Other veteran comics could head straight to The Tonight Show couch to banter with Johnny Carson, but David Brenner had to do a stand-up routine when he was a guest. Finally, Carson told a puzzled Brenner why. "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 yesterday 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.
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. 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. "I really believe that had ... Johnny Carson retired in the early '80s, then I would be sitting behind that desk," he told the AP in 1995. "I don't think there's any doubt." In a statement, his family said he left a last laugh: A final request that $100 in small bills be placed in his left sock "just in case tipping is recommended where I'm going." (Read more David Brenner stories.)