Stand-up legend David Brenner returns to S.F. for some Kung Pao

Of all the gin joints in all the towns that David Brenner has worked, he figures he never played a show like Kung Pao Kosher Comedy.

“I’ve had Jews in the audience, I’ve had gay people, Chinese people, kosher people,” says the Philadelphia-born Jewish comedian, “but I’ve never had them all at once.”

Brenner, 63, headlines a line-up of four Jewish comedians at the 16th annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, the four-night Chinese-food-and-comedy blowout for Jews seeking refuge from all the ho-ho-ho. It takes place Dec. 24 to 27 at the New Asia Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The stint marks Brenner’s first S.F. appearances in more than 15 years. It’s not that the legendary comedian purposely avoided the Bay Area. He says, simply, that the business of comedy has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

“From what I hear there’s somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 working comedians,” Brenner says. “Someone asked me how did so many people get so funny. I said, ‘They didn’t.’ The public lowered the bar.”

That doesn’t keep Brenner from trying to raise it. He was one of the progenitors of observational comedy (mastered by Jerry Seinfeld with the “Didja ever notice … ?” approach). To this day, if one of his jokes fails to get laughs — even once — Brenner drops it from his act.

That sense of discipline might explain his rise in the early 1970s. Brenner came up at an auspicious time in comedy, along with colleagues such as Steve Martin and Richard Lewis. He bridged the generations, having been the last comic to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the first on David Letterman’s premiere late night program.

Brenner holds the record for the most appearances of any guest on “The Tonight Show,” at 158, including 75 as guest host.

Some of his drive and ambition may stem from the sentiment of the Satchel Paige quote, “Don’t look back. Someone might be gaining on you.” When he was growing up in rough Philadelphia neighborhoods, someone usually was.

“We ducked from the gentiles on Christmas,” Brenner says of his anti-Semitic neighbors. “And they really got p.o.’d at Easter. They threw bricks through my window. You couldn’t survive if you didn’t move in a wolfpack.”

Though poor, the Brenner family had something going for it: Jewish pride. Descended from a line of rabbis, Brenner’s father had been a vaudevillian who worked with the Three Stooges. He was also a devoutly religious man who prayed at a morning minyan his whole life. But Brenner’s Jewish atheist mother encouraged her son to see himself as a “citizen of the universe.”

Why have Jews been so prominent in the comedy world? Brenner has a theory.

“The more persecuted a people, the funnier they are,” he says. “Jews have been persecuted their entire existence. Laughter is a valve: It opens to release a lot of bad things.”

Brenner says his approach to comedy has changed since he started out. The wry observational jokes and reminiscences of the old neighborhood have morphed into edgy political humor.

“I was raised to be aware of current events,” Brenner says. “For my high school graduation, my father’s gift to me was a newspaper. He said: ‘Read it from front to back, then turn to the classified section and get yourself a goddamn job.’ Years later I realized my father gave me the whole world.”

These days, Brenner often works with a minimum of memorized material, challenging himself with a new on-stage approach: ad-libbing about the news of the day. “Pressure turns me on,” he says. “It’s hit and miss.”

In addition to touring, Brenner works with young comics, having launched a showcase for handpicked newcomers, titled “What’s So Funny,” in his new hometown of Aspen, Colo. A father of three sons, he is engaged to figure skater Tai Babilonia.

He is also developing a Web site that will include clips from his old TV appearances. Brenner says he had long avoided looking back at those clips of his youthful heyday, and with good reason.

Says Brenner, “I didn’t know I had a big nose until I started this project.”

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy takes place Dec. 24 to 27 at New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific Ave., S.F. Dinner and cocktail shows nightly. Tickets: $42-$62. Information: (925) 275-9005 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.