Sunday, March 16, 2014 | 4:27 p.m.
Funnyman David Brenner never set out to make millions laugh, yet he did brilliantly as a standup comic and a TV host long before Jerry Seinfeld turned that form of wry observational humor into a goldmine.
David made his name as the one comedian on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” who racked up a record number of appearances as a guest and a stand-in host, yet, at his first audition, he was told that he’d never enter the NBC building at 30 Rockefeller Center ever again.
He made everybody laugh, from fellow comics to friends from his old Philadelphia neighborhood and hardened showbiz critics. While David laughed at life’s idiocies, deep down much of his time on Earth was of unhappiness and despair.
His shocking death from a rapidly spreading cancer Saturday stunned his family, friends and the comedy world. He reportedly left us with a final joke: “Put $100 bills in my socks. I might need them for tips where I’m going.”
It was always about $100 bills, and I’ll explain that significance later.
David was a pal for more than 30 years. I knew him from the early 1980s with the birth of “Entertainment Tonight.” I filmed him in Atlantic City for my show “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous.”
We remained friends when we both moved to Las Vegas. It was here that he had a string of engagements at the Golden Nugget, Tropicana, Hilton and his own showroom at the Westin.
He wed here onstage during a TV special filmed at he Venetian. It ended in a troubled divorce — and like an earlier romance — in a brutal custody battle. I will always believe that the almost two decades of horrendous court battles, expensive lawyers and depositions in his fight for his children took a tremendous toll on his health.
Certainly it devastated his career, as his comedy work was attacked for making him an absentee father and then the most vicious claim of all — cruelty because of his travels.
As his comedy work trickled down, I took him to lunch at Spago in Caesars Palace the week before he moved back to New York. Coincidentally, he would be back a couple of months later for a weekend engagement at Suncoast.
“I don’t get a job for months near home, and the moment I decide to move away, I get a booking,” he laughed. “Ain’t it always like that?!”
David always had me laughing when we met. Not only with his comments and observations from current events, but also with his anecdotes of growing up in Philly, being Jewish and working in casinos for Mob bosses who he once described as better than the Wall Street corporations now in control.
My favorite was the tale of his parents. He’d regularly send them on cruises trading out his comedy shows in exchange for their travels. One was a world cruise that required David to fly to Hong Kong to do his shows on board the Asian leg of the journey.
David learned that his mother had died on the ship. Maritime rules regulated that her body would have to be returned to the embarkation port. He flew earlier than planned to meet his father to ensure that all was well.
“I thought he’d want to return home with me,” said David. “But he decided to stay on the cruise at first because my mother’s body was kept safely in a freezer. When I went back to meet him on landing back on the East Coast to take care of her body arrangements, he introduced me to a lady he’d decided to marry on the remainder of the trip!
“That could only happen to me: I’m picking up my mother’s body and meeting my brand new stepmom!”
David was born poor, admitting that as a kid he’d sleep on the sand under the Atlantic City boardwalk, wrapping his clothes in a newspaper and washing them the next morning in a public restroom during his vacation breaks.
In later life, he would always keep $100 bills in his pocket to prove to himself that he’d become successful and as reminder of the poverty he’d escaped. It was always about the $100 bills.
At a young age, he became an acclaimed and serious documentary filmmaker. He had a social mission to raise issues that needed change, to right wrongs. David won awards but never succeeded in getting the wrongs he exposed righted.
He decided on comedy to help people laugh at the problems he’d filmed but never solved. It was trademark wry observational humor, but “Tonight Show” execs who watched his first audition vowed that it would never get him through the doors of NBC headquarters, let alone onto Johnny’s show.
Instead, David went in as a member of the audience several times to see what comedians did on the show. When he believed that he knew enough, he auditioned again and won the spot that changed his life overnight.
His star shined bright on television, in casino shows and as a mega-bucks spokesman at the Sands in Atlantic City for the execs who came out here to open the Venetian for Sheldon Adelson.
But the fame and fortune were overshadowed by the ugly custody battles. David and his first son Cole were the victims of a nearly decade-long, vicious tug-of-war orchestrated by the lawyers of his former girlfriend Charisse Brody.
David continued the fight even though he was ordered to pay her astronomical legal bills. The numerous legal maneuverings severely affected his career and appearances. He finally won custody of Cole in the mid-1990s.
It was February 2000, a year after Sophia Loren helped open the Venetian, that David broadcast a live HBO special there and while onstage for the finale married Elizabeth Slater, who was the mother of his other two sons, Slade and Wyatt.
The marriage lasted just over a year, and another round of brutal custody battles ensued. Eventually, David won those two cases, but again at significant financial and emotional costs.
Under court orders, he could work only 50 out-of-town dates a year; otherwise, he’d lose the kids by being an absentee father. He told me several times that he never regretted the decision to put his kids over his career:
“I never thought twice about it. They were my life, not my job,” he told me. But he remained bitter about the lawyers and his exes.
Philadelphia lawyer Abby Freidman, who also had relocated to Las Vegas, assisted with the management of his career and helped straighten out his financial difficulties. David dated Olympic figure skater Tai Babilonia and became engaged to her here and wed her in March 2011with the full blessings of his three sons.
Finally, he’d found happiness, but I think the battles that he’d fought for 19 years in courtrooms and lawyers’ offices took a punishing toll.
His philosophy that kept him going through all of the insanity was that he was eternally grateful to have left the poor streets of Philadelphia and built an extraordinary career:
“I spent 19 years in family court wickedness. … I come from what was then the slums of Philadelphia, and everything in my life is profit.”
His death Saturday afternoon came six weeks after celebrating his 78th birthday, and there was an extraordinary outpouring of love from his fellow comics as best evidenced in the moving Las Vegas Sun column by my colleague John Katsilometes posted Saturday night.
I don’t think David will need his $100 tips up in heaven, but I do think he’s got a whole new gig making the angels laugh.
David: RIP, my friend. From here on, it’s smooth sailing, much laughter and no battles. You were a remarkable man for your humor, friendship, parenting and, more than anything else, your steadfast belief in what was right.
God bless you.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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