Comedian Brian Regan on Deconstructing Jokes (and SpongeBob SquarePants)


  • Photo by Evans Ward
In the fine tradition of American comics (such as Bill Cosby) whose stuff isn't raunchy, but somehow gets people heaving with mirth, we give you Brian Regan. He's been selling out theaters for years -- notably, without the help of Saturday Night Live, his own TV show or a comedy blockbuster. He'll be at the Pageant for two back-to-back shows on Saturday.

Daily RFT: How much of Saturday's show will be new, and how much are you pulling from the vault (for example, "Pop Tarts")?

Brian Regan: I've fallen into a formula that seems to work. I go onstage and I do an hour that is as new as it can be. Then I go back out at the end for ten minutes and do some older stuff -- people might shout out some older bits they'd like to hear. And I like the fact that there's a clear delineation between the old and the new.

Are you changing up the bits night to night?

Yes and no. I've come to the conclusion that a comedy show, at least the way I do it, is sort of like an accordion.
You go through a period where you keep pulling it out and stretching it out and trying to ad-lib and put funny stuff in there, and go off on tangents -- because that's how you learn and grow -- and you get it to where it's a little too loose, the thing can't make a reentry, it's not bolted together tightly enough. So you squeeze it all together and try to make it as tight as you can for a while. And both processes are fun.

How does the writing process work for you?

Maybe at some point I'll be able to sit down and write stuff, but that's never been how I've been able to come up with things. I've learned that for me, I just kind of go through the day the way I'd normally go through the day - I have kids, I watch TV, I read, I travel - I just do what I would normally do and things jump up and down and say hey man, 'I'm kind of funny, can I be in your show?' I feel like I'm picking a phys-ed basketball team, and sometimes I'll pick the chubby kid in back just so he can play.

Do you work your stuff out on tour, on the big stage, or do you try stuff at smaller clubs?

I do it on the big stage. When I was in comedy clubs, you'd throw in newer stuff in a third show Saturday, or on a Sunday crowd. But when I started doing the venues I'm in now, I said myself, 'Look, if I wanna keep growing I gotta figure out how way to throw stuff in.'

I'm a little bit smarter about bookending  -- I make sure I'm coming out of something strong and going into something strong, if I'm trying out something new. But I have to force myself. Because if I don't keep throwing new things in, I'm gonna get bored, and the audience is going to sense that, and they're gonna get bored.

Do you feel in pressure, like if you're recognized at an airport, to be the funny guy?

If people don't know who I am or what I do, I never offer up that information. Because I usually don't care for the conversation that takes place from that point forward. It's funny, when you tell people you're a comedian, they physically jerk their neck back, it's like a 'HENHHH?' If you had a ruler, you could measure people's heads going back three inches. 'HENHH? HENHH?' Yeah, I'm from Neptune! I'm a crazy outer-space creature! That's the way they look at you, like there's something wrong with you.

Conan O'Brien
  • Conan O'Brien
Conan O'Brien, in a recent interview, said that he feels comfortable in front of a large audience, but gets terrified when he has to give a toast at a wedding.

I relate completely. For me, the smaller the audience, the more difficult it is for me to be funny. Sometimes I just want to be able to not be funny. And some people don't get that, especially if they've only seen you on stage. I mean, you can say a sentence every now and then that's informational [laughs].

I've been backstage with people who'd been in the audience. And they're meeting you, and it's a nice experience for me, and hopefully they get a kick out of it. But they think your light switch is always on. And they'll go, 'So where's your next show?'  And you'll say, "Cincinnati." And they're like 'HAHAHAAAA, CINCINNATI!!' And you're like, 'Wow, I guess I'm some kind of circus goof!'

There's been a lot of ink spilled about the universality of your act.

I never tout the fact that I work clean. I cringe at it usually, because that's not the point of my comedy. I don't sit down and say, 'Man, I'm gonna write me some clean jokes today!' I just write about what interests me. There's nothing in my mind about it being clean or dirty. It's just what I think about. There are other people out there that might appreciate the fact that it's clean, and for them, cool, if that's one thing you like about it. But it's not my mission.

Does the large size of your audience affect your delivery?

Actually, there are certain venues where we will put big screens up so people can look at enlarged versions of me [laughs]. What's weird is, I've realized how addictive television is. Because I've been on stage where there's a big screen to my right and a big screen to my left. And the person sitting in front of me - the very best seat - instead of looking at me, they're looking at the screen! And I'm like, 'This is a live show! I'm right in front of you!' But I guess they'd rather watch television.     

How involved are you in the business side of things?

I'm way more interested in the creative side....I do have some veto power. I try not to go too far down the marketing road, where it's more about getting the name out there than the content. I just like the comedy itself. Yes, you do have to have a little business stuff associated with it to get your stuff out there, but that's not my comfort zone.

Comedy's your job. But are you still a comedy fan?

Yeah! It's harder to make me laugh than when I was young. I sort of miss my college days -- I remember laughing freely at things, because I didn't look at them scientifically, and I didn't look at how a joke was constructed. Now I'm less willing to laugh at something that is easy. Comedians are known for how weird it is when we do think something is funny. We just say, 'Ah, that's funny.' That's as much as we'll give them. But I appreciate a good comedian who puts together a great bit, you can marvel at it and think it's brilliant.

So you can see where a joke is going because of the way it's constructed?

Sometimes. The comedy I like best is the kind of comedy I can't guess. If you're watching something and you say, 'I know where this is going,' and then it goes there, you're very disappointed. But if it's a twist or a surprise, or if somebody doesn't go down the normal route, that's what's entertaining to me.

Have you met any of your comedy heroes?

Well, I've been fortunate enough to meet and work with Jerry Seinfeld. And to me, he was a trailblazer in how mundane his topics were. And I mean that as a compliment. He just talked about the most absolute most ordinary things and made them hysterical. And that to me is brilliant. I'd like to meet some of the older comedians -- I've seen Don Rickles perform, but I haven't been able to meet him, and I'd like to.

Any other projects in the works that aren't stand-up?

We're kicking around an idea that would be in the animated vein. It would be my comedy but in an animated world. Because my comedy is kind of like animation anyway; I do heightened reality a lot in my comedy. [pauses, then goes into nerdy robot voice] I'm getting way too scientific in my answer here! Heightened reality. I talk about Pop Tarts for chrissakes!

With animation - I don't know if you end up watching what your kids watch, but there's some truly sophisticated comedy in certain cartoons marketed to kids.

Oh absolutely. I love Sponge Bob, I like Phineas and Ferb. And I'm proud of the fact that my kids like stuff that I like, too. I'm like, 'Wow, this is funny.'

Do you bring 'the fam' with you on the road?

More and more. Our little boy is twelve. Our daughter just turned seven. And my kids are just beautiful, and they're proud of what I do, and I feel like a million bucks when they're sitting off stage.

But man. I'm more nervous performing in front of them than performing in front of a big audience. Because that audience -- I can go out the back door and never see them again. My kids, if they don't think I'm funny, what am I gonna do?

Are they old enough to understand what you do for a living?

My little girl is probably less aware -- but she's so proud of me. I had some issue with a toll ticket guy, and when we pulled away, my daughter in the back seat goes, 'I don't think he knows how good of a comedian you are, daddy.' And I was like, 'Gee, thank you honey!' I felt like backing up and saying, 'TELL THAT TO THE TOLL GUY!'