David Brenner

David Brenner Portrait 1975 Carson 2014 Deaths
Gary Null—NBC/Getty Images Brenner, left, photographed with Carson in 1975, died on March 15 at age 78

The man who made ordinary funny

Before little things were big business in comedy, there was David Brenner. He became a stand-up in the late 1960s, a time when comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor were searing stages with edgy, profane routines. Brenner, the son of a vaudeville comic, went a different route. He pioneered what became known as observational comedy: slice-of-life, good-natured gags about everyday absurdities that inspired the later work of Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.

Brenner’s laid-back style made him a natural for late-night TV, starting with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1971. He soon became that show’s most popular performer ever, appearing on it 158 times, not counting substitute-hosting gigs. Although he never parlayed his popularity into a long-term, permanent TV role, throughout the 1970s and ’80s he was in a category all his own: America’s top guest.


This appears in the March 31, 2014 issue of TIME.
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