These are the victims of his jokes. His nose. Gotizzille, New York, El-Lay. His sister, Phgiladlhia. His moth-ah. Parsley, New Jersey, Cherry tomatoes. His broth-ah. His nose.
There is, in other words, nothing new in David Brenner. His humor is his morror: a homely reflection of staagmitic teeth, bared in too-eager grins; a homely collection of anecdotes (circa Early Poverty); teach-uh stories; victim stories, bared at the Kennedy Center Monday night, and more frequently, on the "Tonight" show, a job he clearly covets; and finally, a homely betrayal of self-obsession. In all his jokes, he is featured as the victim of tolerably cruel circumstance. That isn't entirely true.
On stage, he dresses Vegas and talks South Philadelphia.
Off-stage, he talks - and remembers - South Philadelphia, his neck and his wrists weighed down by endess assortment of gold chains. It is all part of his shtick. He was born in the slums. He was one of the leaders of a gang called The Satans. He revels in revolution.
"It's like 'Rocky'" - David Brenner asbsolutely loved that movie - "There's one line where he says. I just don't want to be another bum out of the neighborhood.' We used to actually [WORD ILLEGIBLE] that. I said it to my friends. I just don't want ot be another bum but of the neighborhood.' We used it just like he did, while the others sat on the front porch dreaming a lot of dead dreams. Dead dreams - in my house, too.
"All you heard was 'If' and 'Would've' and 'Could've' and 'Had a chance. Had a chance in France, back in the war, Fella there buying wine asked me to go into it with him. Should've done it.'
"I just swore - I just swore I wasn't gonna end up like that. I remember: I must've been 10 or 11. I took all my friends aside and said, 'I got a plan. I know how to get outa the neighborhood: Everyone go home and put on your speakers, and we'll walk out. "We'll just walk outta the neighborhood; and as soon we find a good place, we'll stop."
And they should have done it, they should have done it, he says.
And when he is reminded that maybe 10 is a bit too young for escape, he amends, "Well I was 14."
He talks about that part of his life to a lot of people; at least the publicity package on him is full of it. The struggle is promoted even more than the success. And so now he says, 'I'm gonna BE somebody. I'm gonna BE somebody - it occupies all of your thoughts. I had some really bad jobs when I was a kid; and my friends used to say, 'Why do you work so hard." And I'd say, "When I get a good job, imagine how hard I'll work, I'm in training, I'm in training."
The workout never stops. He says he doesn't analyze his humor, doesn't understand the cross-chronological appeal; but the Johnny Carson fans love him and the kids cheer him and the terminal cases at Vegas think he's great.
David Brenner is very simply the synthesis of every joke that ever preceded him.
"Got on a place, the other day. First class, L.A. to New York. There was this DOG on the floor."
The intonation says GORILLA.
"DOG. On first class, A DOG.
"I said. 'I'm not sitting next to a DOG . . . (Pause) . . . for five hours.'
"They said, 'You sure' It's Dino DeLaurentis's dog."
"I don't care. It's still a DOG.' If I want to sit next to dogs and chickens, I'll take the bus."
"So I sit next to this woman. She turns out to be a fan and she drinks too much.
"She never stops talking. She says 'My friends say I talk too much.' I said, 'It's amazing how observant your friends are.'
"The dog slept all the way. (Pause.) Should've sat next to the dog."
"You have no idea," his father, an ex-Vandevillian used to say. "You have no idea what it's like to hear 2,000 people laughing."
"Wish you could have been here," David Brenner wrote his old man after appearing at a state fair. "Wish you could have been here and seen 55,000 people laughing.
But that's not how he started. He started his career, after putting the slums of South Philadelphia behind him, in a way, making documentaries for television, which he quit doing in '69. Too sad. Too depressing. Nothing changes after you do a documentary. He decided to waste a year "hanging out." That meant telling jokes, which he certainly did not intend to do for a living for the rest of his life.
"It's gotta be a goof. I mean it's gotta be a goof to get up and tell jokes to people you don't know. I mean it's not like telling jokes at the office."
It was fortunate he looked at things in this casual way, for one of his earlier professional experiences is what is known in the business as a bomb. He decided to do a parody of folk singers. Unfortunately, the club was full of folk singers and folk singer symps."
"You know how folk singers are," he grins. "They introduce a song by saying what it means to them and what it means to you and what it means to everyone, and they tune their guitars, and then they play for like two minutes.
"Well, I stood up and said, 'Wouldn't it be great if comedians could do this! And then I said, 'One time I was living with this girl named Esther in Haight-Ashbury." He tunes an invisible guitar. "And we had a quarrel. So I decided to walk out on her."
Another twist on the guitar pegs. "And Esther got up out of the bathtub and slipped on the bathroom tiles and she broke her toe. At THAT point I think, though, they're gonna bring in some guys with no lips, no nose."
This is a man, one has to realize, who thought he was good-looking until he was 14, who always dated "beautiful girls."
"Then when I was 14, I shot up to 6 feet, weighed 125 pounds and had a nose you could hang clothes on. I felt dreadful. So I started to dance, danced like crazy, and pushed - you know - the whole presonality thing. And I was still popular. So I stopped caring.
"I think, though - I think that maybe if I had nine months to live or something . . . I think then maybe I'd have plastic surgery. I'd die with the nose I should have lived with."
But this is something David Brenner would never admit, of course, in his monologues, in which telling jokes at his own expense has made him . . . expensive. He figures he's almost a millionaire. He figures his parents will never have to worry now about sickness. His manager has a fancy house in Los Angeles. Just recently he bought his sister a swimming pool.