Photo courtesy of Friedman/Bergman
Brian Regan is just plain hilarious.
Whether he’s talking about growing up with seven brothers and sisters, going to the doctor, driving on the interstate or just about any other life experience in between, he always performs with his trademark self-deprecating wit and physical comedy.
He first started doing stand-up in 1981, and now he’s earned fame and adoration from both fans and other comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld.
He’s achieved several big milestones in his career so far, including performing on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” in 1992 and “The Late Show With David Letterman” in 1995. He returned to “The Late Show” 27 times, more than any other comedian on the show, according to a Mental Floss article.
He also recorded the first ever live special for Comedy Central in 2015, “Brian Regan: Live From Radio City Music Hall.” Currently he has a deal with Netflix for two comedy specials: one is out now (“Nunchucks and Flamethrowers”) and the second will be out in 2019.
But in some ways, he’s just getting started.
Fargo Monthly got the chance to chat with him before his June 24 show at the Fargo Theatre. We talked about bird metaphors, his first open mic night at a club, the time he tried to get a syndicated comic in college and more.
How has comedy shaped your life, and what inspired you to do this as a career?
Brian Regan: Comedy has been tremendous for me. I enjoy making people laugh, and to be able to make a living at it is pretty spectacular. I was in college, and kind of floundering, as a lot of young people do. I thought I wanted to be an accountant, and after taking some accounting classes, my eyes would roll so far up into the back of my head that I thought ‘I don’t think I can hang with this for the rest of my life.’ Nothing wrong with that profession. My dad was an accountant, and many wonderful people are accountants. It just wasn’t for me. So I switched majors to communication and theater arts, which was a combined major, and it was in that world that I hit on the idea of being a stand-up comedian.
You’re known for a lot of self-deprecating humor and physical comedy, so how would you describe your comedy style, and how, if at all, has it changed over the years?
Regan: It is hard to describe comedy. I heard someone say that ‘describing comedy is like dancing about architecture.’ It’s just different worlds, you know. Some people use the term ‘observational comedy,’ which means you’re just observing things in the world, but that just seems like a very vague and broad definition. I try to switch things up. I try to do observational stuff, but I also within that try to do some goofy stuff to keep me on my toes and to hopefully keep the audience on their toes so they don’t know what’s coming next.
Do you remember what your first open-mic experience was like?
Regan: My first open mic night in a comedy club was a cross between a tremendous disaster and an exhilarating success. When I hit the stage, I completely blanked out. I forgot every single thing that I was going to say, and I was just on stage like, ‘Wow, what am I going to do?’ And I just started ad-libbing about how stupid I was for not being able to remember my act and everybody laughed, and I just kept ad-libbing about how dumb I was and everybody laughed, and it killed. I killed for five minutes about how stupid I was. And I walked off stage and I was like in a fog. I didn’t know how to feel about it.
What about your first sold-out show, what was that like?
Regan: Well, I got to where I was performing in comedy clubs. What’s weird is that in comedy clubs, I got to where I was selling out shows, but, you never know how many people are here because they just want to see comedy and how many people are here because they just want to see me. I knew by the time I was done with comedy clubs that most people were coming to see me because I was fortunate that they were adding shows and things like that.
So I decided to make the jump to theaters, and the first theater I performed in, when that sold out, that was a pretty amazing experience. When I drove up that night to the theater, and I saw all these people walking toward the theater, it was a pretty tremendous feeling because you’re like, ‘Wow, they’re here to see me because there’s no other reason to come here.’ It was pretty fascinating.
“You need to have so much passion in you that you don’t know what else to do with your life because it can be grueling.”
We have a small local comedy scene growing in the area here, so what advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Regan: You really need to want to do this because there are going to be some knocks along the way, you know. There are going to be some rough nights where it doesn’t work, and it’s not fun. It’s not fun to be on stage doing poorly, so you need to have passion. I mean, being a funny guy with your friends, that might be part of it, but you need to have so much passion in you that you don’t know what else to do with your life because it can be grueling. I enjoyed the whole ride. I even enjoyed the bad nights, as weird as it sounds, because I felt like I was learning something. So you need to be passionate. You need to be willing to go through the rough patches.
