"If people only knew. My wife and my friends say, 'If your fans only had a clue about the things that can come out of your mouth.'"
– Brian Regan
Guy MacPherson: You are prompt! I appreciate that.
Brian Regan: (laughs) I pride myself in that.
GM: Sometimes I wait hours for comics to call.
BR: So I have at least that going for me. I'm punctual.
GM: Where are you calling from?
BR: I'm calling from my home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
GM: Gerry Swallow had a question for you: Other than Gerry Swallow, who has been the greatest influence of your career?
BR: He took away my number one answer. He made it challenging... Is that a serious question?
GM: Partly. I heard it was Steve Martin. Is that true?
BR: It's interesting because Steve Martin was somebody that I became interested in when I was young. It was before I even considered being a comedian. I think Steve Martin came on the scene around '76 or something like that, or maybe even a couple years earlier than that. So I was interested in him and he got me interested in really paying attention to comedy, but I still wasn't on that track where I wanted to be a comedian myself. It wasn't until I went to college, in my sophomore year, when I switched majors and gradually hit upon the idea of being a comedian. So I wouldn't say that he was the reason I said, "Wow, I wanna be a comedian!"
GM: Did anyone get you thinking that way?
BR: It wasn't an individual. In fact (laughs) one of the reasons why I became a comedian was because of the time. I went to college thinking I was going to be an accountant. And one of my first classes was a 7 a.m. class or something like that. I took all three cuts the first week and I started falling behind and thought, "I can't have a job where I have to get up at 7 o'clock in the morning. It just doesn't work." My nickname in college was Rip, for Rip Van Winkle. I could never wake up. And then a comedian performed on campus and his show started at 8 p.m. and I was like, "I don't know if I have any gift for comedy but I like those hours." That really was one of the reasons that got me thinking, "Man, if I was a comedian, I wouldn't sleep through work." (laughs)
GM: You have a natural bent for laziness.
GM: But look at you now. You're up at 9:00 doing interviews.
BR: Yeah, I know. It all comes full circle. It's very ironic. I'm much more dedicated at what I do now than when I was in college, that's for sure.
GM: You started in the early eighties?
BR: I started, I think, in '81 officially in a comedy club. I tried it a couple of times when I was in college but the first time I did it in a comedy club I believe was in 1981.
GM: Is it still fun for you after all these years?
BR: Yes, it is. I still really, really like it. There have been milestones along the way that have kept altering my perception of it. I started in one club working in the kitchen and I sat people. Comedy was just part of what I did during the evening. Even though that's what I wanted to do, I still had to work at the club. And then I went out on the road and I worked for a number of years as an opening act. Then I worked for a number of years as a middle act. And I worked for a number of years as a headliner. And then I worked for a number of years playing in 'A' rooms. Then, just in the last few years I've started transitioning over to theatres. So this is still a new thing for me. I'm so fortunate to be able to go on stage in front of these people and tell jokes. I try to be smart enough to realize that I'm a very lucky individual.
GM: When you make that transition and started booking your first theatres, were you thinking, "Oh, God, I hope people show up!"
BR: Yeah. I had told my manager and agents and stuff like that that I wanted to try theatres and they were careful to point out that being able to draw in a comedy club does not necessarily mean that it'll switch over to theatres. Comedy club patrons aren't necessarily theatre patrons. And people who would go to the theatre aren't necessarily people who are comedy fans. Not that it wouldn't work out, they were just warning me that, don't be 100 percent sure that it will work, you know? So we picked a city where I had everything stacked in my favour. It was in St. Louis, where I knew I had sold out every time I went for a number of years. I had about six or seven radio stations that were fans of mine, so I knew I could do a full-court press on media and the whole nine yards. And it worked out great. People came out and I was thrilled to find out that, wow, this just might work. And after that test, we added a few more theatres and those all seemed to go pretty well. Then in about a year's time, I gradually got rid of the comedy clubs altogether. Now I play exclusively in the theatres.
GM: Do you miss the clubs?
