Brian Regan has been defined and redefined throughout his 35-year career as a standup. He’s been labeled as the ultimate clean comedian, put in a box, typecast, and stamped with every label — flattering, and less so — that a man with his experience and talent can endure. But it was probably the first label he earned one night at a Fort Lauderdale comedy club that means the most: comedian. Just a comedian.
It was a simple but important distinction for Regan, who, now 58, sipping coffee at his home in Las Vegas, only thought of himself as a busboy in the late 70s. He cooked burgers, he took reservations, and as the patrons were filing out the door he could sometimes steal five minutes on stage before hopping down to clean their tables.
"People would come up after a set to ask what I did. Well, I’m the busboy. That’s my job here tonight," Regan says. "One of the regular comedians there took me aside and asked, 'Why don’t you say you’re a comedian? You’re always going to be a busboy if that’s what you think. You’re a comedian just like anybody else.' So I started calling myself one and it felt like I had graduated. I was no longer a busboy. I made it. It was pretty cool. I’m still getting paid busboy money, but…"
He’s gone from that small club and an audience of literally one, who was likely "too tired or too drunk to go anywhere… and he was not laughing," to a decade straight of sold-out theatres across the country and a record 27 appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman. He’s still clean, though not for the reason your mom hopes, but he now wears the label of Jerry Seinfeld’s favorite stand-up and America's best working comedian.
We spent a morning chatting with Regan about how he got into the business, how he evolved during the sitcom salad days of the 90s, and why a dad's laugh is the ultimate prize.
How did you arrive at your brand of comedy? What did you try that failed miserably, and what worked? Did you have a eureka moment?
Well when I first started I had no clue what I was going to do. I just knew that I thought of weird stuff that I thought was funny. Early on, maybe the first year or so, I even had a little bag of props. It wasn’t the entire show, but I would pull out these goofy little props. And they were silly. I also had a couple of dirty bits. But from doing it a while, you kind of sit back and ask, "Well, what works for me?” Not even what works for the audience, but what works for me. What am I most interested in doing? The stuff that intrigues me is the kind of comedy that I’m still doing now.
Did you find confidence in doing what you do, rather than trying to fit yourself into a box that already existed and trying to be what the audience wanted?
Yeah. I don’t mean this in an egotistical way, but it’s much easier for me to figure out what I like and what I think is funny rather than trying to figure out what they think is funny. You know? I always think that’s a mistake for a comedian to go, "What will these people laugh at?” and then hand it to them on a platter. I would rather go up there with my stuff and hope they agree. If I come up with five things that I think are funny and they only laugh at three, then I’ll drop the two. But if I come up on stage with five things that I know the audience is going to find funny and I only like two or three of them, that would bore me to be on stage just pushing buttons.
How do you evolve as a comedian after 35 years?
I try not to paint myself in a corner. As soon as I feel like I’m being defined in a certain way, instead of writing towards that I write away from that. I don’t want to be Mr. One Trick Pony. For a while I felt like people were always going, “Oh you’re the guy who always feels like an idiot.” Okay, well that’s part of what I do, but I don’t want to be just that, so I started writing more anger fantasy jokes. People say, “Oh, you like to crouch around on stage and prowl the stage.” I mean, sure, I do that. But I can also stand erect like other human beings. I’d rather people come there not knowing what they’re going to see on any given night.
Are you ever sick of the clean comedian label?
Yeah. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s like a double-edged sword. It’s sort of like having a G rating in a movie. To me, what’s weird about the whole clean thing is that’s not the point of my comedy. I don’t sit down at a blank piece of paper and think, “Okay, let’s think of some clean, lily white jokes, nice and wholesome. Come on wholesome stuff. Come out of me.” It’s just stuff that I think of. I guess at the end of the day you go, “Oh, I guess that’s clean,” but that’s not the point of it. If you were to listen to the Beatles, all of their music is clean, but you don’t go to Paul and ask “Why were you so interested in writing clean music?” Well no, it’s just music.
And there’s a difference between being clean and being not dirty, or not blue.
Right, and it is important to a lot of people. It's important to a lot of fans, and maybe a lot of people will come out because they like the fact that it’s clean. Maybe that’s a big part of it, and that’s okay, but that’s not my mission statement. I'm not walking on stage saying, "Buckle up for a super clean ride."
Do you ever think it’s held you back?
Ah… No, I don’t think it’s held me back. In the very first special I did for Showtime, I have this whole school routine and I used to close with a joke that had the F-word in there that was about diagramming sentences. It was a whole routine about a kid in my class who told the teacher to go F herself while she was teaching the class how to diagram sentences. It would kill and I’d close with it a lot. But when I was doing the Showtime special I just decided I don’t want that in there. Friends of mine said, "No, You’ve got to have that in there, it’s your strongest bit." But I don’t know how much they’re laughing at the joke or the word, and I decided to make a choice at that point. So from then on I was 100-percent clean.
Do you ever think about your legacy in comedy?
Not that much. You know, I don’t think of it as a competition sport. I’m not really looking to see where I fall in line. My reward completely is the laughs I get on stage. Not to say I don’t like having a following and that other comedians like what I do. When people who do what you do like what you do, that to me is the ultimate compliment. But in terms of the entertainment media in general, I’m kind of a non-player. I’m not part of who they talk about at all, so it comforts me to go “All the people they’re talking about like me, but they don’t talk about me.” It’s weird, but I’m okay with that. I have the luxury of anonymity.
Did you ever struggle with that?
Yeah. I opened for Jerry Seinfeld when his show was on the air, and I had never performed in a theatre before. We were in 2,500 seat theatres, and I did two shows a night and I just remember thinking "This is the ultimate goal." As much as I loved comedy clubs, theatres were even better because you get 100-percent focus. Comedy clubs are a three-ring circus. You’re competing with nachos and Bob’s birthday and blended drinks and waitresses dropping checks. You’re more of an MC and a comedian. At a theatre you’re just a comedian. They’re all sitting in red velvet chairs going, "Go for it. What do you have to tell us?" At the time I thought the only way I’ll be able to perform in these theatres as the headliner is if I get a TV show like Seinfeld. I wanted to get a sitcom just so I could get my visibility up and graduate to theatres. But somehow I got lucky enough along the way where my following kept increasing and increasing and increasing. We made the leap and that first night was just amazing.
What do you remember about it?
I did it in St. Louis. I remember pulling up and seeing people walking toward the theatre and thinking, "This is crazy. These people are actually coming here to see me." The show went well and we just kind of took off from there. So my desire for having a TV show kind of dropped away. I don’t need that anymore.
Do you turn it off when you get home, or are you the funny dad to your kids?
They’re both funny. They both make me laugh. As fun as it is to make someone laugh, it’s also very rewarding to laugh. My dad was just a great laugher. He was a smart guy and if you could come up with something ironic or twisty, he would laugh like crazy and it was fun to make him laugh as a little kid. As a 12-year-old, to make your dad laugh is a powerful feeling, you know? And especially if you crafted a joke like, you came up with something, he’d laugh harder than I've seen anyone laugh. It's great when your dad gives it up like that. And so it was sort of an internal quest to make him or anyone in the family to laugh. When my kids are funny it's very tickling to me to go, "Wow, look at that. He just came up with something interesting there." So I like to reward them with my laughter. It’s easier than making them a sandwich.