David Brenner Walked on the Edge of the Leaf: Excerpts From His 2008 ‘Unmasked’ Appearance


(image from The Tonight Show 1971)

Back in 2008 Ron Bennington sat down the comedy legend, David Brenner for an hour long episode of the comedy interview series, “Unmasked.”  The show was taped in front of a live studio audience at Comix Comedy Club in New York City.  Yesterday David Brenner passed away at the age of 78.  As Ron Bennington said during his tribute to Brenner, “you couldn’t write a book about comedy, without a chapter on David Brenner.”  Here are some excerpts from the incredible hour-long conversation during which Brenner talked candidly about his family, learning about comedy from his father, growing up in a tough neighborhood in Philly, and what was behind some of his career choices.

David Brenner was ‘The Godfather” of “Observational Comedy”

Brenner was the Godfather of observational comedy.  He invented it.  Before Brenner, people told jokes, and what Brenner did changed everything.  And his style that was so original at the time, is now so pervasive that people just call it ‘comedy’.  The phrase “observational comedy” was created after a reviewer for a New York paper (possibly the New York Times) saw Brenner perform in the Village.  Bennington asked Brenner what made him think to stop telling jokes and just talk about life when there was no real precedent for it?

“The truth of the matter is, it was what i did.  There was no thought processes to it.  It’s what I did.  This was my sense of humor.  That’s what I did on the street corner, that’s was what I did in school, that’s what I did in work.  That’s what I did. This was my brand of humor…it came from my father;  my father was that way….It’s stupid stuff that we all do and say, and I just started doing it.”

But most people don’t credit him, and many don’t even know that he changed the face of comedy. Brenner said he can’t explain why so few comedians acknowledge his innovation.  “People have no problem saying, I saw Pryor and it changed me, but people who follow observational comedy, don’t seem to say that.”   Those who do know Brenner’s contributions to the genre often say to him, “‘you held the door open for so many comedians, you must feel really good about that,” he said.  “Yeah,” he would answer, ” I just wish I would have gone through the door.”

Brenner Wouldn’t Take Shit From Anyone

After Brenner “opened the door”, a lot of guys  took the act that Brenner created, and got sitcoms and got paid hundreds of millions of dollars doing it. He told Bennington that he doesn’t begrudge them because, he says, “I never wanted to do that…I’m not the kind of guy who is going to have a boss.”  He continued:

“I don’t take shit from anybody and when you work in television you are in the manure pile.  And if it’s worth a lot of money to you, do it.  There is no money that’s worth me losing my identity.  I can’t be paid enough. “

His father was the person who taught him not to take shit from anyone.  He also learned  from his father that he had to look in the mirror every morning and like the guy he saw there.  Both of those lessons  stayed with him throughout his life,  but the integrity he learned also cost him. One of the ways it cost him, was that he would always blow the meetings for some big upcoming idea or project, because he always told the truth.  “Once you get past the Mississippi River you have to lie and fudge. And when you get to LA you can’t tell the truth about anything” he explained.   He told a story about one of the meetings that didn’t work out for him.  It was a meeting he had with a “monster big guy” in the business, in a  huge office, with a mahogany desk, and Brenner walked in to the meeting with a team of ten to twelve people and sat down.  The “monster big guy” started to tell a story about his weekend, his house in Malibu, his kid and his girlfriend and it went on and on and on.

“And he’s embellishing it,” Brenner said.   “And it’s going on for like almost ten minutes.  And I said ‘Excuse me.  I don’t give a flying shit about your beach house.  I don’t care if you get laid, if your son gets laid.  I’m just here to talk about a show and my career.  So let’s cut this bullshit about who’s getting laid in Malibu.   And right then, you could see my career go….(gestures down) and to this day, if I had it to do over again I would have told him the same thing, only earlier.”

Growing Up in Philly

What Brenner didn’t learn from his father about life and comedy, he learned from growing up as a street kid in the tough neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Things were really tough growing up.  “There’s not even a ladder there.  You’re really just in the ground hoping for a rung.”   And later in life when things were tough, he’d always say:

“[At least] it’s not 60th street where i grew up.  I’m not living in a slum sleeping on the floor cause i don’t have furniture.  Where the clothing I wear is all I have except one change of underwear and one change of socks. I don’t have that.  And as long as I don’t have that everything else is profit.  I’ve had a career for 38 years .  I can’t complain.  I’ve had a great career and a great life.  I’ve traveled  the world.  And I was raised in shit town USA, you know?  Where I came from, it was very rough and tough and very few guys got out.  And most of the guys who got out, got out being illegitimate.”

Later,  his appearance on the Tonight Show would change everything.  He told Bennington that when he appeared on the Tonight Show for the first time he had $3 in his pocket and nothing anywhere else.  A month later he was in the main showroom in Vegas and the rest was history.

David Brenner Philosophy

He believes that being open has helped him to survive the ups and downs.   “Since you’re only going to be here once,” he told the audience, “keep all your internal windows open for all the breezes that come in, all the light and darkness come in, and work with it. And mold it to what works best for you.  Let that be all your tools and weapons.” He also believed that taking chances was important in life, and described himself as someone who lived “on the edge of the leaf.”  Most people stay on the stem, he explained, where its comfortable and secure, but he liked to walk on the edge.  “On the edge,” he explained” “you could fall. But thats where all the excitement is, and that’s where the thrills are.  Go out on the limb.  And sure you might fall off, but that’s where it’s all happening.”  And that’s where he lived.  On the edge of the leaf.

You can hear Unmasked with Ron Bennington and David Brenner in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio on Demand.




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