David Brenner, a proud Jew, was honored at an Israel Bonds dinner in 1992. He told how he grew up in a tough, changing neighborhood of Philadelphia where he’d run into someone’s fist every day. “Why do you hate me?” he’d ask.
“You killed Christ.”
“That was 2,000 years ago!”
“I just heard it today.”
Brenner said three of his uncles became rabbis and three became gangsters. His grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi who went to shul accompanied by his sons carrying bats to protect him from the bigots. David’s father, Louis Yehuda Brenner, was a vaudevillian comedian and later a cigar smoking bookie. But he went to shul every morning.
He inherited a penchant for comedy from his father. So it was easy for him to deflect the anti-Semites on the mean streets of his hometown by breaking them up with a barrage of funny lines. Anti-Semitism in South Philadelphia and the Holocaust in Europe forged his identity and made him an ardent Zionist and champion of Israel. He said, “My father told me, if it ever happens here we have a place to go.”
Brenner, who died of cancer on March 15 at age 78 at his home in Manhattan, was well respected in the comedy trade for his keen insight on the human dilemma. He never relied on shock, insult or raunchy jokes to get laughs. He was concerned with family, society , the economy, and his material was brilliant. Tell him to have a nice day and he’ll suggest, “Why one nice day? How about a weekend? Why not a nice life?”
People asked him where he gets his material, and he answered, “All you have to do is look and listen.” He developed what he called “observational humor.” People magazine in 1986 praised it as “a nice-Jewish-guy style of humor.”
For example a sign in a restaurant that said “For bathroom use staircase” cracked him up. This sign in the bus was really dumb: “ILLITERATE? Call 1-800…” And the sign in the lavatory on the plane, “For used razor blades,” was classic. Who’s going to shave with a razor blade in a flying jet?
When I saw him at Kutsher’s Country Club he revealed how he quit smoking. People warned him to stop, that his lungs will turn black. “So what?” he said. “They’re inside.”
He went to an acupuncturist. A man came in with a set of needles, and starts knitting him. For two days he didn’t smoke. On the third day he craved a cigarette. “I lit one up and smoke came out of 50 holes.”