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Hank Bradford, Stand-Up Comic Turned Head Writer on Carson’s ‘Tonight Show,’ Dies at 88

Hank Bradford, the clever stand-up comic who performed a half-dozen times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson before serving a five-year stint as head writer on the program, has died. He was 88.

Bradford died Jan. 18 in Los Angeles, his family announced.

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Bradford did uncredited dialogue rewrites on the Burt Reynolds-starring Smokey and the Bandit (1977) — when he got the script, “it wasn’t a comedy,” he revealed to host Mark Malkoff on a 2017 episode of The Carson Podcast — and wrote for such TV shows as M*A*S*H, Private Benjamin and Three’s Company.

The Brooklyn native made his first appearance on the Tonight Show in September 1966 when it was based in New York. He got a spot inside the writers room in 1969, succeeded Marshall Brickman as head writer in 1970 and moved with the show to Burbank in 1972.

Bradford’s role on the fabled NBC late-night program was “to be both catalyst and synthesizer,” Craig Tennis noted in his 1980 book, Johnny Tonight! “Hank’s head and his humor were totally in tune with Johnny’s, and everybody knew it. Consequently, all writers meetings were something of a performance situation.

“The writers tempered their humor and wrote their lines to appeal to Hank, and if things bounced well off him, they knew they were on the right wavelength. After this ‘jam session,’ Hank would sit at the typewriter and try to weave out of the craziness something cohesive to present to Johnny. That little task alone caused him to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day.”

Bradford and nearly all of his writers were fired in 1975, but he returned to the ultra-competitive talk show arena in 1986 when Joan Rivers, a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show, hired him as her head writer for Fox’s The Late Show, launched as a competitor to the venerable Carson program.

“It was as if she hired me to say ‘fuck you’ to Johnny. And I was aware of that,” he told Malkoff.

The son of a truck driver, Henry Brenowitz was born in Brooklyn on May, 7, 1935. When he was 12, he helped new neighbor Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel, carry belongings into their apartment soon after the ballplayer had joined the Dodgers.

Bradford attended P.S. 244 and Tilden High School in Brooklyn and received a B.A. in advertising in 1957 from Long Island University. After writing copy for Grey Advertising in New York and hosting a radio show in New Jersey, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958 and served in Okinawa, Japan, as an intelligence analyst and a radio host.

Bradford honed his stand-up act in coffee houses in Greenwich Village, graduated to legendary nightclubs like the Copacabana, The Bitter End, Mister Kelly’s and the hungry i and once had Simon & Garfunkel open for him — not the other way around. The duo, who had just released “The Sounds of Silence,” were nervous before a gig in upstate New York and wanted him to go first, he said.

On The Carson Podcast, Bradford noted that he had known Rivers from their Village days and that she stole a “Mr. Phyllis” joke from him. His wife, Patricia, quickly chimed in, saying that Rivers “made a career out of it.” (The title of Rivers’ debut 1965 album on Warner Bros. Records was Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories.)

Bradford wrote for the NBC version of the satirical news program That Was the Week That Was and eventually made it on the air on The Merv Griffin Show and then The Tonight Show, where, in an unusual twist during his first time on, he took a seat next to Carson before performing.

The host thought that Bradford bore a slight resemblance to Bob Newhart, but the comic said some people said he looked like Frank Gorshin, Richard Widmark and “both the Smothers brothers. That’s the one that hurts.”

During his seven-minute routine, Bradford scored a big laugh with: “Do you know that since the release of West Side Story, it’s impossible to get into a New York gang unless you know ballet?”

He also talked about getting a ticket for “a new crime in New York called jaywalking … I don’t know if I can possibly communicate to you the feeling of fright to be walking along on the street and minding your own business and have a cop walk up alongside you and actually say to you, ‘Pull over!’ I pulled over and stepped right out of my suit. That was another violation, by the way.”

As a Tonight Show writer, Bradford’s specialty was coming up with jokes for such classic Carson characters as the mind-reading Carnac the Magnificent and Tea Time Movie host Art Fern.

“Johnny was the best at those things,” he said. “It was fun to do them because he did them so well. They always scored.”

He was promoted to head writer when Brickman — a future screenplay Oscar winner for Annie Hall — left for The Dick Cavett Show at ABC.

“I’d heard him muse of several occasions that when he’d write a great joke, he’d wonder just how big a laugh he could get with it himself,” Tennis wrote in his book. “But as he matured, he concluded that there were more important things in life than trying to make 60 drunk yo-yo’s in a nightclub laugh, and that’s just about what the lot of a moderately successful stand-up comic amounts to.”

His stint as head writer was the second-longest in the history of the Carson show, Malkoff told THR.

Bradford, who had written for Reynolds when the actor was a Tonight Show guest host, said he jumped aboard Smokey and the Bandit after Jackie Gleason, who played Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the film, read the script and complained it wasn’t funny. (Bradford, however, did not get WGA credit for his work.)

He also founded, along with Ronnie Schell and Howard Storm, the troupe of legendary comedians and writers known as Yarmy’s Army. They came together in L.A. to help friend Dick Yarmy — Don Adams’ brother — laugh his way through cancer treatment.

The group, which also included Don Knotts, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Shelley Berman, Pat Harrington and Pat McCormick, evolved after Yarmy’s death in 1992 into a support group that toured the U.S. to benefit comedians in need.

Bradford first met Patricia on The Tonight Show when she was a talent coordinator, and they married in 1971.

Survivors also include daughter Sally Bradford McKenna, a producer on shows including Mr. Sunshine and Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23, and her husband, Chris McKenna, a screenwriter on Spider-Man movies and Ant-Man and the Wasp, among other films; daughter Stephanie — her godfather was Jerry Lewis — and her husband, Stephen; sons Matt (Jill) and William (Alex); and grandchildren Zoë, Charlie, Maisie, Zach and Halley.

A memorial reception for family and friends will be held at a date to be determined.

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