Comedian Brian Regan Reflects on His Remarkable Career

click to enlarge Comedian Brian Regan Reflects on His Remarkable Career
Friedman Bergman
Veteran comic Brian Regan originally set out to become an accountant. But when that didn't work out, he shifted into comedy. Years later, comedians around the country hail his impeccable delivery and ability to inflect just enough physicality into his routines.

Regan, who refrains from using profanity, relies on observational humor to entertain patrons. His bit on Pop-Tarts is a classic as he makes fun of the complex instructions for how to prepare the snack.

We recently interview him via phone as he was sitting at home “sipping coffee looking into the rising sun.” In typical fashion, he made a joke out of that, saying, “I don’t know why I’m looking into the rising sun. That’s just downright stupid.” He performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 18 at the State Theatre.

You originally set out to become an accountant. What made you think you could become a successful comedian?
I was in college and as a lot of young people when they go to college, they don’t know what to do. I thought maybe accounting. I had taken a college-level accounting class in high school and got an A on it. I don’t think I had ever seen an A before. I thought that was what I was destined to be. I took an accounting class in college and they went 50 times faster than when they went in high school and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I switched majors to communications and theater arts.

Do you remember your first-ever standup gig?
There were a number of firsts. The first time I remember trying to make people laugh was in a speech class. I used to give speeches in front of my classmates and I would try to make them funny. I remember killing and loving the feeling. Not only to the class but to the teacher. There was this woman who sat in the back. She would howl at my stuff. I never impressed a teacher ever in my life and I had this woman on the floor.

Did you always have a physical element to your routines?
It came later. When I first started as a comedian and knew that was what I wanted to do and was trying it in comedy clubs, I had no clue what kind of stuff I would end up doing. I threw everything at the wall to see what would stick and what I would like I had dirty stuff and props. I did all kinds of stuff. Eventually, you gravitate toward stuff that works for you. The kind of stuff I do now tends to be little vignettes. I tend to do little vignettes. It’s me and an eye doctor or me and a microwave oven or me and a set of refrigerators. I thought the only way for it to work would be to act it out.

What was your first big break?
There were a number of firsts. Getting The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was one of the happiest moments of my career. Now, television is much more fractured. There are so many different outlets to get on TV. Years ago, that was the thing you wanted to get on. That was every comedian’s quest. Now, they have different goals and quests. Back then, that was it. It was like winning the Super Bowl. I got on about a year before he retired. I don’t throw that expression "dream come true" around a lot but it was. It was a fun experience.

Did he like your set?
Yeah. I don’t think I had been more nervous in my life. I was on stage standing on the mark you’re supposed to stand on, and it’s surreal. You can’t believe you’re standing there and Doc Severinsen and the band is on your right and Johnny Carson is on your left. The whole time you’re doing your comedy, you wonder how the hell did I get here? I got fortune to do panel afterwards. There was another guest who didn’t show up and let me do another five minutes with him. That went well too. That went well too. After the show, I was standing next to my manager in a fog. He walked by and stopped and shook my hand and said, “Nice shot.” He kept on walking. I have never called it a "shot" before in my life but if he calls it a "shot," I’m going with that.

What comedian was the first to acknowledge your skills?
I don’t know. I’m flattered when other comedians like what I do. It’s amazing to me. That wasn’t my plan. I’m just trying to do what I do as a comedian. The fact that comedians respect it means the world to me. I can’t remember the first one but at the club where I started, they had local comedians who had just passed their auditions and some professionals who came down from New York and L.A. One of the pros took me aside in my second week and said, “You’re the only guy here that has anything that’s worth continuing.” I didn’t know what he meant at first. He told me I had a good comedic mind. He told me to stick with it. That meant the world to me.

How often do you come up with a new joke?
Hopefully, quite often. I’m always trying to turn the material over. I’m fortunate that I get these opportunities to record an hour whether it’s a Comedy Central show or a DVD. Once I record it, I figure there it is. It exists for the rest of the time, and I start moving away from that and try to work on a new hour. When people come up after shows, I love when they say that they haven’t heard the stuff before. "New" is a compliment in addition to "funny."

Did UPS ever respond to your joke about trying to ship a package?
I did get a thing from UPS. I’m looking for it right now. I have it on a shelf somewhere. They didn’t send me a lot. They sent me this canister. It was a nice gesture.

How about Pop-Tarts?
They came out to one of my shows and brought me a bunch of stuff, including posters and stuff. I figure I have to start writing jokes about sports cars. I’m doing jokes about Pop-Tarts and just getting a free box out of it.

Back in 2015, you filmed the first live broadcast of a stand-up special in Comedy Central’s history. What was that experience like?
It was a great experience. I had pitched that to Comedy Central. They had never done a live special. I had done specials for them before but never live. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to rock 'n' roll with a live version. They responded well, which was great. Another weird thing was doing it at Radio City Music Hall. I lived in New York, and I never set foot in that place. I never saw a show there or nothin’.

Did anything go wrong?
No. For the most part, I nailed all my moments but it’s 100 percent lazer focus concentration for an hour. That’s hard for four or five minutes on TV on Letterman or Leno because you’re just riveted. It was an hour of hitting every word and annunciating. I probably had three goof ups that I was able to correct. In one of my first jokes, I was grasping for the right adjective. It was my first joke and I was already off track. At the end, my last bit, there was a piece of it that I forgot and leap frogged over something that would have gotten a laugh. I was able to cover for it. If you’re a PGA golfer, you still have to win making bogeys.

That same year, you made your 28th and final stand-up performance on Late Show With David Letterman, the most of any comic since the show moved to CBS in 1993. Any good anecdotes from all those appearances?
They were all fun. He would sit at his desk and watch you. He has a monitor to the left of his desk that’s down below his desk. I hit the stage from his right. The first time I was ever on, I walk out and he had his back to me and was looking down. I didn’t realize he was watching me on the monitor. I thought he was just that disinterested. I wandered out and thought, “Holy Toledo, I gotta get this out of my head immediately because I’m already feeling bad.” I found out he likes to see what it looks like on camera. Someone should tell these comedians, including me, what’s going on. They should tell you that he’ll be looking away. I like to put together bizarre phrases in my jokes. I had done a standup set and said good night. He crossed over from his desk to shake my hand and he repeated one of my little things. I got a kick out of the fact that he was paying attention. It was one of the punch lines. The fact that he remembered it was fantastic.

You’re coming to town in the wake of a presidential election. Do you have any material on the candidates?
I didn’t know there was an election going on. Is there something going on? Lemme turn on the TV. That’s right. I do a little bit about it. I’m not a political comedian. I do like to touch on the world we live in and this is part of our world. I like to do jokes that hopefully people from both sides can laugh at. I make fun of the process. I don’t mind political comedians. In fact, I like political comedians even if they’re for one and against another but that’s not my angle comedically.

Does the current show feature any new material?
I hope so. It depends on the last time that people saw me. If they saw me the night before, I don’t guarantee it will be a brand new show, but if they saw me a couple of years ago I hope they see some stuff they haven’t seen before.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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