Chris Zuver, A&E Editor
On January 12, standup comedian Brian Regan returned to St. Louis and performed at the Peabody Opera House. It was his second show of the year after having taken a short winter break at the end of 2017.
Regan has been performing standup since the early 80’s and is known for being not only one of the most successful standups today, but also one of the most family friendly. His brand of humor rarely crosses into the realm of profanity, yet still manages to draw uproarious laughter night after night, year after year.
He is one of a select handful to have signed a two-special deal with Netflix last year. His first Netflix special, Nunchucks and Flamethrowers, was released late last year. He also played the character Mugsy in last years comedy TV series Loudermilk.
Two days before he was to take the stage at the Peabody, I was able to sit down and talk to him about life, comedy, and whatever else came to mind.
Though he was born in Miami and currently resides in Las Vegas, he has long been familiar with the Midwest as he attended college in Tiffin, Ohio.
We started off, discussing St. Louis as he drank his morning cup of coffee. He told me about memories of going to see the arch, even though he was afraid of heights, as well as seeing a Cardinals game, though it was back when they were in the old Busch stadium.
The Current (TC): When did you start doing standup?
Brian Regan (BR): It was either 80’ or 81’. When I was in college, I tried it a handful of times. So yeah, I’ve been doing it awhile. I’m hoping to get good at it. So, we’ll see. Maybe if I get good at it, I can figure this thing out.
TC: Well that’s good, some comics reach a point and say ‘that’s good enough!’
BR: Ha. Yeah. Comedy is weird. You can figure things out about it, but you can never quite get to the finish line. There’s always more to learn.
TC: Are you self-taught?
BR: Yeah. When I started, I didn’t know any other comedians. The only way for me to learn was to just get on stage and keep doing it over and over again. You get to learn from other comedians when you’re in comedy clubs, but basically, I’m self-taught.
TC: How do you think you’ve changed since you began?
BR: Human beings grow. We grow in our minds. We grow physically. Because of that, whatever you do should grow. So hopefully, my comedy has evolved over the years. Something that switches things out for me is my topic choices. Lately, I’ve been more willing to poke a stick at things that would surprise some people.
TC: That reminds me, in your last Netflix special, you brought up North Korea. What made you decide on that? It certainly surprised some people.
BR: Well, it also surprised Kim Jong Un. He called me personally: ‘Hey. What the hell’s going on!?’
I’m like, ‘’Hey man. Please don’t push that button because of my jokes!’
But those are the things I’m interested in. Politics, certain things. I figure, why not talk about them on stage? But it’s tricky because I try to do jokes, even if I’m hitting on a certain topic that can be controversial, I try to do the types of jokes that both sides can laugh at. Like, I’ve got a handful of jokes about guns. Talk about a divisive subject. I try to do jokes where everyone will laugh and not only do I want that, I want each individual audience member to say ‘Oh, He’s on my side.’ Even though, maybe I’m not, you know?
TC: Has your act always been clean?
BR: It’s always been mostly clean. It wasn’t 100% clean when I started. I had some jokes with the F-word and sexual references. I did a little bit of everything when I started. And then I realized that the stuff that felt most real and natural for me was the cleaner stuff, I guess. I hate the word “clean” because it conjures a connotation that I don’t think quite fits with what I do.
But one of the reasons I decided to go 100% was because I’m very anal. Why be 95% something when you can be 100%? I decided to work completely clean because it was a fun challenge.
It was very hard in the early years when I didn’t always get to play in good rooms, good environments. When I first started, I would often play bars on comedy nights. You had to go on stage, you had to follow someone who was filthy. And those acts worked great in those environments. I’d be going on stage talking about donuts and donut sprinkles. And you had a room full of people drunk on tequila going ‘Why aren’t you saying the F-word like the other guy!?’
So, it was easy to be tempted, like I should give them what they want. But I don’t wanna give them what they want. I wanna give them what I wanna give them.
TC: I’ve seen a lot of entertainers, both comedians and musicians that put themselves at the demands of fans. I’ve always thought you should do what you want.
BR: I agree. You hear often about people who go to see a band whose been around for years and 95% of people say ‘I don’t wanna hear their new stuff. I wanna hear their old stuff.” As a comedian who likes to do new stuff, I feel like, ‘I bet you they’d rather play their new stuff.’
TC: Do you still do your old stuff at the end of your act?
BR: Yeah. I’ll do that at the end. I’ll go back after the encore and if they shout out older bits, I’ll be happy to do them then. But the first hour, I want that to be my show and I want it to be relatively new stuff.
TC: I was wondering, we’re living in a very sensitive time. Has it ever been this tense in your whole career?
BR No. I don’t think so. I think more and more people are trying to divide. We’re being asked to take sides and everybody’s being split up. Trump supporters against Trump haters. The recent one is men against women with what’s been going down. A wedge is being put between the sexes and a lot of comedians like to do the comedy that takes a side on issues. I’ve always liked to do the kind of comedy that makes everybody turn into one thing. I wanna make that audience one.
I’ve always felt like doing a comedy show is like playing an instrument. I’m trying to get as much noise out of that audience as I can. I’m trying to get as much laughter out of that thing. I think of it as one thing, not a thousand individuals. I try to make it one and I try to get that thing laughing. And the best way to do this is to get everybody on the same page. So, for me, dividing them up with jokes doesn’t work with the kind of comedy I like to do.
TC: You say you look at an audience as a group. Does that differ between playing a large theatre versus playing a small club?
BR: The goal is the same. It can be hard with both big and small groups. Every theatre is different, every venue is different, even every small club is different.
When I’m playing a larger place, I tell em’ I don’t wanna be able to see the entire audience. That goes against how I’m trying to think as a comedian. If I’m trying to make that thing one, I don’t wanna see a bunch of individuals. I like to look out into the blackness and make that facade laugh.
At a comedy club it can be different. You tend to see a lot more people. So, it makes it a little more challenging but the goal is the same.
TC: Is there a consistent method to your writing? I’ve heard you say that a lot of your bits develop a lot on stage.
BR: The original idea for a bit doesn’t happen on stage but how to deliver it happens onstage. It’s usually offstage when you’re going through your day when you notice ‘hey that could be a bit. I could do something funny about that.’ Then you’ll come up with a version of it and you’ll jot it down. Then, when you’re onstage doing it, there’s something about the heat of the moment that forces you to make a tighter, leaner, meaner version. Or maybe a longer better version of it, you never know. But it’s the laughs that help you decide which direction to take it.
TC: So, last November, you played Carnegie Hall for the first time. How was that?
BR: It was amazing. To be able to get on a stage like that, it’s very strange. I decided when I was young to put together a couple of goofy jokes. How did that lead to this? I thought, ‘How am I gonna go out on that stage?’
But it’s thrilling. Thrilling to be lucky enough to live this life where things like that happen occasionally.
TC: One more question: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to a standup who’s starting out?
BR I hope you’re passionate because it’s not an easy quest. I don’t wanna be negative and sway someone from doing it, but you’d better really want it man. You’d better want it to the point of going through a lot of rough nights where people don’t laugh because those nights are not fun. But if there’s something inside of you comedically that you wanna get out to the people, then go for it.