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Comedian David Brenner 

Rabbi Or Comedian: A Different Calling
David Brenner says his heart belongs to Philly.

-- Lauren Pound Somers

When your grandfather and three of your uncles are rabbis, it’s understandable they might expect you to enter the “family business.” But native Philadelphian David Brenner chose a different path -- to the eventual delight of audiences everywhere. “My relatives were pretty much split between rabbis and gangsters,” says Brenner half-jokingly. “The rabbis thought I might end up following in their footsteps, but I never had the calling.” Instead, the man who grew up Jewish and poor in South and West Philadelphia gave up a comfortable early career in broadcast production to take on the comedy high wire without a net -- and nearly four decades later, he’s still entertaining audiences across the country with his quick wit.

On April 12, he returns to the region to perform for the first time in more than a year as a fundraiser for Congregation Or Ami, a 60-year-old synagogue serving 400 member families and located at 708 Ridge Pike in Lafayette Hill. Tickets for “A Night of Comedy…and More,” a Club Megillah production, are $75 and $100, with a limited number of $300 seats that enable patrons to rub elbows with the comedian beforehand at a private home. For tickets and information, call 610-828-9066 or visit Congregation Or Ami’s website.

While Brenner has sold countless tickets to his Las Vegas shows and earned glowing reviews for his highly rated HBO specials, he says there is nothing better than performing in a more intimate setting akin to the places where he got his start, such as Pip’s and The Improv in New York. He will get that chance when he performs in the Montgomery County suburb -- a far cry from his days hanging around 60th and Market Streets.

“I came back about nine months ago and found myself on 13th Street having a hoagie and just sitting down talking with a neighborhood guy,” says the renowned comic, who realized his dreams of success and seeing the world after plotting his escape from the poverty that dominated his childhood. “I feel so at home here compared to anywhere else I’ve been. I never really clipped the roots off. My heart belongs to Philly.”

Living close to the bone was such a way of life for the families in Brenner’s childhood circles that their circumstances were simply not commented on, at least not in front of the children. As an adult, when he had dinner at a local steakhouse after performing at the famed Palumbo’s in South Philly and was asked to sign the restaurant’s guestbook, he wrote, “To Arthur’s Steak House, where I ate my first steak” – giving the staff a hearty laugh at what they thought was a joke. Little did they know Brenner was dead serious, having had nothing in his life before that but steak-shaped hamburger patties his mother called “fake steak.”

“We never talked about these things,” says Brenner, recalling matter-of-factly the way life was in his neighborhood. “My best friends said they never realized how poor we were till they read my first book. They never knew I was evicted. We used to kid this one guy about being cheap because he would just give us pretzels and water when we played poker at his house. I didn’t find out till years later that he was paying off his dad’s medical bills.”

The self-professed hard-scrabble street kid always had a natural bent for performing, credited in part as a defense mechanism for survival and in part to the antics of his revered father, Lou Brenner. A successful vaudeville star who performed as “Lou Murphy” for thousands of Navy sailors in California, the elder Brenner gave up the stage and a Hollywood movie contract because his rabbi father objected to him working on Friday nights. But his comic sensibility was irrepressible, and his son quickly picked it up and became the undisputed king of practical jokes -- something that frequently came in handy as a tool of revenge in the take-no-prisoners mindset of the streets.

And even though those streets put a dubious stamp on Brenner’s memory, he has always preferred “real Philly neighborhoods” to the city’s typical historical attractions when he comes back to visit -- an inclination that dates back to his days as a child.

“When we went on a school trip to visit Ben Franklin’s grave, we were supposed to throw pennies in to keep it maintained, but none of the Jewish kids did that because we’d heard that Ben was anti-Semitic,” says Brenner of the legend that has since been debunked. “And we knew the real hero of the Revolutionary War was the Jewish guy [Israel Bissell] who rode his horse for hundreds of miles to warn everyone about the British, but Paul Revere got all the credit.”

It wasn’t a stretch for young Brenner and his peers to believe some of those stories about America’s founding fathers, considering the anti-Semitism that was prevalent in their own neighborhood. In his first book, “Soft Pretzels with Mustard,” he recalled how groups of students from nearby Saint Carthage would routinely beat up Jewish kids in full view of the school’s faculty. During his own encounter, turning the tables on his attackers by throwing horse manure at them gave him some measure of satisfaction -- even if it didn’t ultimately end the practice.

“There was a lot of anti-Semitism when I was growing up,” he wrote in his best-seller -- a tribute, warts and all, to Philadelphia and the indelible impact it’s had on him. “I was raised to be proud that I am a Jew. I learned no prejudices. I also learned that it was not a choice but an obligation of every Jew to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice.”

Despite those types of experiences -- or perhaps because of them -- the Brenner family made its mark on Philadelphia Jewish life. The comedian lauds in particular one of his uncles, Jay Gerson Brenner, claiming he was one of the first rabbis to conduct religious ceremonies in a chapel built inside his home and to give his services for free to anyone serving in any branch of the military. According to the younger Brenner’s account, the prison chaplain and active fundraising Zionist founded one of the first nondenominational houses of prayer and helped surviving Holocaust Jews escape war-torn Europe and sneak into Palestine.

