Brian Regan has been one of my favorite comedians for quite some time now. I noticed long ago that the Interweb is lacking in terms of interviews with Brian, so when I found out that he was coming to New York I knew that it was my responsibility to fill some of that void. So now I present to you my interview with Brian, which will probably later be used as research for other interviews with Brian, and we all know the Internet could use more of those.
What's your first memory of being able to make people laugh?
It was inadvertent. I was a kid and I was in the family station wagon, my dad was driving and we passed a funeral precession. I said, "Dad, have you ever seen a real live dead man?" He laughed and laughed and said, "No, I can honestly tell you I've never seen a real live dead man." I didn't plan it and I wasn't trying to be funny, but I remember thinking, "That felt good."
What sort of role did comedy play in your life growing up?
There were eight kids in my family and we were all kind of funny. We'd sit around and joke with each other. There was a lot of laughter in our house. Sometimes I wonder if the neighbors thought that they lived next to a bunch of maniacs because we would sit around the dinner table and just laugh and laugh. The neighbors must have been going, "The lunatics are having dinner." It was a nice way to grow up.
What were you like in school?
I was an everyday kind of kid. I wasn't painfully shy, but I also wasn't incredibly outgoing. I had a small circle of friends who thought I was funny, but people outside that circle probably didn't know too much about me. In fact, those people are probably surprised that I'm a comedian. I was an average student. Pretty smart when I was a little kid, but then I stopped doing my homework in high school. I was as typical as you can get. I think the reason I have a bit of a following is because people can relate to me.
How'd you get your laughs when you were growing up?
I remember the first time I thought about timing. Somebody was talking about something, I thought of something funny, but the guy wouldn't shut up to let me say it. I thought, "I've got to wait until he's done," but when he was done it wasn't pertinent anymore. I knew I couldn't say it then, so I threw a question out there that led him back to the original topic that I had thought the funny thing about, he said something, stopped, I said the funny thing, it got a big laugh, and I thought, "I had to manipulate that." I remember feeling powerful because not only did I think of a funny thing, I figured out a way to get back to it. This was long before I ever considered being a comedian. It was just learning how to be funny with your buddies.
Did you stop doing homework in high school because you became bored with school?
I just wasn't a good student and wasn't disciplined. When I was really young, I was gifted enough where I could skate by without doing any homework but still get good grades and I thought I could carry that into high school, but I quickly found out that I was so far behind in the subjects that I could never catch up. I regret both high school and college in terms of not taking advantage of what school had to offer. When I was in college, I took a class called United States Presidents. I never cracked the book, failed the class, and later I realized, "I like that subject, I read about presidents now, and I had a class that I paid for with a teacher who could tell me anything I wanted to know and I skipped class and went to a bar and shot pool." You learn some stuff too late.
But you did graduate from college, right?
Not when I was supposed to. When I was a sophomore in college I figured out I wanted to be a comedian and by the time I was a junior and senior I had a burning desire to do it and I quit college to do comedy. I was ten credit hours shy of my degree. I went to my fifteen year college reunion and one of the professors who saw me said that he wanted me to get a degree, I finished the last ten credit hours with straight A's, and I had never seen an A in college. Here I am, a grown man, and I get a report card. I felt like a little kid. I got my degree, finally, in 1997, seventeen years after I was supposed to get it.
Growing up, did it seem amongst your siblings that it would be you and your brother Dennis who would become comedians or did it seem like someone else might have such a talent as well?
Everybody in my family is funny. I think our older brother, Mike, who doesn't do stand up, is one of the funniest guys in the world. A lot of comedy is not so much what you say, but how you say it. You could ask my brother Mike a yes or no question and it wouldn't matter what he'd say, you'd still laugh. There's an intangible quality to that. Bill Murray had that on Saturday Night Live. He'd be in the background not saying anything, but I'd still be laughing.
Do you enjoy analyzing humor?
Sometimes I feel badly that I don't have the innocence of when I was younger. I think back to times when I would just laugh and laugh, but now that I'm in comedy I tend to see the nuts and bolts of something. Somebody might say something that's funny and I tend to appreciate the craftsmanship of the joke as opposed to actually enjoying the mirth of it. It's like two people looking at a painting in a museum and one likes the beautiful landscape while the other one, who's an artist, may like the brush strokes. I'm that way with comedy; I tend to enjoy the brush strokes more than the end results.
Do you think that bad comedians know that they're bad?
There might be some that know, but, for the most part, I don't think so. You can get laughs and still be a bad comedian, which a lot of people might not understand. It's like writing a song that's a top hit, but it's still not a good song. I remember there was a comedy team that did loud sound effects, and this is another comedian's line, and they'd be onstage making jet noises and bomb noises and all sorts of crazy noises and the other comic says, "They're so loud they can't hear the silence." I thought that was a great quote. There might be some comics out there that, even though they're getting laughs, they don't realize that there's nothing going on there.
Would you rather be a comedian that made $250,000 a year and had the respect of all of his comedian peers, have $10,000,000 a year, have plenty of fans, but have the respect of none of his peers?
Definitely the first one. Absolutely. One thing I take a lot of pride in is that comedians seem to like what I do. I've always wanted not just to make the crowd laugh, but also the comics in the back of the room. My goal has been to lasso both groups. Some comics just make crowds laugh and not comics, some make comics laugh but not crowds, but I want the whole enchilada.
Tell me about your first open mic experience.
