On the cusp of his Sunday special on Comedy Central, I talked with Brian Regan about the power of public speaking, working clean and how tour buses are the death of comedians.
You have this reputation for being a clean comedian. But I think it’s very easy for people who haven’t seen you to assume that clean trumps funny for you. Do you think people make that mistake sometimes?
Yeah. This has been a long struggle for me. I never really describe my own comedy as clean. It’s what other people do. But I always worry that it oversimplifies it to say that it’s clean. To me, an empty stage for an hour is clean. (laughs) Nobody’s going to see that.
Is that because the landscape of comedy has changed so much? Before people were encouraged to not work blue. But that stigma about working blue now, so it feels like everybody goes blue now.
It’s true. I just work the way that I like to work. It has nothing to do with me sitting down and saying, “OK, I’m going to write clean comedy.” I just write the kind of comedy that I like to do. It just happens to be clean.
But, at the risk of sounding like I’m patting myself on the back, I do think it’s interesting. I like what I do as a comic and hopefully other people like it as well. But I always felt that there’s a lot of people out there who hopefully like me who don’t think one way or the other if it’s clean. They just think, “He’s a pretty funny guy.” I’d like to think people aren’t coming to see me going, “Man, we’re going to see some clean comedy.” (laughs)
But it is refreshing to have someone like you out there. Because though I do enjoy the dark stuff, there’s something great about something that’s pure enjoyment – that kind of gets to laughter’s cleansing power.
I appreciate that. As far as liking dark comedy, I’m the same way. There are so many comedians out there who work blue or dirty or raunchy, who I think are incredible. Comedy is like music. There’s a bunch of different things under the broad music umbrella. You got rock and roll on one side, you got jazz on the other side. A jazz person can enjoy a rock and roll band and vice versa. I like doing what I do as a comedian but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a Nick Di Paolo or a Chris Rock.
It’s about being yourself on stage. Trying to force yourself into being one of those guys wouldn’t have made you funny.
I came across a guy I knew in college and he had a tape that he and I had done. We did this fake interview on this (chuckles) old style tape recorder. He was interviewing me and we were doing anything with it. Just had a couple of beers and were doing it for fun.
And when I was listening it, I could tell he kept trying to taking it dirty. And I would keep on cleaning it up. He would try and take it in a direction and I would put it back on the clean track. And I kind of marveled at that fact. This was before I even considered becoming a comedian. And it made me feel like, that this was an organic choice for me. And it just validated that this is just how I think and how I thought.
A few years ago I was performing at a club. And I was in my little rental car and I pulled up in the parking lot. And they had a big marquee out in front of the club. And I’m getting out of my rental car and I look and it says, “Brian Regan. Good Clean Fun” (laughs) And I’m like, “Oh my God. You’re killing me.”
So I went in. And it was my first night there that weekend, so I was like, “Hey guy I know you mean well and the fact that you put anything up there means a lot to me…” I was trying to nice guy it. “But that’s really the message I want to give as a comedian. In fact, that could turn people away. People who would have come in here otherwise, they’re going, ‘I don’t want to see some clean comic.” So if you wouldn’t mind putting something else up there, I’d appreciate it.” They’re like, “No sweat.”
So I did my show. And that night I’m leaving and I’m wondering what they put on the marquee. And it says, “Brian Regan. Stupid Funny.” (laughs) So I have to turn around and go back in and ask, “What does that mean?” (laughs)
They’re like, “This guy’s never happy.”
I’m like, “Stupid funny?” And there’s this young kid who put it up, who said, “That’s like a huge compliment, man. You’re stupid funny.” (laughs)
Oh was it with two O’s? Or was it the U?
No, he wrote it with the U. (laughs) I was like, “Yeah, I know you mean it that way. But somebody else might just see the stupid part.” That might have been the prominent part. So I’m sure I came off as “Mr. Hard to Please.”
”That guy… we’re never having him back.”
“He doesn’t like ‘Good Clean Fun.’ He doesn’t like ‘Stupid Funny.’ He don’t like anything.”
So I got to do a quick fact check on Wikipedia. Do you have a conservative religious following?
It’s weird. Wikipedia… I’ve come to learn that. (laughs)
One of the things I love about the new special is that little bouncy thing you do after a joke lands. Is that kind of body language something that you learned or was it just there?
