David Brenner, the gangly, toothy-grinned Tonight Show favorite whose brand of observational comedy became a staple for other standups, including Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser, died Saturday. He was 78.
Mr. Brenner, who had been fighting cancer, died peacefully at his home in New York City with his family at his side, according to Jeff Abraham, his friend and publicist.
"David Brenner was a huge star when I met him and he took me under his wing. To me, historically, he was the godfather of hip, observational comedy," comedian Richard Lewis said in a statement.
In a statement, comedian Jimmie Walker called Mr. Brenner "a true comic genius" who was "my mentor and taught me about life and comedy."
Mr. Brenner, a lanky, always sharply dressed comedian, became one of the most frequent visitors to Johnny Carson's Tonight in the 1970s and '80s.
His 150-plus appearances as guest and substitute host turned the former documentary filmmaker into a hot comedian, one who was ubiquitous on other talk shows and game shows.
He also briefly hosted his own syndicated talk show in 1987 and starred in four HBO specials.
Mr. Brenner moved with the times, trading routines about the humor of everyday life for jokes about social and political issues, and appearing on MSNBC and Fox News Channel programs.
Although his career faltered, he worked steadily through 2013 doing standup. A four-day gig in December included a New Year's Eve show at a Pennsylvania casino-resort in which he showcased young comedians.
His career soared after his first appearance on Tonight in January 1971. He went from being nearly broke to overwhelmed by a then-hefty $10,000 in job offers the day after he was on the show.
"I never thought this was going to turn my life upside down and give me my whole future," he told CBS This Morning last year.
He also recalled how hard Carson made him work on Tonight, asking Mr. Brenner to do a monologue each time he appeared. Other veteran comics headed straight for the couch to banter with the host.
Carson's explanation was "I like to sit back, smoke a cigarette and laugh for six minutes," Mr. Brenner recalled.
In a statement, his family said he left a last laugh: A final request that $100 in small bills be placed in his left sock "just in case tipping is recommended where I'm going."