Few comedians have achieved arena headliner-level success, but even fewer of them got there on the strength of their jokes alone. While Brian Regan is famous for his broad appeal, befuddled persona and clean act, he's relatively unheralded as one of the sharpest joke-writers of his era. Over his decades-long career, Regan appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman 28 times before the venerated host retired; recorded roughly half-a-dozen comedy specials, including his classic, The Epitome of Hyperbole; and has recently begun to appear on screen, in films like Top Five and in the upcoming Peter Farrelly-directed comedy series Loudermilk. Regan has a particular fondness for Denver, which is why he's taping his next standup special at the Paramount Theatre on June 23 and 24. Westword caught up with Regan to discuss the ins and outs of shooting a one-hour special, his fondness for Denver, and what it's like to tell jokes to a divided country.
Westword: Thanks again for doing the interview. I think the last time we spoke, you were heading through Denver again and just about to record your last special.
Brian Regan: Well, the last one was a complete failure, so I want to come back again and do it correctly.
Really? I know you shot the last one live, which seemed very ambitious, and you're shooting this one more traditionally. Did something go wrong with the last one?
No, I'm joking, I'm joking. The last special that I did was in Radio City Music Hall in New York, and we filmed that live. But I actually recorded the special prior to that one in Denver, and we went into the editing room with that one and put it all together. It makes it sound like it's a quilt.
So,generally, you film two or three shows all back to back and then cut together the highlights?
Well, the way I like to do it, and probably the way it's usually done, is that you shoot a couple shows – last time it was two, this time we're shooting three. Generally, you pick one show as the master tape; you go "This is probably a better overall show, and then if there's an individual joke here or there that worked better on the other night, you might grab that bit and replace it. But I try not to have too much jumping around, like this bit from the first one and that joke over there. If you patchwork it too much, people can kind of start sensing that, you know?
Yeah, the whole conceit of specials is that it's like seeing you live.
Exactly. I've seen other people's specials sometimes that made me cringe, like, "I wonder: Is this what I do?"
I've seen specials where they're wearing something different from cut to cut.
"Does he not realize he has a tie on now?" There are continuity things like that, but it's also the strength of the laughs. It's so markedly different that you can tell it's a different audience from joke to joke. You'll hear them crush, and you can tell they're crushing in front of that particular audience, but every audience has a different personality. So it really shows if you're trying to cobble too much.
How much influence do you have over where specials are shot? Is it something that the production company sets up, or do you have your preferences?
I get to weigh in on that a bit. I wanted to shoot this one in Denver, and I enjoyed shooting the other one I did there. I like the area, I like the audiences there, and I have a good relationship with the community. Oh, man, I feel like I'm running for office.
"Regan 2020: He likes it here."
Exactly. I also love the club there. It's one of my favorite places in the country. They've always supported me over the years, even when I was no longer performing there, they'd still do promo for my other shows. They're good people, and I like having a continuing relationship with them.
Is there something about Denver in particular that you think makes it such a Regan stronghold?
I think it's the elevation. People can't think straight, so they're just confused. They think the stuff I'm saying is funny when clearly it's not as funny as they think. I think they're just trying to breathe, and it sounds like laughter. So I'm going to capture that and put it in a special.
Gotta capture those famous Coloradan desperate gasps.
No, I don't know what it is. I don't cater a show to a community, but for whatever reason, or a variety of, I don't know, reasons — I hate using the same word twice in one sentence — Denver just seems to have a good vibe. The crowds are cool; they're excited; they're into it. They listen. It's just always been a fun experience, at least for me as a comedian. But most comedians I've talked to feel the same way. They love performing in Denver.
I do think that sometimes in big industry hubs like Los Angeles, there are so many shows with so much great talent that no one gets excited about anything — whereas in a mid-sized city, it's a bigger deal when an entertainer comes through.
I think that's true, yeah. I've always been amazed, like when I lived in New York City, you could go watch the Knicks play at a packed Madison Square Garden, then after the game was over, you'd walk two blocks away and nobody even had any idea that there was just a basketball game. Everything just gets absorbed into it like a sponge, whereas in a city like Denver, like you say, things do tend to pop out a little bit more.
You live in Las Vegas, right?
Okay. I just wanted to make sure I had current information. Do you think that has any impact on your career, for better or worse?
