Brian Regan: Not the worst comedian in the world
It's only after seeing Brian Regan's act -- exuberantly silly, theatrically performed, sharply observed -- that you realize, in retrospect, it was clean enough for network TV. None of the jokes feel edited or sanitized, and the topics run the gamut, from embarrassing personal anecdotes about driving himself to the hospital and failing at elementary school spelling bees to ruminations on the pomposity of show horses and how cocky astronauts must feel at cocktail parties. His best trick is to be broadly accessible but specifically appealing, and it has earned him a huge fanbase with an unusually wide range of ages and backgrounds, as well as deep respect even among comedy's most jaded insiders.
Regan's onstage persona is an amiably clueless everyman given to oafish tendencies, delivered with the elegant zaniness of a Tex Avery cartoon. He's best seen live, or on his excellent one-hour specials, The Epitome of Hyperbole and I Walked On the Moon, than just heard, as his expressive physicality is as intricate to the show as his sharp joke writing.
City Pages caught up with Regan ahead of his show at the Orpheum to talk about 30 years of ups and downs in comedy, new entertainment paradigms, and how he does the funniest dumb-guy voice in standup.
You released your latest album as an online-only download months before Louis CK
put his new special out on his website. You were ahead of the curve there.
I don't want to come off like I'm some type of groundbreaking entrepreneur. What CK did that I wasn't able to do was sell a million dollars worth in one day. [laughs] He beat me to that.
What was the thinking behind putting an album out only through your website?
When it first came out, it came out exclusively as a download a little over a year ago because the world is changing, because more people seemed to be purchasing things via digital download than hard copy. I wanted it to be a hard copy CD as well, because part of my audience is families and they like to plop it in the car while they're going on vacation. You can't do that with a download. 'Everybody individually listen to your download, sync 'em up so we can all laugh at the same time.'
How else have these changes in the industry affected what you do?
The world has definitely changed in terms of entertainment. You don't need network TV or radio to be able to get a product to the people. You can get the product to the people via the internet. It amazes me how many people come to me after shows and say, 'We sit down and watch you on YouTube.' You used to have to get on the Tonight Show or the Letterman show but that's not the case anymore.
You're one of the few comedians who worked up to doing theater shows without one big TV or movie credit as a draw. How were you able to do that?
My fanbase or following has built kind of slowly and cumulatively over the years. It got to where I was putting enough people in comedy clubs where I talked to my manager about why don't we take a chance and do one night in a theater instead of four in a club, and that worked and we were able to pull back and start doing more theaters.
There hasn't been a moment that caused a fanbase. It's like a videogame my boy likes to play called Katamari, it just keeps rolling along and the ball gets bigger and bigger.
You've been through the comedy boom and then the bust and now out on the other side again.
I got lucky in that I got started right before the boom, so when that happened I was able to work every week because I was decent enough to stand onstage every week without melting. That used to be the criteria: Can you not melt? Can you stand there for 30 minutes and muscle through it? Then when the boom happened I was able to take advantage of that, and then when the boom fell away I was lucky in that I had enough of a fanbase that I was able to draw at the club level. It didn't really affect me as much.
I think what happened in the '80s was standup itself became a draw, and it became this new cool thing to do. People were buying tickets not knowing who the comedians were going to be, but when that novelty wore off they had to go to see a specific person. I'm just lucky that I did have that. There were some people who said, 'Hey, let's go see this guy, I saw him on TV and he's not the worst comedian in the world.' [laughs] I have a hard time complimenting myself, so I have to do it like that.
We've got our headline. 'Brian Regan: Not the Worst Comedian in the World.'
I'm going to put that on my fliers. As long as I can keep not being the worst comedian in the world I can hopefully keep doing it. [laughs] There it is again.
Your act is clean, but it's clean in a way that you only notice after the fact. How conscious are you of being clean when you write?
To me that's not the point of it at all. I never even thought I was a clean comedian, it always seemed to be something other people focused on more than I did. It's just how I think. I just write about certain subjects and I use certain words that don't go in certain directions.
In a way I feel like if people focus too much on the clean thing then they're missing the point altogether. I'm not like a Disney act, it's just my show. You're driving home and you say, 'Hey he didn't say the F-word.' I used to have a couple. I remember years ago when I used to have to perform in other places than clubs to make a living -- perform in bars on a Tuesday -- my act had an F- word joke as the opening joke and an F-word joke as the closing joke and a floating F-word joke for when I needed to get the audience back. They were attention grabbers. I would like to think they were clever F-word jokes, but they were on the blue side of the tracks. But when I got to where people were listening and didn't need to be hit over the head, I got rid of them.
I've talked to other comics about this, but I think it was my buddy Costaki Economopolous and I who were first talking about how, when you're doing an act of a character or yourself being dumb, you do the prototypical dumb guy voice. So many comics doing dumb-guy voices are just doing a version of yours. You've noticed this, right?
I've noticed it. I've worked with other comedians where I'm backstage going, 'Oh my, I'm going to have to follow myself. I gotta do a better version of me than this guy.' I'm flattered by the fact. There's a difference between stealing and being influenced. If somebody is influenced and might use a voice or something, I'm okay with that. My jokes more often than not are like little plays, little vignettes, and it's me and the doctor or the fridge salesman or an inanimate object. And in it I play a dumber version of myself or that person being dumb. I should just tell you that's my natural speaking voice and I just got lucky to be in comedy.
IF YOU GO:
8 p.m. Friday, March 2
910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
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