Hank Bradford, head writer for Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show,' dies at 88

Hank Bradford, who served as head writer for "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers," died Jan. 18 in Los Angeles, his family announced. He was 88.

Bradford's death was confirmed by his daughter Stephanie Brenowitz, who said the cause of death was congestive heart failure.

Bradford served as Carson's head writer between 1970 and 1975.

"As head writer on The Tonight Show, he was admired and beloved by his fellow writers for both his pitch-perfect sense of humor and his relatively-sane leadership style in a job (and profession) which tended toward the weird and chaotic," Bradford's family said in a prepared obituary. "Above his desk at The Tonight Show was a sign that read: 'It left here funny.'"

He wrote material for memorable Carson shticks including Carnac the Magnificent, the family said. Bradford oversaw a staff that pored through newspapers and magazines daily for topical material to turn into dozens of potential jokes for Carson to riff on.

"After handing in monologue material at 3:30, writers have a half-hour to recuperate before the daily 4 p.m. meeting, presided over by Hank Bradford, former angry young comic, now a semi-steamed head writer," a journalist and Carson writer, Bill Majeski, wrote in an Aug. 1, 1971, feature in the New York Times, describing a typical day in Bradford's writing room.

"It is Bradford's job to coax audible whimsies from these writers, who, as a group, often communicate by means of monosyllabic utterings," Majeski wrote, describing the writers' reaction to interview notes for a karate team that included a cue for someone named Dr. U to break a cinder block with his head.

"Bradford looks around for comment. Someone grunts, 'Better U than me.' Bradford nods, types it on a card, presses a buzzer," and a secretary whisks the ad-lib away.

Bradford met his wife Patricia Bradford, a talent coordinator at "The Tonight Show," and the pair married in 1971 in New York before moving to Los Angeles with the show in 1972, the family said.

Bradford later served as head writer for "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" between 1986 and 1987 and wrote episodes for "MASH" and "Three's Company."

Born Henry Brenowitz in Brooklyn on May 7, 1935, Bradford's parents, Irving and Anna (Leibowitz) Brenowitz, were Jewish refugees from Russian-occupied Poland, according to Bradford's family.

He received an advertising degree from Long Island University, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958, and served as an intelligence analyst and radio host in Okinawa, Japan.

Bradford returned to the U.S. and began his career as a comic who appeared at prominent nightclubs, variety shows and performed as an opening act for Simon & Garfunkel, the Temptations and Jack Jones, according to Bradford's family.

"He used the stage name 'Hank Bradford' when he was touring comedy clubs in the 1960s for the same reason that performers such as Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, Milton Berle, etc. changed their names," his daughter, Stephanie Brenowitz, said in an email. "Anti-semitism was rampant in those years, and my father performed around the country in places that would not have welcomed Jewish performers."

In a Feb. 7, 1968, review, Variety said Bradford's act included "excursions on the cerebral side and an innate regard for the taste and intelligence of audiences."

Later in life, Bradford co-founded a comedy troupe in 1992 called "Yarmy's Army" — named after a friend, Dick Yarmy, undergoing cancer treatment — that toured nationally to benefit comedians in need, his family said.

Bradford is survived by wife Patricia Bradford; daughters Stephanie Brenowitz and Sally Bradford McKenna; sons Matt Bohm and William McLaughlin; and five grandchildren.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.