BR: There are aspects of it that I miss. You cross paths with more comics in a comedy club so you get to see what's going on in the comedy world. Also there's a social structure in the comedy clubs. Even though I used to only go Thursday through Sunday, at least it was a place to hang out for the few nights that you were there. So that part I miss. But as far as the comedy itself, being on stage, it's hard not to be partial towards having a hundred percent focus from a crowd, which is what you do get in a theatre.
GM: Do you get the yahoos who ruin a punchline with ill-timed shout-outs?
BR: It's much more rare in the theatres than it is in a comedy club. It's interesting: human beings are somewhat intimidated by a stage. And the higher the stage, the more intimidated they are. In fact, even when I worked in comedy clubs, I noticed that whether or not people heckled was directly proportional, literally, to how high the stage was. There's a club in Raleigh, North Carolina. It's just an average-sized comedy club but it had a ridiculously high stage. And no one ever heckled there. I talked to the owner about it and mentioned to him that I thought it was the high stage and that hadn't even dawned on him. He just thought it was lucky that people didn't heckle in his club. If you play other clubs where the stage is really low... Like, there are places in New York where it's literally a one-foot riser above the ground. You're more of the people in that environment so people are more inclined to go, "Hey, he's just like us! We can shout at him!" But when you literally walk up a handful of steps and you're looking down on them, they're like, "We can't yell now. Look! We have to look up at him." (laughs) There's something intimidating about that. And that carries over into the theatres. People are much less inclined to shout out when there's a stage and there's lights and they're sitting in these red velvet seats. It just doesn't seem to fit as well as it fits in a comedy club.
GM: That reminds me of the old Andy Kaufman special where he was a talk show host on an incredibly high chair.
BR: Yeah! And Elayne Boosler was the guest. Yeah, that was very funny. (laughs) That was a great scene.
GM: You talk about these milestones that keep impelling you forward. What's after theatres? Or are you just enjoying the moment?
BR: Well, I'm enjoying the moment. I just started a deal with Comedy Central. I just shot a one-hour special last week for them that's going to air, I believe, in June. And they're going to promo my tour. And they're also giving me a development deal, which gives me the ability to pitch a show to them.
GM: Based on your standup?
BR: Yeah, I'd like to base it on how I think as a comedian. And Comedy Central is pretty good at allowing comedians to have some creative freedom in the shows they come up with. I just look forward to the opportunity of pitching an idea to them and I'm hoping they'll say, "Yeah. At least, go make a pilot." And if they say yes, that would be thrilling to be able to make a pilot. Whether or not it gets aired. Obviously I would want that as well, but I would love to be able to just have the opportunity to sit around with a bunch of funny guys and make a show.
GM: You'd think with your grassroots support, all your fans would make the show a hit.
BR: I think so. And I'm hoping that Comedy Central feels the same way. What's nice about developing a little bit of a following is that now that if I go in and pitch an idea, even if those executives in the room might be totally confused, at least in the back of their minds they go, "Well, people seem to like this guy. Let's let him go make it, even though we totally have no idea what he's talking about." (laughs) "Maybe these people who like his standup will also like his show." That's what I'm banking on.
GM: Steve Martin quit relatively early in his standup career. Did that ever cross your mind over the last 26 years?
BR: Not really. Well, early on – really early on – there would be some dark times where you're playing really rough rooms and you might do a streak of shows where you're not really getting many laughs. I would have my moments where I would go, "Am I just delusional? That I can do this?" But it never got to the point where I actually considered quitting. But there were times when I grappled with it for a while. But not that much. For the most part the arc always seemed to be going up so I was basically encouraged the whole way even though I would have some struggling times.
GM: Steve Martin was hugely popular when he quit. So it could work either way, I guess, whether you're struggling or just too popular.