I walked onstage, was blinded by the lights, spoke into the mic and heard feedback, and all of that made me blank out completely. I looked out into the audience and couldn't remember a single word that I had memorized. I was onstage, dazed, and I adlibbed that I couldn't remember my act and the audience started laughing at it. I said, "I'm serious. I got distracted up here. I can't remember anything," and they laughed at that. It was like a bad episode of the Twilight Zone. I started adlibbing about how dumb I was that I had done all of this preparation but couldn't remember any of it. I was enjoying that I was making them laugh and I killed, but the whole thrust of the show was about how stupid I was. There were some pro-comics at the show going, "That was brilliant. Did you plan that?" I remember feeling tremendous, but the second open mic, where I remembered all of my material, nobody laughed. From then on it was a life long quest to get them not only to laugh but to laugh at what I thought of.
How did your early material compare with what you're doing now?
When I first started, I had a mixture of good creative stuff and some horrible hacky stuff. I had not yet learned the difference, but I remember headliners complimenting me and telling me that I thought well comedically and that I could have a future at it. I look back on some of my stuff and roll my eyes. I used to go onstage with a bag of props. I had props for jokes that didn't even need props. I'd say, "I went to the super market, bought a box of cereal, and it was less than half full. I went to bring it back and the guy said, 'You bought forty percent bran flakes,'" and I'm holding a box that says forty-percent bran flakes. There'd be a chuckle, but the funniest thing was probably that I held the box up. It was one of the goofier things I thought of when I was young.
Were there crazies showing up to the open mic nights?
Yes, I think that there's nothing crazier than someone who thinks they're funny and yet no one laughs at them. I'm really confused by that delusion. Anybody that starts won't be good at the craft of it, but there's usually something there. You have some way of thinking comedically and people must laugh at you occasionally, but there are people who go to open mic nights who are not funny at all off stage or on.
Outside of being a cook at one of the comedy clubs, what were you doing to support yourself financially at that time?
The only regular job I've had since starting comedy, beside what you just mentioned, was a job I took at a toy store. I'd work during the day and there was a guy who took me aside and said, "I've got a place where we can take a break without anybody knowing." I followed him and he led me to this wall behind a bunch of toys and there was a hole in it We both crawled into it, shimmied sideways, and then stood there for ten minutes with the drywall two inches from our faces. I was thinking, "Is this even a break? We're standing inside a wall to avoid working. We can't even sit down." That was my last regular job. I love doing comedy because I never have to go hang out inside a wall.
I don't know how often he was doing this, but did the wall eventually explode?
That guy might be working there to this day. He'd just go and hang out in the wall for fifteen minutes and no one would know where he was. No one knew where the hole was either. I have no clue why he though that that was a good thing to do.
How long did take you to move up to emceeing and middling?
At the club I started at, once you passed the auditions you could go up after the headliners. You don't see that in any other clubs. I did that for about nine months before they let me go on early in the show. I started emceeing, and it took about nine months before I started doing that. I worked at that club for two and a half years before I finally went out on the road, and that's when I started middling.
Is emceeing something that you enjoyed doing?
The goal was to get passed that. I was decent at it, learning how to talk to the crowd and that sort of thing, but I didn't want that to be what my show was about. I enjoy the type of comedy where you think of stuff, say it onstage, and hopefully people laugh. I didn't want to be onstage making fun of people's sweaters. That's just not the sort of comedy that tickles me.
What's the sort of comedy that tickles you?
I like comedy where I can't guess where it's going. Mitch Hedberg was a brilliant comedian. I like watching comedians who have a point of view that nobody else has.
Do you have plans to release a second album in the future?
Probably. It's a little premature, but it looks like I might have a development deal with Comedy Central. I don't like to talk about stuff before the ink's dry, but it looks positive that we're going to have a deal that includes a stand up special and that that special will be available through Comedy Central for fans.
Tell me about the sitcom that you and Bill Lawrence, creator of Scrubs, developed.
To make a long story short: the pilot was never shot and the deal came and went. It was about a guy who was married, living a typical life, and he has a medical scare that makes him realize that you only live once and that you should take some chances and go after your dreams despite your fears.
Is a sitcom something that you might be interested down the line?
At this point, not so much. Maybe down the line, but right now I love the creative control of being a stand up. I'd do a TV show if I felt like I was coming up with the comedy as well. It's not the laughs that I like, but the laughs in conjunction with the thought- that I thought of it and they're laughing at my thought. That's the way I'd feel if I had a TV show. I wouldn't want it being an actor that's just given a script to memorize. Even if it were successful, I'd feel pretty empty.
When you first started out, how much time did you dedicate to writing?
Half an hour to an hour each day. I've come to the realization that me sitting down isn't how I come up with comedy. I come up with comedy be going through my life and doing what I do. I write it down as I think of it, and then I have all of these disjointed ideas that I bring on the road with me, and I flesh them out. Sometimes the best writing takes place onstage.If I sit down and try to write out a joke, it gets too cutesy and becomes more clever than funny and that's something I try to resist. It's clever, but do people think it's funny? Funny has to trump clever in my act. I want it to be both, but who wants people coming up to you after a show and going, "Wow, you were clever. That was an hour straight of nothing but cleverness."
How do you feel about doing theater shows as opposed to comedy clubs?
I loved playing in comedy clubs because it was always my dream to do that, and I got to the point where ninety percent of the audience was coming to see me, but that ten percent can really change the dynamic of a show. All you need is one table of guys who are there because it's Ralph's birthday. They want it to be about Ralph, them, and how drunk they are. After a while, you grow weary of that. With theaters, people are there to see your comedy, which is why they have a ticket that says Brian Regan on it. They're there to see you and Ralph and their friends will go somewhere else for his birthday.
What do you like to do after a performance?
I might go out and have a meal, but, for the most part, I'll relax and enjoy life.
Brian Regan will be appearing at Avery Fisher Hall on November 11th, 2006.