That kind of global interest was central in Brenner’s life even though his immediate family’s own travels were largely limited to summer trips to Atlantic City. While a brief post-high school stint in the U.S. Army took him to London and Paris and gave him a glimpse into the larger world, his roots and meager finances brought him back to Philly, where he studied dramatic writing (a “stupid major” in his mind) at Temple University.

“I can honestly say that 95 percent of my success has been based on what I learned in the streets, not in the schools,” he says. “I studied and was curious, but they never taught about the real world. I got my degree but used my street sense most of my life to get ahead.”

The one benefit of graduating from Temple was the connection to jobs. Within just a short time Brenner was writing for and eventually directing and producing documentaries, many about the plight of people fighting poverty. While his work earned accolades, he became discouraged over time that nothing really changed.

“At the beginning I thought, well, you just present the public with a problem and some possible solutions and society will use that information to make things better for people,” he says. “I eventually realized my naivete. It isn’t that we’re seeking the answers; we just don’t want to implement them. So I decided rather than try to solve problems I would help people forget ’em.”

It was a major turning point and irrevocable career change. He quit the business, braved his first stand-up audience in June 1969 and never looked back. An early break with a spot on the “The Tonight Show” led to a record 158 appearances there and sold-out shows across the country. Throughout the years he’s seen first-hand the evolution of stand-up comedy and how its place in American life has changed.

“These days things are run by corporate America, so it isn’t as much fun. But you just keep in mind that the payoff is on the stage when you can make people laugh,” he says.

The man who infamously called Robin Williams’ agent and threatened to break the manic comedian’s leg if he didn’t stop stealing Brenner’s material claims that today’s emphasis on profitability and commercial tie-ins ensures a lack of originality.

“When I was coming up in comedy, I had camaraderie with everyone – Steve Landesberg, Freddie Prinze, Richard Lewis, Albert Brooks, Steve Martin...we would give each other jokes but would never dream of stealing them,” he maintains. “You just knew you couldn’t do someone else’s act, but for some comics today, it’s part and parcel of the business. Eventually I stopped aggravating myself about it because I realized I can create faster than they can steal.”

After seeing the kind of relentless scrutiny today’s entertainers face, Brenner is happy to keep a lower profile. Having the details of his previous relationships laid bare in the tabloids, he is understandably circumspect about his engagement to world figure-skating champion Tai Babilonia, who currently lives in Los Angeles. The one thing he does talk about is his efforts to make sure his sons, Cole, Slade and Wyatt, who live with him two weeks of every month in his Las Vegas home, know how much they are loved.

“When I was a kid we never exposed our emotions; we were very stoic and closed down,” he recalls. “That’s how our fathers were -- you said what you meant and you meant what you said, but you weren’t physically close. I’m different with my sons, but I have to think about it because it doesn’t come naturally.”

What does come naturally is connecting with audiences through his comedy, a mix of current event-oriented commentary and everyman humor that continues to drive him at a time when he could understandably rest on his laurels. Especially in the post-9/11 era, the author of “I Think There’s a Terrorist in my Soup” says he feels people need a release from the daily onslaught of the world’s problems.

“As adults we laugh so much less than we did as kids, and there isn’t much in life that makes us laugh anymore,” he points out. “We need to take the opportunity to laugh about personal problems and things in the world that bother us. I try to be the doctor who delivers the salve that makes the wound feel a little better.”

At his upcoming local performance, the “doctor” will mingle with patrons at a pre-event cocktail party and man the gavel at a live auction after the show. Though he has been called edgy and insightful, the one thing audiences can count on is for him to skewer popular culture in a clean fashion -- just don’t expect self-censorship in the political arena.

“I respect people wanting to keep it clean and have no problem with that, but don’t tell me I’m not allowed to talk abut the economy or a certain person,” says Brenner, the only comic professional whose segment for “The Aristocrats,” a movie exploration of one of the dirtiest jokes in comedy, had to be censored for political references rather than for obscenities. “This is supposed to be a free and open society, but the past eight years or so have been pretty bad.”

The April gig comes hot on the heels of a four-part comedy series he’s been producing and performing in as an alternative to the late HBO comedy festival in Aspen, where he had lived for several years.

“We were lamenting the fact that stand-up had become less of an art form and was being treated like a business, so we decided to produce a series on pure stand-up broken into themes and featuring 12 great comics,” he explains. “At the end of each show I do a 30-minute segment based on that night’s theme, which is something I’ve never really done before. It’s been a real challenge, but I’ve been enjoying it as these comedians have made me stretch myself and do as well I can.”

Brenner won’t give much of a hint about the content of his upcoming act here but promises he will keep the room energized and give people plenty to chuckle about. “I never know exactly what I’m going to talk about until I get up on stage, but if people read the papers two weeks before I’m there, they’ll have a pretty good idea,” he says.

Lauren Pound Somers is the owner of Communications Support, which provides research, writing and editing services to communications professionals. She and her family have been members of Congregation Or Ami since 2003.

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