BR: Well, yes. I heard that one of the reasons that he quit was because the standup was becoming less about the standup and more about a celebration of a superstar. And everybody knew his stuff and they were shouting things out. And comedy is supposed to have a surprise element. I think the fact that it became more of a singalong, it was less fun for him. I wouldn't want that myself. In fact, I've always been careful to just keep writing and writing and writing - that sounds like a self-serving thing to say about yourself. But when people come out to see me live, I want them to after the show go, "I didn't hear three-quarters of that." Of all the stuff I've done on TV and on the CDs and that sort of thing, I'll have a little bit of that in there, but it's not a greatest hits kind of show, you know? And I think that's one of the reasons I've been lucky enough to have a following is because when people do come see me, and they see me a year later, they're constantly getting new material.
GM: Does the writing come about organically – you just notice stuff – or is it like a chore where you sit down and go, "Okay, I want to talk about this, now let me figure it out"?
BR: For me it's organic. I used to try to force myself to sit down and write comedy but I've learned it just doesn't work for me. I just have to live my life and keep my eyes and ears open. Things just hit me, you know what I mean? If I sat down with a blank piece of paper with a pen and tried to come up with comedy, it would be a blank piece of paper an hour later. The only way I'd come up with something is by just kinda seeing something and going, "Hey, I bet that would be funny." And then I'll write it down. Once I have the idea I can jot it down and play with it and tweak it. But to create comedy out of whole cloth doesn't work for me.
GM: Do you go to clubs to work out the material or do you just work it out on paper then try it at the theatre?
BR: Now I try it in the theatres. When I finally stopped doing comedy clubs altogether, there was a period of time, maybe six months, where I was less inclined to try new stuff in the theatres when there's, like, a thousand people there or more. If it doesn't work, that silence can be pretty loud (laughs). But then I realized I'm not going to grow then, and I just started saying, "Okay, I gotta force myself. I gotta get the new stuff in." I'm just a little bit more careful in a theatre. I make sure that I bookend new stuff with strong stuff. Whereas in a comedy club I would be a lot more loosey-goosey with it.
GM: You're known as a clean comic. Was that always the way from the beginning or did you evolve into that?
BR: It wasn't always the way.
GM: Aha! So there's a dark side to Brian Regan!
BR: Oh, yes, if people only knew. My wife and my friends say, "If your fans only had a clue about the things that can come out of your mouth." (laughs)
GM: So it's a conscious decision for you to work clean. At what point in your career did you move that way?
BR: I was always mostly clean anyway. Probably 90-95 percent of my stuff was always clean anyway. I just happen to think that way. I'd have a handful of jokes where I had the f-word or I might have a sexual reference here and there. But I started to realize that on a given night when I just happened to not do any of the dirty stuff, I would get all of these comments from people after the show saying, "We thought you were really funny and we liked the fact that you were clean." Whereas the other nights it would just be, "Wow, we thought you were really funny." And I started thinking, if you're that close to the finish line anyway why not just put the ball over the line? It seemed kind of silly to be 95 percent clean. You might as well be 100 percent clean and see what happens. So I just decided to go that way 100 percent. You know, it's tricky deciding how to promo myself. I ask my press people, I don't want anything in our press credentials saying clean. Unless it was something that was included in a newspaper article or something like that. But I don't like to tout it myself.
GM: Yeah, it's kind of a dirty word.
BR: Exactly. It's like putting a G-rating on a movie. You might turn more people away than would come in. And I feel the same way about a comedy show. I wouldn't want people thinking, "Oh, he's this real candy-ass, wholesome comic." I like the fact that I have a pretty nice following with young people. And some of them I don't even think realize that it's clean or care one way or the other. There are some young people who like that, as well, where they go, "Hey, man, I like the fact that it was clean." But I never want the point of the comedy to be clean; that's just an asterisk.
GM: I know of a few really dirty comics, for lack of a better word, who still think you are amazing.
BR: That's an incredible compliment, man. That kind of stuff makes me feel great to know that my peers seem to like what I do, and even my peers who do stuff that isn't even close to what I do. And to find out that somebody who works really blue likes my comedy is a nice feather to put in my cap. But I think it's just sort of like music. A reggae artist can like classical music and a jazz artist can like rock and roll. You can appreciate what somebody on the other side of the tracks is doing.