I never realized I did it. That’s just how I perform. The first time I realized I did that was years ago, I was living in New York. And I did some local cable TV show out in New Jersey. I was one of the five different comics on the show. And I get off stage and the cameraman takes me aside and says, “Hey! Hey, gotta talk to ya.” (laughs)
And I’m young and new. And he tells me, “Hey, I’m gonna tell you straight up. You got a real problem.”
And I’m like, “What do you mean?”
“You were moving around the stage the whole time. And that’s hard for me. I gotta move the camera back and forth. You gotta learn how to just stand there and tell your jokes.” (laughs)
And I say, “Oh OK. Man, I’m sorry.” And then I started just standing there for a few weeks. Not on TV but in the clubs.
And other comics are like, “How come you don’t do your thing anymore?”
And I’m like, “Because I’m taking advice from a New Jersey cable camera operator.” (laughs)
It’s funny because I was watching an old Wanda Sykes special. And she moves around quite a bit too and a few times she walked right out of camera range and the camera guy had to kind of find her. The director did a very good job of keeping you in frame.
It’s like, “How lazy of a camera operator are you? And you can’t just turn the camera a bit.”
I do these theaters. And they have one spotlight or two. So there’s either one or two spotlight operators. I performed in one recently where one guy was always on me and the other one, every single time I moved, no matter how slowly I moved to give the guy a heads up, he’d miss it. (laughs)
It was almost as if I’d move, he set the spotlight on me and then he’d sit down and light up a cigarette. “You’re moving again. I gotta get up again and move the light…” That’s all you’re doing tonight is trying to shine that one me and you can’t handle that.
I’ve heard you talk about fleshing out a joke on stage. Is that difficult to do in theaters? You have people specifically coming to see you, so you want to give them a good show. But in order to be someone they’ll see again and again, you have to be able to work out new jokes.
When I first started doing theaters, I was less inclined to throw new stuff in there and you have all these people focused [on you]. And a lull is a little but different in a theater than it is a comedy club. A comedy club is a bit more like a circus – there’s blenders going off and that sort of thing. You can do a bit that doesn’t work and just roll into another joke.
So at first, I was less inclined to do new stuff. But then I thought, “I can’t not do new material.” Particularly when I started doing just theaters. I had to figured out how to do it. Part of what I love about being a comedian is writing. So I just do it on stage. I’m a little more judicious now. I’ll map it out. I have four or five new or relatively new things I try on a given night, but I make sure I kind of bookend them between stuff that’s strong.
One of the nice things about performing in a theater, the laughter is loud. But if something doesn’t work, the silence is even louder. (laughter)
Like in a comedy club there’s those small table conversations still going on. Or somebody giving a drink order.
It’s more like a café. It’s OK in a comedy club to just be moving on. But in a theater you got everybody completely focused. So if it doesn’t get a laugh, I can’t go, “Oh of course that didn’t work. You’re making a daiquiri.” (laughs) There’s no excuses. They didn’t laugh because it’s not funny.
Even like between jokes in a theater, they’re so focused… its sort of scary how riveted people can be. I’m not using it for evil purposes. These people are here and I just want to tell some silly jokes and hopefully they’ll laugh. But to realize that a big group of people will focus on somebody and if you’re charismatic and can speak… you go back and look at Adolf Hitler. (laughs) No wonder you can motivate people in good or bad ways. And hopefully you choose good ways, because people are like sheep. They’ll follow what you say.
It’s funny because I think people get an image of when you’re at the level you’re at that there’s little else to learn. But there’s always something to learn.
I just saw Marty Allen. He’s 82 years old. I watched him perform here in Las Vegas with my wife and a couple of friends. I like to watch old time comics to see how they do their craft. And I was blown away. The guy is like 82. Comes out in a tuxedo and delivers these one-liners. We have front row seats and I’m looking up at this guy marveling. I love being a comedian and to see a guy that age still loving it and doing his thing and nailing it. He was popping out these one-liners, which to me is harder than what I do because I’m doing these longer bits. I don’t have to go as fast.
To me it speaks to what you’re talking about because it’s a craft and you can always learn stuff. Once you feel like you’ve got it figured out, I think you’re making a big mistake.
It’s interesting when you talk about the charismatic nature of comedy because when I saw Rickles recently, he had some of support the war stuff that he said. And I’m more of the liberal mindset right now but when he talked about it, he such control that it was hard for me to not feel stirred by it.
