When stand-up comic Brian Regan performs at the Mahalia Jackson Theater Sunday night, he'll make the audience move as one, even though he can't see it.
[Updated] In his most recent Comedy Central stand-up special, Brian Regan: Live from Radio City Music Hall, Brian Regan tells the story of working at an IHOP as a busboy when a customer complained about finding a hair in her salad. He doesn’t stop to wonder why someone was eating salad in a house of pancakes. Instead, he reflects on his own upbringing and the ravenous way he and his brothers ate, and how confused he is about her complaint.
“No prizes come with that,” he tells her, with the look on his face of a terrible bluffer trying to bluff anyway.
That answer prompts the customer to ask to talk to the manager, and this description of the bit is likely more confusing than the moment is on stage. As Regan tells the story, he swiftly switches from role to role, adopting the look and posture of his teenaged self, the customer, and the manager, all trying to collectively work their way through a mundane moment. Regan doesn’t announce who is speaking, but the customer is always looking up from her booth, the manager stands with the forced erectness of someone trying to pretend he’s not in over his head, and Regan presents himself as a young slackjaw, knuckles ready to drag once he’s off the clock.
In the scene and throughout Regan’s comedy, the hapless confront the bumbling with the limited tools at their disposal. The solutions and conclusions the people in his stories reach are hilariously wrong as they struggle to preserve what little dignity they have left. Characters—often him—may be dumb, but not Dumb and Dumber dumb. They may be full of themselves, but they’re not mean or assholes. More often, they’re simply trying to bluster through their own vulnerabilities. His comedy is fundamentally good-natured, and he never cheats for laughs. You recognize the core reality in his jokes, even at their most exaggerated.
Brian Regan will perform Sunday at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, and the scene is typical Regan. It’s not showy or outrageous, and he’s not cutting edge. But more than 20 years in the comedy game have made it possible for him get loud laughs and consistent chuckles throughout the routine. Jerry Seinfeld has declared Regan his favorite comic, and comedians Marc Maron and Chris Hardwick have gushed over Regan’s stand-up work on their podcasts. Patton Oswald said of Regan:
He is our never-fail ideal of what a stand-up performer can be. I have never—ever—met another stand-up that doesn't do a low whistle of awe and respect (and envy) whenever his name comes up.
Todd Glass and Jimmy Dore told me when they went to see Brian at the WIltern they ended up punching each other from sheer joy. I've seen him four times in clubs and three of those four times I've had to scoot back into the kitchen and stop listening to his act because I was laughing so hard I thought I was going to throw up.
Regan is in his 50s and, not surprisingly, self-deprecating. He describes his jokes as “little vignettes—situations, moments, and the only way they work is if I act them out on stage,” but he didn’t always think of them that way. It wasn’t until he wrote some of them down that he recognized them as scripts that usually involved him in conflict with someone else or something else. “I realized I’m either a bad playwright who can’t right a play that lasts more than a minute, or I’m really good at banging them out, but they’re not long enough to get a whole group of people to see, so I have to string them together,” Regan says, half-joking.
The performance aspect of those jokes came into focus for Regan in a similarly inadvertent manner. He grew up physical in all the usual ways—ran track in high school, played football in college—and a degree of physicality came naturally to him on stage. One night in New York City, he got to a gig in a comedy club where he learned that the PA was dead, but he was still expected to go on. He amped up the energy and his performance of the jokes so that even those who only partially heard him could get the jokes. Regan killed and even though he didn’t remember exactly what he’d done, he understood the importance of the physical dimension.
Regan opened for Jerry Seinfeld during Seinfeld’s sitcom days, and while they’re very different comedians, they both do observational humor. It sounds easy to do, but the number of mediocre comedians in the world struggling to make a go with it speaks to how hard it is to do well. According to Regan, the challenge to making observational humor work isn’t a good punch line but a good set-up.
“A lot of people are funny with their friends, but when you’re with your friends, you only have to say the funny part,” he says. Everybody knows that Fred is cheap. Everybody knows that Sally is always late and Neil is arrogant, so you just make your wisecrack and you be funny. When you walk on stage in front of an audience, nobody knows Neil or any of those people. It’s like bowling. You have to set up the pins before you can knock them down. There’s nothing there. That’s the hard part of stand-up—creating something out of nothing.”
The other challenge is striking the right balance. “Comedy has to be perfect,” Regan says. If the subject and its payoff are too mundane, the joke’s mundane. Too silly and it’s buffoonery. Exaggeration is an essential tool, but “comedy has to be rooted in reality and common experience.”
Regan doesn’t go out of his way to align his personal life and his comedy, but he does his best to make it as relatable as possible. He is a dad and tries to lead a normal life. “You want comedy to be of the people, not above the people,” he says. “You want the vibe to be We’re all in this together. You don’t want to be on stage talking about Lear jet pilots. You can get so successful that you’re no longer relating to people. I vowed never to get that successful, and Hollywood’s been good to me in that regard!”
Regan worked during the period when television networks were building sitcoms around comedians’ acts including Seinfeld’s, but no one wanted to one based on his comedy then and that hasn’t changed. “They never know what to do with me, and I wear that as a badge of honor,” he says. “They watch a whole hour and say, He’s very funny. Where’s the show? I’m glad that they can’t figure that out. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony.”
That may be true, but Regan talks about being passed over for television shows enough that it’s hard to believe he’s entirely sanguine with it, particularly with so many channels and streaming services creating shows. It’s one thing for the Big Three networks to pass you over in the ‘80s or ’90s; when 20 or so channels, Hulu and Netflix still don’t see it, that has to sting.
At the same time, Regan takes great pride in his stand-up work. He graduated from comedy clubs to theaters more than a decade ago and has never been more bigger. Playing theaters means he doesn’t have to compete with the bartender making a daiquiri in the back, the bachelorette party on left, and the waitresses dropping checks on tables during the last 15 minutes of the set. When people buy tickets, they’re predisposed to enjoy the show, so Regan doesn’t have to work to win them over—much less hold their attention—in the same way.
“You do get a sense of pride where you’ve got enough people who’ll come out to see what you do to warrant being in a theater,” he says, and the confidence that comes with that realization emboldens Regan to be more subtle. “I like a textured show. I do my high energy, silly stuff, but I like to build half the bridge and have the audience build the other half.”
The success of Regan’s comedy depends on his ability to connect with people, but in most theaters, he’s unable to see them. The lights on him and the darkened house make people largely invisible, so he tries to check it out before he goes on to see what it looks like. In his mind though, he’s most successful when the audience comes together. “Usually you’re trying to make the audience one, and you’re trying to make that thing laugh,” Regan says. He likens the audience to an instrument, and the comedian is trying to play that instrument.
Still, the right individual laugh in the right moment can be as powerful as a whole room laughing. One night during his show, Regan wondered why gate agents at the airport go down the jetway before the start boarding. Couldn’t they just call to the phone at the other end and ask if the plane’s ready?
“One woman one night laughed so beautifully and soulfully that I figured she must work at the airport and this must be a pet peeve of hers,” Regan recalls. “I felt like I’d made a connection to her that I wish I was making with the entire audience. But at least I’m communicating this to someone.”
Updated 10:38 p.m.
The location of the show in the subhede was incorrect when the story was first published. It has since been corrected.