GM: Bob Newhart has said that his favourite comic is Richard Pryor.
BR: Look at that.
GM: Are there blue comics that make you laugh?
BR: Sure! Absolutely. Chris Rock makes me laugh. I don't know that you would consider him blue, but there's certainly a lot of language in his act, you know? Richard Pryor was arguably one of the best standup comics who ever lived and he had the M-F word throughout a lot of his stuff. There are current guys out there: Nick DiPaolo is a very funny guy out of New York. Very acerbic and has a lot of rough language but he's just funny to the bone. He makes me laugh like hell. So there are plenty of guys who work blue who I think are great. That's why I'm always careful to make it clear that I never stand up on a hill saying clean comedy is better than dirty comedy. Clean comedy is just what I like to do, that's all.
GM: You even get religious fans, don't you?
BR: Yeah, I've come to find that out. I think the fact that it is clean certainly plays into that.
GM: But you don't want to be catering to one particular group.
BR: I'm also trying to be careful not to paint myself into a corner. I was just talking to Joe Bolster, who's a comedian who opens for me from time to time. He works clean as well. And we were talking about the dilemma that we have in that we do want to have a point of view as a comedy. I have a thing in my act where I joke about these people who claim to talk about dead people on TV. I have this whole routine about it. And he asked me the other day. He said, "Do you worry that it steps on some of your fans' beliefs?" I said I don't want my comedy to be completely devoid of a point of view. I'll give them the gift of knowing I'm not going to throw any four-letter words in there and that I'm not going to hit on any sexual topics. But other than that, I need to retain the right to be able to say something on stage, you know? And I have to be able to risk bumping up against a topic here or there that might have someone go, "Oooh, wow, I didn't expect that" or "Wow, I don't agree with that." That's okay. I don't want it to be so wholesome it has no substance whatsoever.
GM: And I think the mark of a great comic is when they can say things you disagree with but still make you laugh.
BR: I think to grow as a human being, isn't it better to listen to people you disagree with than people you agree with? Who wants to just reinforce your beliefs? You want to be challenged. And it's the same comedically. When I used to work at Caroline's Comedy Club in New York, they would have a late show and usually it was Paul Mooney, an African-American comedian. And I used to hang around and sit in the back and watch his show. It was like a commentary on the difference between the African-American culture and the white culture. And he slammed white people left and right, and I would sit in the back and howl with laughter. I just loved seeing comedy from a different perspective. To me it was enlightening to hear what this whole culture feels about us. It was, you know, light-hearted enough where people weren't going to come and strangle me and kill me at the show: "That's who he's talking about, over there in the back!" To me, in all art forms, but comedy in particular because I'm in that, it's nice to be able to hear people you disagree with and go, "Okay, I'm hearing where they're coming from."
GM: And whether it's controversial or not, you're giving it an angle that others haven't seen before.
BR: There are different ways of analogizing it, but the simple way is holding up a circus funhouse mirror. It's a reflection of the same thing everybody else sees, but you're seeing it in a funnier way.
GM: How have audiences changed in the 25 years you've been doing this? Or is it just geographical differences?
BR: There's a little bit of geographical differences but not as much as a lot of people would think. Crowds might be just a hair more aggressive in the northeast of the United States. You know, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, that sort of thing. Whereas if you go to the midwest of the United States people are very timid. They just kind of sit there and go, "We're here for your show and you won't be hearing from us." Not that they don't laugh, but they don't shout out. But I think with television and the internet people are all so interconnected these days that I find less geographical differences than I did even twenty years ago.
GM: How has doing television changed?