You tend to stay away from profanity and potentially offensive topics like politics. Is that something that came up organically, or was that something that you made a conscious decision to do?
Regan: I just tend to think of things that don’t go in that direction for my stand-up, but I did have a handful of dirty jokes when I first started, and I just decided to drop them just because it was less than 5 percent of my act. It’s like, ‘I don’t want to be 95 percent something when I can be 100 percent something.’ So I decided to be 100 percent clean. And as far as the politics, I do include a little political stuff lately in my show, but I try to have it be the kind of jokes that both sides of the aisle can laugh at.
You talk about your family and everyday life a lot in your routines. So how do you balance being honest and relatable without crossing the line or revealing too much information?
Regan: I never want to throw the people who are close to me under the bus, you know, especially my kids. I have a joke about my son, or two, I have a joke about my daughter, or two, but I don’t want my kids feeling like I’m following them around with a notebook, saying, ‘Hey, do something funny so daddy can get another five minutes.’ I want them to feel like our life is our life and that I’m not mining them for comedy. But if they do something that I think is general enough where I’m just using them as an example of all kids, then I can do jokes like that. I feel like I’m talking about my kid, but I’m also talking about all of our kids, you know what I mean?
Definitely. Out of all of your material, do you have a favorite bit or joke that you really enjoy performing the most?
Regan: I usually enjoy the most recent bits because they’re new. It’s fun to run in the snow, but it’s more fun to run in virgin snow where there’s not footprints yet. I feel that way about my jokes. It’s like I like running out on virgin snow where I don’t know the laughs are, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know if this is the kind of snow I can make snowballs out of, if I can make a snowman, if I’m going to make a snow angel. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know why I’m answering this with a metaphor. You’re going, ‘I asked this guy a comedy question, and he’s talking about running in the snow.’ The more new the joke is, the more I don’t know what’s going to happen on stage, and that’s why it’s exciting.
If you weren’t a comedian, what would you be doing today? Like do you have any hobbies or anything that could’ve turned into a career for you?
Regan: I had a comic strip when I was in college that I tried to get syndicated, and I ended up getting a rejection letter. I’m glad I didn’t pursue stand-up comedy the way I pursued my cartooning career and after the very first rejection, ‘well, that’s it, I guess I can’t be a cartoonist because this guy sent me a letter saying I can’t be a cartoonist.’ So I’d like to think I’d be doing something creative, maybe cartooning.
“It went from incredible terror to, ‘wow, that felt kind of nice.’”
Do you have any interesting or crazy fan stories?
Regan: I was on stage one time, and this big guy got on stage and started walking towards me, and I was new, so I was too nervous to even turn and acknowledge that this other human being was on stage walking towards me. I’m just like, ‘I’ve got my act memorized and I’ll just continue this.’ I could see out of my peripheral vision that he had a coon-skin hat on, you know, one of those Daniel Boone hats. Big guy, coon-skin hat, he gets next to me and at that point I have to kind of stop, and I don’t know if this guy is upset about a joke I did. I’m thinking, ‘Did I do any coon-skin hat jokes?’ And he puts his arms around me, and he kisses me on the cheek and says, ‘I love you, buddy,” and then he got back off stage and went back to his seat. It went from incredible terror to, ‘wow, that felt kind of nice.’
And I’m sure it depends on where you are, but do you mind when fans come up to introduce themselves to you?
Regan: No, I don’t mind that at all. It’s very flattering, and I’m not so famous that it’s an issue for me, you know. There are people who are 50 times more famous than I am. I don’t even consider myself famous; I just have a little bit of a following, and every once in a while somebody notices me, and it feels nice.
What are some of the highlights of your career, like being on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?”
Regan: Well, that was definitely one of them. ‘The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson’ was, you know, you hear that expression, ‘a dream come true,’ but that was. I mean, when I started, every comedian’s goal was to be on ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.’ Now comedians have all different kinds of goals. They might want to do a podcast, they might want to be on a sitcom, they might want to be a dramatic actor, they might want to do comedic voice-overs, they might just want to do stand-up, but everybody when I started wanted to be on ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.’ So to be able to accomplish that was very gratifying.