Not really. I don't perform here in town much. I'm here because my kids are here. I lived in Los Angeles prior to this, and in New York prior to that, and in fact, I like being away from all of it. I miss my friends in comedy, but I don't miss show business. I like to talk about things other than show business, and when you're in L.A., you tend to get sucked into everybody talking about their agents and auditions and this, that and the other. You try to be a good friend and hang in there and listen to what they have to say, but one thing I like about Las Vegas is that people here will be talking about the grill that they got, you know? Or how they're teaching their kids to ride a bike, and I'm like, "This just feels so real." You're not telling me about a part you're up for; you're just excited about your new grill? It's very comforting to me.
I imagine that you've got fans on both sides of the aisle. What's your take on how politicized comedy has become over the past two years or so?
It's intriguing to me. I'm not a big participant on Twitter, but I do read other people's comments occasionally, and it's interesting to me how many people are willing to just —and I'm speaking in metaphors here— are willing to just do a cannonball into the water of politics and make it very clear that I'm either for this guy or against this other guy. And I think everybody should do what they want to do: I'm a free speech guy. If that's what you're interested in comedically, then go for it. So I don't stand on a soapbox and say what people should and shouldn't talk about. Everybody should talk about whatever they want to talk about, but for me, my comedy doesn't necessarily come from that place. My comedy comes from just being a human being going through life, experiencing and observing things. It's not from a political point of view, which isn't to say that I don't have one offstage. But having said that, I do understand that it's a big part of the world, and I do touch on it a little bit. I think in my last Fallon appearance, I touched on some things that might have surprised people. I'm going to date myself by saying this, but I try to have the Johnny Carson approach. He would often talk about politics, but by the end of the monologue, you wouldn't know what side he was on because he was just talking about it. So I like to comment on things that hopefully people on both sides can laugh at.
It does seem like comedy has gotten very niche, which on the one hand is good, because it's created such a variety of voices that more people will be able to find a comic they really like, someone who speaks to them. On the other hand, I feel like you'll look into the audience and the comics' fans are all dressed the same; they all have the same opinions; they're a self-selected choir waiting to be preached to. I think it's more interesting when a bunch of people who have nothing in common can all laugh at the same thing.
Well, I agree. In fact, I have this philosophy that is so not in touch with the way a lot of people think today. It seems like — and this isn't necessarily a comedic thing, it's more just a philosophical thing — it seems more and more like people are going around in bubbles, and within that bubble is their belief system. More and more, it seems like people have no interest in challenging it; they just want to ride in that bubble for the rest of their life. If they do read or listen to anything, all they're looking for is reinforcement of what they already believe. And I find that to be so wasteful. Not only do I think you should try to listen to people you disagree with — and I think I'm probably the only person who believes this — I think you should be listening to them with the notion that you just might change your mind. Not that you have to. If someone doesn't convince you, then so be it; stick with what you have. But what's the point of people talking if you're not going to hear them out? Listen with an open heart and an open mind, with the notion that at the end of this person's sentence, I might change how I feel. But I see very few people doing that, and our television shows.... Okay, I'm starting to pontificate here, which is a dangerous idea for a comedian. But our news media is teaching us to do the opposite. I have never, never, on any of these news shows, heard a person say to another guest, "Wow, that's a good point. I've changed my mind." That never happens.
No, usually they just try to shout louder than the guy in the other box on the screen.
At best, they'll politely wait until someone stops talking. But they're never going to change their mind, and neither are we. We're taught to just be rams knocking our horns together.
It seems hard to write jokes from a fixed ideological standpoint.
I think we should have wonder. We should be in a constant state of wonder. Like, "I wonder if when I turn the corner, I'm going to see something that will change my life. I wonder if this person talking to me is gonna be able to change my mind. I wonder if looking at this painting will affect me." I mean, wonder is such a beautiful thing. We're in such a beautiful world. Why are so we so afraid of it?
I think it's led to a lot of bad comedy. People are so busy trying to hammer home their point that the whole joke structure goes out the window. But they'll get that "clapter" anyway because it's no longer about the jokes; it's about the audience signaling that they agree.
I like listening to comedians that have a different political take than me. You don't have to share a person's belief system to enjoy what they're saying. I like listening to a comedian who may be on the complete opposite side of the political spectrum from me, but I want to hear what they think and why they think it. I might laugh, and I might change my mind. I might not, but I want to hear anything and everything.