BR: I don't know. I've never had a TV spot that changed my career. I think television exposure for me has been a cumulative thing in that it has just gradually, gradually helped me get a little bit more of a following. It isn't like I did a particular Letterman or something and then, wow, the next day I was a star. The graph of my following gradually just kept going up and going up and going up. And I think everything helped, including television. Some people saw me on TV. You know what amazes me is of all the TV spots one can do, sometimes people will come up and tell you that they only saw one that was like seven years ago or something. You go, "Man, I've done I don't know how many TV spots..." but it'll amaze me that somebody'll come up to you after a show going, "I saw you on TV I think it was like in 1991. You were on with some other comedian." "That's the only spot you saw?" "Yeah! And I always thought, 'I like this guy. If he ever comes to town, I'm going to see him.'" Yeah, I guess I'm glad I did that one.
GM: What was your first Carson experience like in 1991? It was every comedian's dream to be on Johnny Carson.
BR: That is true. And it was my dream as well. I did the one spot and it was about a year before he retired. I'm glad I just did the one because it went really well and it's a very distinct memory that I have. To have done a second one, I think, would have muddied the memory somewhat. If I knew he was going to continue to host, I would have wanted to have done another one. But the fact that he was going to retire, it was like, "Let's let this be one special memory." But even by the time I had done it, the show, even though it was still a dream for comics to do, cable was beginning to come into the picture and all of that. So it didn't have, I don't think, the dramatic affect that it had had even ten years earlier. It used to be that a comedian could do The Tonight Show and literally be a star overnight because of it. Because there were only three channels at the time.
GM: You have what I think is a great combination: fame and critical success while still retaining some anonymity. You can probably walk around unhindered, couldn't you?
BR: Absolutely. I love the level that I'm at right now. Because I can go into a theatre and be big man on campus, and all these people know my comedy, and they enjoy it and it makes me feel like a million bucks, and literally ten minutes later I can be in a Starbucks without anyone knowing who I am. And it blows my mind that you can have such a following and yet be so completely unknown (laughs). I'm right in that middle area. I'm just under the radar.
GM: I always thought that would be the best way to go.
BR: Yeah, that's why even though I'm going to be pitching this idea to Comedy Central, and if they say yeah, go ahead and make a show, I realize the visibility aspect would have to go up. But fame to me is like an unwanted byproduct of this. The goal for me is I want my comedy to be famous. If there was a way to let my comedy be famous and me not go along for the ride, that would be ideal. But I know that's not possible.
GM: Have you ever played Vancouver?
BR: No, never have. I'm really looking forward to it.
GM: What about the rest of Canada? I know you've played Montreal.
BR: I did Toronto recently. Like, two months ago or something like that. And that went very well. I was very happy with that. The only time I've played in Canada besides Montreal was Winnipeg and that was years ago before theatres or anything. I just played some comedy club in Winnipeg. I didn't have a following in the United States at the time. In fact, when I played in Winnipeg, it was when the Winnipeg Jets were in the playoffs. And I went into this club and they had these TV screens and the Winnipeg Jets are literally on TV playing in a play-off hockey game. And then the owner goes, "Well, we're going to go ahead and pull the screens up now and start the show." And I was like, "I don't know that much about Canadian culture, but what little we do know is that they seem to like hockey. Please don't do this!" And the guy said, "Well, no, it's an 8 o'clock show. We're going to start the show." He said, "Trust me, these people here don't care about the hockey. If they liked hockey they wouldn't be here." I was like, "Uh, okay." He pulled the screens up right in the middle of the game and the people weren't even upset. They were just like, "Oh, okay." I was completely blown away. But if people had been in a comedy club, they wouldn't be hockey fans, I guess.
GM: How well are you known up here? Do you have the same level of fame among the general public here as you do in the States?
BR: I don't know. That's what we're going to find out. We were very pleasantly surprised in Toronto. And in Vancouver the ticket sales seem to be going really well. We're all very happy with the way they're going. I guess there is a tad of a following up there so we'll see.
GM: We're also known as a last-minute town.
BR: Well, maybe for 8 o'clock shows, people should take ads out that come out at 7 p.m.: "Are you trying to decide what you want to do right now? Get in your car right now and go over to the show!" (laughs)