David Brenner Paid Richard Lewis A Thousand Bucks to Become a Full-Time Comic

Now that’s a mentor
David Brenner Paid Richard Lewis A Thousand Bucks to Become a Full-Time Comic

Comedy history should be kinder to David Brenner, a comedian who deserves to be on all those lists of the best stand-up comics of all time. The guy was all kinds of legit, the comic with more Tonight Show appearances during the 1970s and 1980s than anyone on the planet. When he passed away in 2014 at the age of 78, his good friend Richard Lewis eulogized Brenner as “the king of hip, observational comedy.” 

For Lewis, though, Brenner was more than that, according to Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America. When Lewis was just starting out, he turned to the more accomplished comic — Brenner had already landed Tonight Show appearances by the early 1970s — for advice. For starters, Brenner said, Lewis needed stage time at some of the Village’s low-rent clubs before taking a crack at Budd Friedman’s Improv.  

Lewis did just that, figuring out how to make people laugh at a strange little joint called the Champagne Gallery. “There was a good chance that one out of every two acts were lunatics,” Lewis said. “A guy would walk on with a seal — it was almost Felliniesque. So it wasn’t like there was a lot of pressure.”

With stage time under his belt, Lewis tried an open mic night at The Improv and “blew the roof off.” Friedman congratulated the young comic, proclaiming him Rookie of the Year. Friedman might have spoken too soon, however. When he offered to put Lewis on the regular show that same night, the young comic bombed miserably. “For the showcase, I was tops,” Lewis remembered. “For the real show, I was in the coal mines.”

It took years for Lewis to break through, working three part-time jobs during the day and struggling on the Improv stage at night. The exhausted Lewis complained to Brenner that he wished he could quit all the side hustles and devote all of his energy to being a full-time comic.

What would it take, asked Brenner? Lewis figured he could make it if he had a grand in the bank. Say no more, said Brenner, who wrote a check for $1,000 on the spot. “I quit my jobs and I’ve never looked back,” Lewis said. It was a favor he never forgot, although Brenner says Lewis didn’t have the story exactly right. “I gave him cash. I never carried checks.” 

That sounds like a lot of money to carry around, but even in death, Brenner was known to have a few bucks on him. Part of Brenner’s final request was for one hundred dollars in small bills to be placed in his left sock “just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.”

“This leaves an irreplaceable hole,” Lewis said after Brenner passed. “He was family.”


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