At shows, do you rehearse and try to do a blend of new and old material, or do you kind of approach each show differently depending on the audience?
Regan: Usually when I’m performing just a regular theater show where people are buying a ticket to come out to see me, I’m usually doing stuff from the last two years. I might do some older bits in my encore, but the main hour of my show is relatively recent stuff. But if I’m doing a corporate show or something like that, I might do more of a highlights, greatest hits kind of thing. And that sounded very self-serving to suggest that I have greatest hits. [laughs] I do some of my amazing hits. I put them all together.
That’s very gracious of you to do that.
Regan: Mhmm. It’s very, very kind of me to offer my greatest hits for these people. [laughs] When the reality is, I’m just trying to put the absolute strongest stuff I can put together to barely be able to survive in front of these corporate audiences.
“They might go, ‘Hey, this guy’s funny,’ but they might also go, ‘I don’t get this guy, do you get this guy? Let’s all stare at him.’”
Do a lot of different audiences react very differently to your material, like do some audiences laugh at a lot of things and some audiences are more quiet?
Regan: There’s a distinct line between people who are there because they know of you and people who are there because they just happen to be there. So when I do my theater shows, they’re there to see my show. But when you’re doing a TV taping like Letterman or ‘The Tonight Show’ or you’re doing a corporate show or you’re doing a charity show, they might be there for another reason. And you are just someone who happens to be on stage and so those audiences can be more challenging because you might get your foot in the door and you might not. They might go, ‘Hey, this guy’s funny,’ but they might also go, ‘I don’t get this guy, do you get this guy? Let’s all stare at him.’
Audiences don’t realize that they work as a unit. They think they’re making individual decisions, but they’re working as a team, whether they like you or don’t like you, and they’re influenced by the people around them, and if people aren’t them aren’t laughing, they’re going to be much more inclined to not laugh themselves. It’s like those flocks of birds when you see like thousands of birds flying around. They’re one big mass, but they’re all sort of going in the same direction. Those are individual birds, but they’re acting as one thing. It’s the same with audiences.
I appreciate how many metaphors you’ve used so far.
Regan: I wish I could come up with a metaphor for how many times I use metaphors.
Well maybe you’ll think of one. So you signed a deal with Netflix for two comedy specials. How has the response been for your first one, “Nunchucks and Flamethrowers?”
Regan: Pretty good. I’ve had some nice comments about it. I try not to immerse myself in finding out what people think and what people say. I’m more interested in, ‘Ok, that’s over and done and now I’m coming up with a new act or a new hour and working on new stuff.’ But when people on my Twitter feed or whatever say nice things, it feels good. So I’d like to think it was well-received.
“I thought, ‘If I could get to a point where they give me a hundred dollar bill after a show, that would be pretty fascinating.’ That one I’m still working on, but one of these days.”
With so many comedians out there, how do you keep your material fresh and unique?
Regan: I don’t think of this as a competition. I’m not trying to be better than anybody else. I just think of it as like an individual sport. I just want to see how well I can do, and I like to keep it fresh because it’s interesting for me and then my assumption is that would also be interesting for the audience.
So what are some of the biggest goals you’ve achieved so far in your career, and what are some you haven’t achieved yet?
Regan: When I first started doing this, my dream was to be able to make $100 a night doing comedy. I thought, ‘If I could get to a point where they give me a hundred dollar bill after a show, that would be pretty fascinating.’ That one I’m still working on, but one of these days. You have to shoot for the moon, you know. [laughs] To do this as a career is pretty cool, and when I first tried to do this, I didn’t know I’d be able to accomplish it, so that in itself was a goal. And then to be able to get to the point where I could do theaters, that was a goal. To be able to do that was nice. To have a bit of a following was cool.
Things that I haven’t accomplished yet? One is, I always wanted to have an HBO special. And they never really came knocking on my door. And another one was to be able to do my own TV show based around my comedy. But that one is coming true right now, and Netflix is giving me, in addition to the two stand-up specials, an opportunity to create my own show, so that one is happening.
Here are his top comedy tracks on Spotify: