Dallas — Most comedians work the comedy-club circuit, rising through the ranks if lucky and determined to headliner status at major clubs. Then what? The leap to concert halls is a huge one, with the comic expected to bear the burden of deposits and insurance, while taking on marketing and the grueling task of scheduling and transportation. With few exceptions, it requires major mainstream television exposure, like a role in a sitcom, to ensure filling those halls.
Brian Regan is different. No real starring television gigs unless you count hosting Short Attention Span Theater in the ‘80s. But over the decades of near-nonstop performance, Regan now fills halls like the 12,500-seat Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, the 8600-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, and the 6000-seat Radio City Music Hall which Comedy Central turned into a special, Brian Regan: Live From Radio City Music Hall.
Regan pulls into the 3400-seat hall Music Hall at Fair Park on Monday, Feb. 20. The date is a reschedule for his New Year’s Eve show which was cancelled due to a family medical emergency.
As a result, he’s adored by comics like Mark Maron and Jerry Seinfeld, both of whom featured him on their shows. “No comedian in the world says, 'Yeah, I want to follow Brian Regan'," says Chris Rock. Patton Oswalt opined that, “Honestly, Brian Regan’s the best stand-up working today. Period.” He was the final stand-up to be featured on Late Show With David Letterman, racking up more appearances since the show moved to CBS than any other stand-up.
Regan and I shared a conversation recently, covering his early roots, the joys of living in Las Vegas, drawing the line with boorish people, and how humanity changes but people never do.
TheaterJones: I remember you from Short Attention Span Theater. I was a baby comedy reviewer at time and it was like school.
Brian Regan: Oh boy, that’s way back. The 1920s if I remember right. It was a fun show to do. I hosted it for six months, though I was on it as a comedian and my clips many times. I took Jon Stewart’s role over. Who knows whatever happened to him? [laughs]
Was that the only televised gig you did with your brother?
No we did a thing for Showtime called Pair of Jokers, a comedy special. The idea was to put two interesting comedians who complemented each other together. And what two comedians to do that better than brothers. My brother Dennis had only been doing stand-up for about a year. He was really new to it and did a good job.
You’ve been doing stand-up since the ‘80s and ridden the arc through lots of fads and trends in comedy. But through it all you stayed the same Brian Regan. It’s like you’re the ultimate stay-the-course comedy guy.
I write a certain way, but I do like to evolve a bit. I’m fortunate to have some longevity in this business. It’s nice to still be out there and still have a following. At the same time, I try not to become a caricature of myself. I consider comedy and art and it gets stagnant if it’s not changing.
But you’ve never done the Madonna thing, like a lot of comedians, where they’ll adapt personas and change their material to adapt to the times. But you, to use a cliché, stayed authentic.
I have a hard enough time just being myself. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to try and be somebody else. [laughs]
You have been at this a long time. Is it live aspect of stand-up that motivates you, the connection and challenge of the audience? Or the need to express yourself and download your thoughts on other people? Or just that you do what good at?
It’s a bit of all of the above. It is my career and I enjoy it, I enjoy it a lot. I’ve been fortunate to progress through the different of levels of this. I get to play some nice venues. But I enjoy the immediacy of the craft. I enjoy being on stage and knowing immediately if whatever you thought up works or not. I’ve been involved with people trying to create projects out in Hollywood. A lot of work and effort goes into something whether you know if it’s going to get on the air or not. As a comedian, I can think of a joke at 5 in the afternoon and do it on stage at 8:10 that night. I love that.
What is it that keeps you going physically? What do you do to stay healthy?
I don’t have a good answer for that. I woke up this morning, and my back is hurting, and my knee is hurting, and I feel like I need to stretch. I’ve been thinking that I need to start sharpening that part of my life a bit because I’ve been around a while. If I were a firefighter and the bell just went off, and I was supposed to hit that pole and slide down, I think I’d miss that truck.
You just taped a live Comedy Central special at Radio City Music Hall. Nerve-wracking in that it's a huge business undertaking, but every night at work is live for you. Ever thought what a trip it would be to do ultimate live gig and host Saturday Night Live?
It crosses my mind occasionally, but I’m not at that level of stardom. If I were to host the intro would be, “Ladies and gentlemen, and now a guy you’ve never heard of.” I have a following, but I have a niche following. To be asked would be fantastic, but not something realistic at the moment.
It would be so interesting to have an apolitical comedian on a political show.
There’s a lot of pressure these days to push the political buttons. I’m interested in politics, I have my political viewpoints, but they don’t really filter into my show at this point.
When do you think you’re going to tire of feeding the beast, of always having to come up with new material?
I don’t know. I just saw an interview with Jerry Lewis, that tortured one going around where he’s irritated with the interviewer and give short, clipped answers. But he’s like 92 years old or something like that. He’s still at it. It’s interesting to me to see him sitting at a desk, talking about projects he’s working on. I thought wow, I could just do this forever. It was encouraging.
