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Brenner: Carson a 'wonderful, warm human being'

David Brenner
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Comedians credit Johnny Carson for giving them their start.

Carson had self-deprecating humor plus impeccable timing.
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David Brenner
Entertainment (general)

(CNN) -- Johnny Carson gave a generation of comics got their first big break on "The Tonight Show."

Comedian David Brenner, a regular during the Carson years, spoke Monday with CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien about the king of late-night television, who died Sunday at 79.

O'BRIEN: A hundred and fifty-eight times [on the show], is that right?

BRENNER: Yes, right. That's all. And all ...

O'BRIEN: Is that it?

BRENNER: And 157 monologues out of the 158. And one time I had a choice, because they were running late, and they said you can either do a monologue or you can just sit with Johnny. I said I'll just sit with Johnny and -- because why would I want someone cutting me off in the middle? And I knew Johnny would be great with me. So I sat down.

O'BRIEN: Tell us about your very first time on "The Tonight Show."

BRENNER: Well, that was January 8, 1971, and I was a comedian about 14 months. I had auditioned, gotten the shot. And I went on, and I was very relaxed because I didn't think I was going to stay in comedy. I was doing it as a lark. It turned out to be a very long lark.

But when I finished that show, I had $3 in my pocket. And that was the only money I had. ... And the next day, I had $10,000 worth of job offers. That was the power of "The Tonight Show" back then.

And so you could say really that everything I've made past those $3 in my life [is] thanks to Johnny Carson.

O'BRIEN: People say [Carson] was incredibly generous in his own good fortune and his own incredible work ethic. He was very happy to share, which, as you well know, is not necessarily the case with this particular industry. Give me an example of that.

BRENNER: Well, I was once doing a benefit, raising money for children. I was hosting a big show and an auction. And I asked celebrities to send me something to auction off. And Johnny Carson sent me the cup that he kept on his desk. I couldn't believe it. I wanted to bid for it, but I thought that was, you know -- it wasn't the right thing to do.

O'BRIEN: You can't do that.

BRENNER: I wanted to though. I wanted to have a show in the audience and outbid whoever bid on it. But some woman, an old lady from Nebraska, got it for like $9,000. And so it was -- and he was that way.

I sent him my last book that I wrote, the manuscript, just to say, "Johnny, how are you doing? Thanks a lot. Here's the thing that I've just written." And he wrote me back a letter, you know, how funny it was. And he said here, "If you want a blurb for the back cover, you can use this." And he actually wrote it.

He was so generous with himself. He was -- he would -- I wish the public knew what a wonderful, warm human being he was.

O'BRIEN: There was a time when you had ratings that were higher than Johnny's, and you were worried about that when you were guest hosting.

What was his reaction?

BRENNER: Well, I came in and I hosted -- it was one of these, one of the first weeks that I did, where I did Monday through Friday. And I came in Tuesday, and I was told that my ratings the night before were higher than Johnny ever had. And then Fred de Cordova, the producer, came in and said, "Johnny's on the phone in my office." So I figured uh-oh, you know, you can be too good for a job. You can get fired. And I thought I was done.

And I went in and Johnny said, "Oh, I liked your monologue and this joke was great and the question to this guest, I liked that," blah, blah, blah. He said, "I understand your ratings were higher than I ever got."

And I said, "Yes, yes, I've been told that, Johnny."

I thought here he comes.

He says, "Well, I called you for that reason."

And I thought he was going to say thank you for hosting and I wish you a lot of luck in your career. And I said, yes, you know.

And he said, "I just want to thank you for bringing all those new fans to my show."

Now, how generous is that?

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