difficult to do since the studio audience isn’t being served alcohol, which someone really needs to look into. But I heard Brenner laughing behind me and that’s what kept me going. I’m pretty sure he was the only one laughing.
I then ran into him years later when he was doing a run-through for his own game show here in LA and I was booked as one of the practice contestants. The premise was that David, the host, had his ‘assistant’ sit at a desk next to the host’s podium and interrupt him with scheduling questions, phone calls etc. At one point the director yelled ‘Cut’ and David announced to the crew and the other comics that he had worked with me and that I was very funny. I had reminded him earlier that we had done Lunden’s show together but he didn’t have to make that comment; it was just a nice thing to do. I had brought my copy of David’s book People Never See You Eat Tuna Fish to the set and at the end of the day I asked him to sign it for me. I clutched it to my 44DD’s all the way back to the parking lot, afraid to even peek at it in case it was bad news. (Dear Suzy, stop stalking me) How many of you gasped when you read how huge my boobs are? I could hear some of you from here. Fools, I don’t have 44DD’s. Yet.
I sat in my little grey Ford Festiva and opened the cover gingerly. He had written To Suzy, you are so funny. Trust me on this one; male comics are not that charitable when they refer to female comics. But David was a class act and he remains one of the most positive and generous comics I have ever known.
The last time we worked together was in Miami, for a variety show that was in pre-production. I had been hired as the head writer and often spoke with David on the phone since he was the host. Eventually the Executive Producer of that show stole all the money, took his coke stash and headed for parts unknown.
David comes from the generation of comedians that was really, really famous. They got that way without the help of reality TV or HBO specials. They didn’t need the comedy boom in the 80’s to help them either because they were working steadily long before that. David shares this legacy with other legends like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein and Bill Cosby.
Even though David has this to say about his web page, The eyewitness report on the sinking of the Hesperus is more up to date than my website, check it out for details on why I Think There's a Terrorist in My Soup came together as a book based on the aftermath of 9/11.
Suzy: Don’t you hold a record for how many times you were on The Tonight Show?
David: Yes and also for The Mike Douglas Show, and I’ve been a guest on more talk shows than any entertainer in the history of TV. It’s nice to hold such records, but let me tell you what it is really worth. If after performing a show I were to invite everyone in the audience to join me at a nearby bar for drinks on me, and after we all drank and had some laughs I went up to the cashier and said “I hold the record for the most appearances on The Tonight Show, Mike Douglas and have been a guest on more talk shows than anyone else,” she would reply “That’ll be $895.00, sir.”
Suzy: What are you the most proud of in what has been a long and remarkable career?
David: That I hold the record for…no, sorry. It’s that I never phoned in a show, always did the best I could every time I walked onto a stage, no matter how few were in the audience or how physically sick I felt, as long as they weren’t neo-Nazis.
Suzy: You’re one of the most prolific comics working today. How many minutes do you write every year? And just to give this question perspective, I write about 10 minutes a year and I’m lying.
David: If each joke lasts only two seconds, that is very impressive. Since I work off current events and the news, I do some new stuff every night, so I would guess that I write about twenty or thirty hours a year, but it’s easy for me, because I write on stage. 99.9% of all the jokes I’ve done were originally adlibs, but this is not a qualitative statement, just a difference in style, because the comedian who sits at the computer writing is just as talented.
Suzy: What’s the worst thing that has happened to you because you’re a celebrity?
David: About thirty people spotted me in front of a store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills one day and crowded around for autographs. Then more people noticed the crowd around me and they too joined the group. I could hear the plate glass window of the store behind me starting to give. I tried warning the group but no one listened to me so finally I just said loudly, “I’m so flattered that you’re asking for my autograph with Robert Redford standing around that corner.” I signed for the one probably deaf old lady who didn’t run away.
Suzy: What’s the best thing that has happened to you because you’re a celebrity?
David: Jack Benny said it first and it’s true – not waiting in line in restaurants, and the other is that I kept my childhood promise of making enough money someday to get everyone in my family and my street corner friends out of the slums.
Suzy: You said in an email to me that you don’t give a shit anymore and I’m guessing that pertains to Hollywood?
David: No, because I never did care about Hollywood and all the bullshit. I meant that nothing, absolutely nothing about show business bothers me anymore, from hearing other comedians doing my jokes and chunks of my act on sitcoms and specials to not hearing back from producers who said they loved me and wanted me for their projects.
Suzy: You have so many great stories but one of my favorites is the one you told me about how lots of comics couldn’t get gigs in Vegas in the 60’s, or was it the 70’s, because Rock and Roll had become king in that town. But yet you managed to work there on a regular basis.
David: I had been the opening act for Sonny and Cher from the time we first worked together at the Sahara Hotel in Vegas in 1971, when they were trying to make a comeback, right through their very last show together. The sudden demise of this hot duo left me with very little work booked for the remaining nine months of the year. In order to not drop off the monetary map (go broke), I walked into my agent's office, told him to put my ego in the bottom drawer of his desk and lower my price for one nighters and weekly gigs, figuring that when buyers could hire me for the same price as comedians not as popular, I'd get the gigs. It worked. On January 1 of the next year, my agent gave me back my ego and I raised my prices higher than they had ever been, which also worked.
After a few years of being the co-headliner in Vegas, I had offers from many of the hotels/casinos to be their exclusive headliner, based on estimations of my drawing 900 customers a show, often filling more seats than the headliners. Headliners made more money, as much as 25% more. Maybe even more appealing, their names were on the top of the marquee and they were called ‘Headliners.’ Once again, I put my ego in a bottom drawer and remained a co-headliner. Why? Do the math. Let's say the headliner earned $100,000 a week and the co-headliner got only $75,000 (which is far from 'only.') The headliner's exclusive contract called for six or eight weeks a year = $600,000 or $800,000 a year. I freelanced, worked all the hotels, mostly hired by headliners who knew I guaranteed them full houses for which they got all the credit. For over a decade, I averaged a yearly twenty to twenty-five weeks of work = $1,500,000 or $1,875,000 a year, so, bullshit titles & marquee placement aside, who made more money in Vegas?
Suzy: If you could give someone thinking of becoming a comic a piece of advice, what would it be?
David: Be original, talk only about what you know, feel and believe. Listen only to the audiences and not managers and agents and never give up.
Suzy: Jerry Lewis once famously said that women weren’t funny. Many club owners still agree with him and many of us have been discriminated against. Have you ever been discriminated against as a comic?
David: Only when I dress as a woman. No, I’ve always been accepted, and let me say that I believe women are just as funny as men and it's a disgrace that there is a glass ceiling above them in comedy.
Suzy: Who makes you laugh? I mean, besides me.
David: I still love the comedians my father had me watch – the old timers, and I think that it is a shame that most of the young comedians today don’t even know who came before them, because to know where you are and where you are going, you have to know where you’ve been. I had a meeting with the young head of comedy development for one of the networks, and I mentioned group comedians, such as The Ritz Brothers, The Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello, and I could tell from his blank eyes that he didn’t know who they were and I said something about him not knowing them. He replied, “Come on, David, they’re before my time.” I said, “The Civil War is before my time, but I know all about it.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the development deal.
Suzy: Is there anything in your career that you wish you had done but didn’t?
David: Hit the lottery, so I could quit performing and sail the parts of the world I haven’t seen yet. No, I have no regrets. I’ve danced around the top for more years than most and am grateful.
Suzy: If you had your life to live over, what would you do differently?
David: Not be born so damn poor and age only ten days every year.