How’d you end up in Las Vegas?
I’ve been in Las Vegas for 14 years now. I was married at the time, and my ex is from here. We moved out here so when I did travel she could have help with the kids. Her mom and sister are here, so she has a support group. I’m still here and love it.
Sort of like Florida, your home state, without the mosquitoes.
Without the mosquitoes, without the hurricanes, without the rain. We have a pretty cool thing here in Law Vegas. All the natural disasters, we don’t have those. We get crazy hot heat, and that’s about it. No volcanoes, no earthquakes, no tornadoes, just 115-degree heat. [laughs]
A couple of shows ago, you did a routine about line cutters in amusement park lines, and you said, “This is the line of civilization.” It seemed like a very real thing to you. What is the line of civilization these days as decorum goes off the rails?
A thing I like about comedy is getting to poke a stick at boorish behavior. Most people want to be fair. Most people want to live in a world where people are trying to be fair to each other. But you have a handful of people, and unfortunately that population is increasing, that care about themselves only and they’ll do what’s good for them. It’s nice to be able to poke back at that with some anger fantasies on stage. So the Disney line joke. It’s a way to make a point. I like that there are people in the audience who agree with me, but I also like the fact that there’s people in the audience going “Oh wait a second, I’m the guy who cuts the line.” So maybe we can change some behavior as well. Who knows?
Sometimes it seems that comedy is the only thing that gets through.
I’ve come to the conclusion that when two people share a laugh they’re considering what they’re laughing at as a truth. It can be a positive or a negative, but it’s a very powerful communication between people. Like two people in a conversation like situation, but it can also be an audience. When you laugh with someone, it’s very very powerful. You’re sharing a laugh in a positive way.
But when you laugh at someone, boy, that is hard to overcome. Two examples of that. Like with Ronald Reagan and there was concern about his age. In a debate with Walter Mondale he said he was not going to exploit his opponent’s youth and inexperience. It got a huge laugh and made the controversy go away. He took the power with the laugh. And then you look at a more recent election when they started making fun of Sarah Palin. Tina Fey is brilliant, but when she made a not-so-good characterization of Palin, soon the country was laughing at Sarah Palin. Once you’re laughing it’s a truth and it’s very hard to change.
Does comedy give you more hope for humanity or less?
More! It’s a way of bonding. We are all going through this ride and we want to survive. It was important in the caveman days. It helped draw the circle of who’s in and who’s out. And you need to know which ones of us are going to work together to survive the cold and go hunting and all that. It’s important to laugh and [mockingly] I hope we use it for good instead of evil.
Good comedy is able to get past all our emotional defenses with its speed. All wrapped up in honesty, I guess.
I think of it being like a high school, and you’re sitting around the lunch table, and everybody’s being all polite and politically correct or whatever. And somebody makes a wisecrack about Fred over there at the other table. Everybody had thought the same thing about Fred, but nobody wanted to be the first to say it. Then someone does and we all laugh. It makes everybody feel good to go, “Yeah we all have these thoughts and we all have these emotions, but we’re still good people and we’re all OK.” There’s something very good about comedy.
What insights has comedy given you into human nature? Are we developing, evolving?
I often wonder about the personality traits we have as humans. You have people who are cocky, people who are shy, people who are confident, people who are hesitant, all these personality traits. It intrigues me that these same personality traits were probably in the Roman times and in ancient China. But at the same time, there is a collective growth. You look at where we are as Americans and where we are in the world and things that used to be accepted. We, humanity, evolve.
We do evolve as a species, even if people stay the same. Interesting to think of building the pyramids and there’s some cheap guy involved in the work. There’s always been a cheap guy. Maybe we need all these personality styles so it balances each other out, so the collective whole can evolve in a good way. At the same time, can you imagine the world being settled politically, and all these people throughout the world going “Perfect!” [laughs]
How has comedy changed your brain over all these decades?
I don’t know if it’s cart before the horse or not. I don't if the brain exists and the comedy comes as a result, or if it influences the brain. It reminds me of stuff we studied in college. Does culture influence the media or does media influence the culture? My assumption is that they’re both happening. I’m going to actually use the only thing I learned in college and assume that comedy does influence my brain while my brain influences my comedy.
It seems that with comedians that the brain gets sharper over time.
Yeah, I’d like to think so. It’s fun to think. [laughs]
What’s the best lesson of your comedy work like you’d pass on to your children? What do you think your legacy to them is?
I think having a sense of humor is very helpful in life. Being able to look at the light side of things. Because there’s always going to be the dark side of things, it gets lots of attention. We’ll always have to deal with challenges. But it’s great to have a laugh along the way.
» Video above: In one of his many appearances on Late Show With David Letterman, Brian Regan explains, among other things, how to write a thank you note when a friend donates a flock of chickens in your name to a poor family in Africa.