By Fred Bernstein
September 22, 1986 12:00 PM

The question facing David Brenner is no longer, as his friend Joan Rivers keeps asking, “Can we talk?” but “Can we a talk?” Starting with last week’s premiere of Nightlife, Brenner’s syndicated half-hour shmooze, American viewers are being handed an endless after-hours gab bag. Within weeks Rivers, Dick Cavett and newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin will join Carson and Brenner as talk-show hosts.

It sounds like a crowded, soon-to-be-bloodied battlefield, but Brenner, stretched out in a swivel chair in his Nightlife office, dismisses both the anxiety and the simile. “It’s not like a war,” he says. “It’s more like a wonderful meal. One guy is serving the appetizer. Another guy is serving the soup. You’ve got a guy serving the fish. Then there’s the baker for the bread and the pastry….” And who are you? “I’m the guy with the main course.”

Roger and Michael King, Nightlife’s syndicators, are hoping Brenner can deliver. Figuring that the late night audience is a young one, they spent a year courting the demographically suitable comedian, who played 30 sold-out campus gigs last year. Says David, “The Kings gave me everything I wanted,” including a percentage of the profits and a TV studio on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Most important, says Brenner, 41, “They’ve told me they’re in this for the long haul, and they want me to think about what we’ll be doing in 1990.”

If he survives, it may be because he’s 2,500 miles away from skirmishing rivals Joan and Johnny. In New York, Brenner is out of their line of fire (“If they try to outgun each other,” he predicts, “both of them will lose”), and able to choose from a different roster of guests. “I might go see a Broadway play, meet Ralph Macchio backstage and the next day we’ve got him.”

Nightlife might also benefit from being syndicated, which means it is scheduled at different times in different cities. “In some markets I’m up against Joan, or up against Johnny,” says David. “In other cities, I lead into them, so they want me to do well.” In any case, there’s no bad blood between Brenner and his two main mentors; he hopes to appear on both Tonight and The Late Night Starring Joan Rivers to plug his third book, a collection of autobiographical stories called Nobody Ever Sees You Eat Tuna Fish.

Brenner wants to give Nightlife a distinctive flavor. As the host, he’d like to be more like Carson (“He knows how to put his ego in a drawer”) than Cavett (“He’s in a New York Times world; I read the Daily News”). He won’t be as effusive as Merv—”To live up to one of his introductions, I would have to come out, turn into a bouquet of flowers, fly six feet over the audience and land.” Nor will he be as tough as Joan—”I don’t care if someone slept with a frog—and didn’t love the frog.” And he won’t embarrass his guests. “If there’s an actor who doesn’t feel comfortable doing talk shows, maybe I’ll come over and we’ll sit on the roof and we’ll talk. I’ll tell him, ‘When it’s done you can see it, and if you don’t like it, we won’t use it. You have my word, and my word is as good as anyone’s.’ ”

If there’s one thing David Brenner knows about, it’s talk shows. The Book of Lists 2 says he’s done more guest spots than any other performer. The kind of guy “who was available when Mike Douglas called at 3 p.m. and said someone had canceled,” Brenner once taped 17 hours of TV in one week—without, he claims, telling the same joke twice. “A TV addict might have gotten tired of my face,” he says, “but never of my humor.”

His father, Lou, hasn’t tired of either. Now 90, Lou was a vaudeville comedian from 1910 to 1921, but he gave up performing publicly in deference to his father, an Orthodox rabbi. David’s mother, Estelle, who died in March at age 89, couldn’t tell a joke. But as she said in one of her last interviews, “I never stopped David from being funny.” It got to the point, she recalled, “where I was afraid to get out of bed on April Fool’s Day.”

Once a producer of TV documentaries for Westinghouse Broadcasting, David junked that career for stand-up comedy in 1969, developing a nice-Jewish-guy style of humor that was long on personal anecdote and short on the risqué. His first venture on the Tonight show in 1971 was the appearance that launched his career.

Lately Brenner’s primary concern has been fighting for custody of his 4-year-old son, Cole Jay Brenner. David is under court order not to discuss the case, and resolutely refuses to do so. He never married the boy’s mother, and is seeking sole custody.

David now lives with Victoria Campbell, 24, whom he met two years ago when he performed in Dallas. After six months of long-distance dating, Victoria moved to Manhattan, and five months later into David’s town house; she now works as a Nightlife makeup artist. “We both walk to work, but she comes in later,” says Brenner. “So I guess she’s got the better job.”

His isn’t all that bad. Taped three nights a week, Nightlife offers Brenner a regular schedule and a chance—finally—to take a permanent place in the host’s chair. What’s more, it gives him a chance to fulfill some long-held comic fantasies. “I’ll tell my staff, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a piece where I go to a bar dressed as a donkey,’ ” says Brenner. “Next thing I know, I’m in a donkey suit.”