Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My David Brenner Story

The sad news came days ago that the brilliant comic David Brenner passed away, he was a favorite of Johnny Carson. No wonder, the comedian was an amazing storyteller. I remembered him mostly from some very funny game show and daytime talk appearances but he was best live in concert.

In the fall of 1977 I was 20, just out of college working as an actor when WTTG's Panorama noontime show announced they were having a David Brenner look-a-like contest. People always told me I looked like him so what the heck. WTTG was the closest thing to a cable network at that time, one of several superstations (including TBS and WGN) that could be seen in dozens of markets. Great exposure.

Panorama was a weekday live talk show with big name guests and musical segments so it had the feel of a laid-back variety show at times. A scaled down Merv Griffin Show. I was booked and told that David was co-host for the day and there would be a segment where he would interview us. Of course I told all my friends to tune in.

The most exciting part right away was being in the Green Room with comedy guests Al Franken & Tom Davis who I recognized from their work on Saturday Night Live. SNL was the hottest show on TV in 1977, they were writers and performers from the beginning. For myself, and everyone I knew, being on SNL was the greatest gig in show business. I was the only other person in the Green Room so they peppered me with a few questions, I could tell they were high and I guess they thought I was OK, so I sat back and watched while they did some hilarious schtick with the television set.

We were told David was running late so musical guests Gotham from New York were given an extra segment or two, they were an energetic band with guitars and horns, big in NYC.

It wasn't until 45 minutes into the live hour-long program that he made it through the door. That meant no couch time, just a pan across the four of us for the contest. The winner received tickets for the sold out performance that night at the Kennedy Center. It wasn't me. In fact, David said, "This guy looks nothing like me" but then I didn't want to win. I was just embarrassed I told my friends.

David talked with us after the broadcast, was really nice, apologized profusely then called over his business manager to put our names on the guest list. This North Carolina boy had never been on a big-time guest list before!

I didn't have anything else to do so I drove over to Kennedy Center a couple of hours early, have a look around, take in the beautiful surroundings. Eventually, and not at all by accident, I found myself on the stage that was set up for Brenner with a single mike, front and center. A worklight was the only illumination. I walked up to the mike, looked across that magnificent theater, standing where the greatest legends of show business have stood, feeling so big and so small at the same time.

As I was walking off stage, to cheers of 'Encore! Encore!' from the packed house in my mind, a stagehand stopped me but only momentarily. "Oh, sorry Mr. Brenner, go right ahead." I did, right into the dressing rooms.

When it came time to take our seats I was approached by a number of people who recognized me from the show earlier that day, from just those few quick shots. That was eye opening. As was the mob that surrounded me in the lobby after the concert when someone yelled, "I saw you on TV today!" Forty people gathered close around me in an instant, staring at my face trying to figure out who I was. Very scary.

Just in my brief exchange with David Brenner I could tell he was a good guy, and this was the peak of his career. Thanks for the tickets David!