Sometimes it's almost funnier to disagree. It's disarming, in a way. For instance, I find many of Nick Di Paolo's beliefs to be objectionable, but he's still very funny.
Nick's a very good example. I was gonna go with Paul Mooney.
We used to both perform at Caroline's in New York. I would do the first two shows, like on a Friday and Saturday, and he would do the third show. It was always a primarily African-American audience, and I would sit at the back to watch. And these were some of the funniest shows I've ever seen. His perspective on race relations isn't necessarily positive toward white people, but I loved it. Comedically, culturally – I felt like I was learning from it. It's good to know how you're perceived. And I feel like you could do the same thing with political humor.
So, to segue back to show business-y questions: Do you know when and where the special will premiere?
It's on Netflix, and I think they're talking about a September premiere date. Obviously, we're shooting in June, which will give them a couple months to do what they've gotta do with the editing process. So I believe it'll be on Netflix in September, but I'm not real firm on that. I feel weird — like because we've been talking about politics so much people are going to come out expecting some real commentary from me, and I'm gonna be talking about doughnut sprinkles. I actually am trying to change and grow as a comedian, and I am trying to do more political stuff lately, because it intrigues me.
It's hard not to, with the way the world is now. It's a weird balance to strike, because if you put the joke craft first, anything can be very funny. Also, if you avoid politics altogether, you're not addressing the very real concerns people have. But people also just want to be entertained and maybe take their minds off of it. Who knows?
Exactly. I think that's what we're all dealing with right now.
So, would you characterize this as different from your other specials in that way?
I'm always reticent to try and put words and definitions on comedy. It's hard to define. And I'm also straddling two worlds, you know? I'm on stage in front of fifty-year-olds who are sitting next to fifteen-year-olds. So even though I try to be careful not to do a show that's for them, it has to come from me, and hopefully they like it. But I do try to talk about a wide range of topics. Lately, I've been enjoying talking about Kim Jong-un and gun control. But I also have a bit about playing Clue with my kids. I want my premise choices to just be scattershot, and for audiences to have no clue what I'm going to talk about next. It's double-barrel in that way.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon that you want to mention before we start wrapping up the interview?
I'm in a TV series that's coming out in the fall. You know the Farrelly brothers?
Sure — Kingpin, Something About Mary. They're involved?
Exactly. Peter Farrelly directed it. Apparently he saw me perform somewhere and wanted me to be in this show he's doing. We've already shot it; it's ten episodes. It's coming out on the Audience Network, which is a kind of obscure network, but that seems to matter less and less these days. It's called Loudermilk. It's about a guy recovering from substance abuse who leads a small group of people in recovery. It's funny, but it also gets very serious. It's more funny than serious, but it's funny and serious. I don't play the lead. But I'm very proud of it. We shot all ten episodes together like it was a movie, and I feel like it would be really good if I wasn't on it, but I am happy to be part of it.
A series-regular role is pretty unprecedented for you, though, right? You've appeared in movies and TV here and there, but you're primarily known for standup. Was that a challenge?
It's very bizarre. It all happened so fast. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane headed to Vancouver, and I realized I hadn't really weighed the pros and cons of this thing. So I was just, "Oh, well, I guess I'm in." I've only acted in maybe one other thing before, so when I landed in Vancouver, I kept thinking, "What if I'm horrible at this?" In fact, on the very first day of production, we shot my most important scene. I couldn't tell if I was rising to the occasion or not, and when I got back to the hotel, I got a call from Peter Farrelly. He said, "Hey, man, I was wondering if you were available for a drink, you know?" And my heart started pounding. I kept thinking, "I'm about to get fired on the first day." He's being nice, so he's going to break the bad news to me over a drink. When I arrived, I realized he was sitting with too many people to fire me right away, so I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop all night long. But then he never said anything. It was just like, "See you tomorrow." Meanwhile, I didn't know until the end of the night that I still had a job! It was just so bizarre.
Well, again, thank you very much. We got through a whole interview without talking about clean jokes even once!
[Laughs.] And I am very happy about that. Thank you.
Brian Regan will be at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, June 23-24; tickets are $49.50 to $59.50.