I even like watching, and not in a religious way at all, television preachers. I like to watch, not so much for the message, but for the skill. I like to watch how they work the stage. Especially if they’re doing free associations. If they’re just working off the top of their head and just winging something. The gift of public speaking is very interesting to watch.
It’s something I didn’t think about but there’s a parallel there between comedians and preachers and politicians. It’s on a different end of the spectrum.
I’m just a human being with the same equality as anybody else. But when people hold you in higher esteem… I remember after one of the first times I did television, I performed at one of these clubs in Connecticut. A guy came to the show because he saw me on the MTV Half Hour Comedy Hour, the first TV thing I had ever done. A table of six young guys came up to me after the show and told me they saw me there. And I was blown away because these are like my first big fans. They came out to see me because they saw me on television.
And they wanted to know if I wanted to come with them because they’re having like a party at their house. And I’m like, “Sure! I’m like a celebrity now. I got six fans!” They couldn’t believe that I wanted to go back with them. Now I realize that’s not the best idea. “Wherever you want to take me, fans.” (laughs)
So I’m in their car and their like a group, they have collective think. They’re like, “We like you and we like Van Halen.”
OK. I’m in good company here, I guess. And they said, “Van Halen, they’re performing here in a couple of months. Do you think they’ll come back?” (laughs)
And I said, “I don’t want to put pressure on Van Halen. But me, how I treat my only six fans.” (lauighs)
And then they wanted to know what my favorite baseball team was. And I’m like, “What would it matter? What’s your favorite baseball team? Get minds of your own. Think for yourself.” (laughs)
You talked about TV’s power there but you’ve really worked up a big fan base without a regular TV gig. But it seems you probably would have critical mass to have a regular TV gig earlier. Am I wrong in thinking that?
No. I would have thought that. A lot of fellow comedians have thought that for years. I’m scratched my head about that. The powers that me, at a network level, have always had kind of a blind eye to me.
I used to be upset at that. “How come I don’t get my shot?” But the ultimate goal was always… the only reason I wanted a sitcom to begin with to get the visibility enough to play in theaters. To be fortunate enough to get that without a sitcom… I don’t even need that now. I’m living the life I want to live. I would still do something like but only if I had creative say. I’m not interested in just being a star on a sitcom. What interests me is the comedy, coming with what I’m going to say.
I feel like whether it’s by accident and choice that what you’ve done is more organic and more real. When people find you themselves, they take more ownership of that joy. You’re not somebody who was pushed at them.
There might be a lot of truth to that. I try to live an optimistic life. The most important thing in my life is being at home with my wife and my kids. I live this normal suburban life. I live here in Las Vegas a half hour away from the strip in this little neighborhood with other families and kids. And this is what I like to think of as my real world.
And on a weekend, I go on a plane and I go somewhere. When I go to a theater, sometimes it’s kind of surprising to me to go “Who are all these people coming out to see my show?” It really blows me away.
Because I just mowed the lawn yesterday.
Exactly. My kids just think of me as daddy. And you got these people who respond to what I do as a comedian. I have this nice following but the average Joe Blow has no idea who I am. I’m still under a radar. I’ll perform at a theater and I’ll be a big man on campus for this hour and then, literally, 15 minutes later, I’ll be in line at a fast food place and nobody knows who the hell I am.
It sounds like the best of both worlds.
It is the best of both world. I’ve had friend who’ve been lucky enough to get sitcoms. And I’m sure their thrilled to have that opportunity and to make that financial windfall for their families but they don’t have anonymity. I bet you that’s a certain commodity that certain people would pay for. So to me, to have that is kind of cool.
You’re kind of a stealth celebrity.
That’s a good way to put it.
It’s also great where you’re at right now because it seems like its better for material. A lot of comics get big and then the only thing they have in common with people it seems is “Hey, I’m on an airplane.” They’re not in a supermarket to look at stuff. They’re not grounded.
It’s an interesting observation. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about myself. I’ve gotten lucky enough to have a tour bus for this tour. We do four one nighters in a row. It’s nice to hop on this bus to go from city to city. Basically, this floating living room.
But one of the tour managers he said that tour buses are the enemy of comedy for that very reason. Comedians get soft. They’re not out there living the nitty gritty life from which we get our observations. So I’m wondering, “What am I suppose to do. Hope we get a flat?”