David Brenner, the gangly, toothy-grinned "Tonight Show" favorite whose brand of observational comedy became a staple for other standups, including Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser, died Saturday. He was 78.
Mr. Brenner, who had been fighting cancer, died peacefully at his home in New York City with his family at his side, according to Jeff Abraham, his friend and publicist.
"David Brenner was a huge star when I met him and he took me under his wing. To me, historically, he was the godfather of hip, observational comedy," comedian Richard Lewis said in a statement. "He mentored me from day one. ... His passing leaves a hole in my life that can never be replaced."
The lanky, always sharply dressed Mr. Brenner became one of the most frequent visitors to Johnny Carson's "Tonight" in the 1970s and '80s.
His 150-plus appearances as guest and substitute host turned the former documentary filmmaker into a hot comedian, one who was ubiquitous on other talk shows and game shows.
He also briefly hosted his own syndicated talk show in 1987 and starred in four HBO specials.
Although his career faltered, he worked steadily through 2013 doing standup. A four-day gig last December included a New Year's Eve show at a Pennsylvania casino-resort in which he showcased young comedians.
Mr. Brenner, who was raised in working-class south Philadelphia and graduated with honors from Temple University, was "always there helping a bright young comedian, whether it be Richard Lewis, Freddie Prinze or Jimmie Walker, and he was still doing it until the very end," Mr. Abraham said.
Although Mr. Brenner took brief stabs at TV fame, with the 1976 sitcom "Snip" and the talk show "Nightlife" he hosted in 1987, he didn't achieve the success of Mr. Seinfeld's self-titled NBC sitcom or Mr. Reiser's "Mad About You," and he saw Jay Leno follow Mr. Carson as "Tonight" host.
Mr. Brenner's take on his career path, as he described it in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, was that he put family before stardom.
He said a long custody battle with a girlfriend over their son, Cole, forced him to curtail his TV appearances beginning in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Brenner lived in Aspen, Colo.
Decades ago, he had burned out on filmmaking -- "You don't change the world by doing documentaries," he told "CBS Sunday Morning" in 2013 -- and decided to give comedy a try. He was on the verge of quitting when his effort to impress talent bookers at "Tonight" worked.
His career soared after his first appearance in January 1971. He went from being nearly broke to overwhelmed by a then-hefty $10,000 in job offers the day after he was on the show. "I really believe that had ... Johnny Carson retired in the early '80s, then I would be sitting behind that desk. I don't think there's any doubt."
Mr. Brenner wrote five books, including the post-9/11 "I Think There's a Terrorist in My Soup," published in 2003. His last HBO special, "David Brenner: Back with a Vengeance," debuted live in 2000.