Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
August 23, 2012
Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to visit some of the stalwarts of 1970s and 1980s television on various New York stages. “Madame” (and Rick Skye) at the Cafe Carlyle. Elizabeth Ashley on stage in conversation, in one of the August Osage County replacement casts, and in Albee’s 2010 offering (oh she could tear it up with a talk show host — I recall one post-divorce era when she inspired gasps in the audience by talking about celibacy with great earnestness). John Larroquette in How To Succeed in Business. Joyce Van Patten in The People in the Picture. Richard Masur in Olive and the Bitter Herbs. Christine Lahti in Fear of Flying Fear of Falling. Judith Light in Other Desert Cities when it moved to Broadway. Linda Lavin in Other Desert Cities and The Lyons on and off Broadway. Liza at Birdland and Town Hall. Frank Langella in Man and Boy. David Alan Grier in Porgy and Bess. There are additional performers whose lives touched television in the 70s and 80s among my theatre adventures of the past few years but the point is made: rich television personalities from prior decades, much to our delight, return to large and small New York stages. And last night in the warm and intimate Metropolitan Room, the man who was on Johnny Carson‘s Tonight Show 158 times during those years, the man whose “observational humor” draws from research and headlines and the zeitgeist before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert took up the mantle, entertained a crowd of less than 200 lucky souls. Smart, reflective, self-critical and socially astute — David Brenner in his 70s looks and moves as we remember him, and in turn moves us to raucous laughter and gentle chuckles.
Brenner had on a music stand a high stack of large index cards with notes, clippings, thoughts for stories, pieces he was developing. He’d been in a room in Atlantic City a few days ago, he told us, that held 1200, and now he was working on new material with us in a tiny venue a fraction of that size. The experiments were varied and occasionally landed gently (never a dud), and some pieces seemed to test the waters of certain areas, which led him to change the tone or focus of his follow-up jokes. In a sequence in which Brenner described the multiple papers a day and scores of magazines a month he reads for political, scientific, and cultural fodder, he concluded: “I watch all the channels, then watch Fox for the truth.” I don’t know if anyone in the audience knew if that were a joke or not. I chose to laugh but I think I was alone. A bit later he delivered a joke with the set up: “I like Mike Huckabee.” An audience member shouted out, in all seriousness, “I do too!” which inspired a mini pause, then Brenner completed his thought “I like MIke Huckabee, and his idea of Jesus as his running mate. If something happened to Huckabee, we’d have the first Jewish president.” The crowd was a bit flummoxed and Brenner re-calibrated with a return to the cards. “Let’s see some of the studies and what we can make fun of.”
He delivers like a master. He makes fun of himself as much as anyone else. He has a smile on his face throughout his act, and attends to his audience responses with great acumen. His smarts won me over now as they did back in the day when i was a teenager in suburban Michigan. And from him I can accept this conventional joke, exquisitely delivered, amidst a string of thoughts about living a long life and spending our time doing what makes us happy. “I’d like to die doing what I love to do, ” he said, the rim shot at the read, “I just think It would be traumatic for the woman.” Ta dum.
© Martha Wade Steketee (August 24, 2012)