Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why David Brenner is to blame for me

On Friday, I was finishing up two weeks of unpacking my long-delayed possessions by organizing all of my physical media in my living room. Atop an empty CD tower, which I was about to load up, sat the one audiobook I own: I Think There's a Terrorist in My Soup! by David Brenner. I stumbled upon his post-9/11 ode to the healing values of comedy at a bookstore in Springfield a few years ago, and (as always with his work) was glad I did. Ever since then, that box of cassettes has occupied a unique, and sometimes odd, place among my DVDs, CDs, videotapes and Blu-rays. Which is appropriate, given that the man, who died Saturday, occupies a unique niche in my personal pop culture.

There's no obvious reason why I should be a Brenner fan. His career peaked in the 1970s and early '80s, and he's most often known for his Tonight Show appearances at a time when my bedtime was 9 p.m. at the latest, or never because I wasn't born yet. He was a streetwise Jewish guy from Philadelphia living in New York, and I was none of those things except streetwise. By the time I got into him, he had fallen nearly completely off the pop-culture radar. Few, if any, of my friends knew who he was, and it took his random appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show in the mid-1990s for me to even confirm he was still alive (ah, the pre-Internet-in-my-life age).

Nonetheless, as a high schooler, I was way into him. Like with most of my anachronistic entertainment obsessions, it began with my parents' shelves. In those days, our house had a wall-to-wall, nearly floor-to-ceiling bookshelf (which you can see a quadrant of, including the Brenner book I had yet to read just to the left of my head, in this picture). Underneath those shelves were several rows of records my dad had accumulated over three decades of working in radio. I mined both of these all the time for entertainment.

Midway through my freshman year in late 1994, I decided to read the book whose title I'd long giggled at, Soft Pretzels With Mustard. To say I got to know Brenner was an understatement — it's one of the best and most thorough autobiographies I've ever read about anyone. He tells us about nearly every aspect of his intense (and age-fudged) life, and all about his friends and family — leaving just enough mystery (such as oh-by-the-way references to his two early marriages) that it doesn't feel like an overshare. He does such a good job of it that his two best childhood friends share foreword billing with Joan Rivers and you're equally interested in all three passages. And above all, it's laugh-out-loud hilarious.

I read Soft Pretzels With Mustard repeatedly until it fell apart, and still have the pieces. I found Brenner cuts on some of my dad's comedy records and played them over and over. I checked out as many of Brenner's subsequent books as I could find, and taped his 2000 comeback special, Back With a Vengeance!, when it premiered on HBO. (His advice to then-candidate George W. Bush: "DON'T TALK!")

Brenner's humor in all its forms resonated with me because he could mine comedy, or a meaningful anecdote, out of nearly anything. I've been working at that ever since. The forces that compelled me to start Not Right About Anything are rooted in Brenner's inspiration. 

Above all, though, I'll remember Brenner for a single, pivotal statement that's largely determined who I've been ever since. 

In one chapter of Soft Pretzels With Mustard, Brenner talks about favorite sounds, and how everyone has a different one. The final sentence of the chapter is, "For me, the greatest sound in the world is laughter!" That resonated so much with me at 14 that I can remember where I was, and what everyone was doing around me, at that moment. Before that, comedy seemed like just a diversion. But I decided then that I would laugh more, make others laugh more and generally lighten up about life, something I needed to do then (and sometimes still do now). Because laughter really is the greatest sound in the world, and he made sure we heard plenty of it.

R.I.P., David Brenner. May your gravestone read, "If this is a joke, I don't get it."

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