SO ONE CLEAR day a little over a year ago, Walter Clay, a Philly firefighter and West Philly homeowner, was washing his car in front of his neatly kept rowhome. A couple tentatively approached. "You want me to help you wash your car?" the man said.
It took a few minutes for the shock of recognition to take hold. "Oh, my God!" Clay said. "David Brenner! Man, what are you doing here?"
"I used to live here," the 75-year-old comedian said, smiling.
"I heard you grew up in this 'hood."
"I grew up right down the street - 5830 Sansom."
That's when Clay finally looked at Brenner's companion. Two-time Olympic figure skater Tai Babilonia, Brenner's girlfriend. It was just another day in West Philly.
This week, don't be surprised if that scene more or less repeats itself throughout the region. Brenner is back in town, performing tomorrow night at the Sellersville Theater, and this time he's walking down memory lane with two of his three sons: Slade, 16, and Wyatt, 13.
I accompanied Brenner on just such a tour a year ago. He showed me the old site of Benny's Poolroom, at 50th and Locust, where he learned how to hustle Penn kids out of their money. On the corner now, a handful of young black men hung out, eyeing Brenner as we rolled past.
Back in the day - before more "Tonight Show" appearances than any guest in that storied show's history, before the comedy albums and best-selling books, Brenner's own Philadelphia story rose from these very streets. His father, Lou, was a bookie and frustrated vaudeville comedian - the funniest man Brenner had ever known. Brenner would begin and end every day fantasizing about making it out of his hardscrabble neighborhood, just like those whose faces he now inspected from the safety of a passing car.
"Look at these guys," he said. "You know, it was tough on me, but it's almost impossible for these guys. Where do they go from here?"
A few blocks away, we passed an old church. "Wow, it's still here," he said, in his familiar nasal whine. It was the apex of the Cold War, and Brenner and his Sayre Middle School classmates would regularly be marched into the church basement to practice hiding under tables - you know, in case of nuclear attack.
Brenner, who was suspended from school more than 200 times in 12 years, raised his hand one day: "Are you telling us that if they drop an atomic bomb on West Philly, we're gonna live because we're under tables in a church?"
"It was so stupid," he recalled.
Little did he know it back then, but, in his ability to see absurdities where others simply went along, Brenner was workshopping a worldview that would make him, for a time, the most successful comedian in America. Philosophically, his street-corner quips back in the day begot classic '70s lines like: "I was on the subway, sitting on a newspaper, and a guy comes over and asks, 'Are you reading that?' I didn't know what to say. So I said, 'Yes,' stood up, turned the page, and sat down again."
Brenner at his best made us laugh at the dumb things people say. The dumb things we say.
In an age in which everything seems scripted, paying customers at Sellersville tomorrow night will see Brenner ad lib - as he's been doing his whole life. "When I was on the corner at 60th and Osage, I didn't go there, thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to talk about how my sister has braces,' " he said. "I just hung out and whoever walked by was a victim of my observations. That's still what I do onstage."
But the career isn't what it once was. Nowadays, Brenner is a comedic Willy Loman, playing places with names like Yuk-Yuks and Laugh Factory, getting by on, if not a shoeshine and a smile, then a wisecrack and a subversive smirk.
Brenner gave birth to a generation of "observational" comics - funny men who examined small moments closely and poked fun at life's minutiae. To borrow the now-infamous "Seinfeld" phrase, Brenner's act was the first to be about nothing. In the same way that Dr. J paved the way for Michael Jordan, Brenner gave us Jerry Seinfeld, much to his chagrin. About a decade ago, a woman in the audience called out to Brenner: "Do you think in his quiet moments alone, Jerry Seinfeld admits you're the original?" The crowd cheered.
"What do you do?" Brenner recalled. "You have to answer the woman, but I don't want to insult Jerry. He's a nice guy. So I say, 'When I first met Jerry Seinfeld, he was a short, fat, black man.' In other words, he took everything. He took my height, took the color of my skin."
Turns out, Jerry was more than a wide-eyed admirer of Brenner in the New York comedy clubs of the '70s: "Years ago, when I was walking into a club, Jerry came running up to me and said, 'Don't do your license- plate bit - I just did it.' "
It started a pattern, as Brenner sees it. When he first saw Garry Shandling perform, he went backstage after the show. A starstruck Shandling genuflected before Brenner. "Did you see any of yourself in my act?" Shandling asked.
"I was looking for a little bit of you in your act!" Brenner replied.
But you won't find Brenner dissing the comics of yesteryear. A day spent in his presence is a day of tales not only about West Philly high jinks involving street-tough guys named Cockroach, Bird and Moose, but also anecdotes of the greats, like Joan Rivers ("back when she looked like herself") and Don Rickles.
Brenner came of age with Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks and Richard Lewis, one of his closest friends, who warmly signs off his emails to Brenner with the words, "Blow Me." Today, Brenner said, not only are stand-ups not funny - they're not committed. They're in it solely to land a cushy sitcom.
"George Carlin and I used to talk about how we did intelligent humor," he said. "We'd talk about how, not only are our fans dying physically, but there's also an attrition of the cerebral mind in America. All the guys I came up with, they let you have another eye to view the world. Comedians today make vagina jokes or just talk about their own ethnicity."
Nowadays, after a gig, Brenner will exchange emails with his buddy Lewis; often, they'll share notes on what Brenner calls the "dying art form" of stand-up comedy. Other times, Brenner will seek to calm whatever neurotic spell his friend is feeling. Lewis and Brenner were dining at the Palm in Los Angeles when he met Babilonia. ("Tai, when I was a teenager growing up in Philly," he said during a lull in that initial conversation, "I used to speed-skate at The Arena skating rink." There was a long pause, Brenner recalled. "It was like meeting Tiger Woods and saying, 'I once played miniature golf and made it through the little windmill.' ")
So Brenner still trudges out there, digging newspaper clippings out of his pocket, riffing extemporaneously on our times. Last year, there was an ad-libbed guest appearance on the ABC hit "Modern Family," but Brenner, once a staple of late-night, finds it hard to get on TV. Producers in their 20s tell him that, because he doesn't have a sitcom or movie to plug, they can't find a place for him. One young hotshot even told him, "All you do is make people laugh." To which Brenner replied: "What do you want a plumber to do? A dance in your living room? He's a plumber! He's going to fix your pipe!"
So he controls what he can control - each and every audience. Brenner's motto, since his days at 60th and Osage, was "Always Leave Them Laughing." It's an ethic he got from his father, Lou, who practiced what he preached. When Lou, 92, was dying, he pointed to the bedpan on the dresser table in his hospital room and gathered up the strength to say: "Great view." And then he expired.
Brenner told the story of his father's ultimate exit line proudly. "That is one helluva way to go out, isn't it?" he said, beaming.
Larry Platt is editor of the Daily News.
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