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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