Comedian Brian Regan on blackjack, Johnny Carson, and difficult humor

Catch him at at the Missouri Theater in St. Joseph on Saturday, April 29
Screenshot 2023 04 13 At 110007 Am

Brian Regan. // Courtesy photo

Brian Regan is one of the biggest names in comedy. From his appearances on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and his catalog of Netflix specials (including Nunchucks and Flamethrowers, and On the Rocks)—Brian Regan has been applauded for his observational and family-friendly comedy since his debut on Johnny Carson in 1991. 

We found time to chat with Brian about his upcoming shows, how he fell in love with comedy, and everything in between. 

The Pitch: Do you feel like there are different types of audiences that you encounter when you’re performing?

Brian Regan: Well, what I think is interesting about an audience is that everybody thinks they’re reacting, like, from their own individual selves, and they don’t realize that they are being influenced by everyone around them. You know, from my perspective, I try to make the audience one thing, and then I try to get this one thing laughing. I’m not naive; I know it’s a bunch of individuals out there, but the individuals out there think, “I think this guy’s funny.” They don’t realize that it’s more like—we—think this guy is funny. 

Audiences are like those big giant flocks of birds with, like, a million birds. And they’re all, like, moving around as one. It’s bizarre to look at, and you go, “Well, is that one thing, or are they all different?”

For anyone who hasn’t seen your show or doesn’t know much about you—what would you want them to know?  

I would like them to know it’s not me with musical symbols between my knees slapping them together. I don’t want people coming out thinking that because if they come out thinking that, they’re gonna be quite disappointed. 

It’s always weird, I never know how to describe my act. Like, I can’t find the words to explain it. Comedy is a very bizarre thing. You just get on stage and you talk about a variety of topics. Some of them are serious topics, some of them are quite mundane, and you’re just trying to find peculiar things within those subject matters.

You cite classic comedians like Steve Martin, Johnny Carson, and Richard Pryor as influences. What are some things you learned from them over the years, and how did you adapt them to your own style? 

Well, I learned different things from different people. Johnny Carson was always kind. He was always nice to his guests. And the classic example I use is he had an older woman on the show who had a potato chip collection. She wasn’t a star, she wasn’t a celebrity, she just had all these potato chips she thought looked like different things. And she came out with her little potato chip collection and showed them, and it would have been so easy for a host to ridicule or mock this woman, but Johnny Carson made her feel like a queen. I love that kind of comedy. I call it “laugh with” comedy as opposed to “laugh at” comedy. You can laugh at people; I don’t find that particularly nice. I prefer laughing with them, so I got that out of him. 

I watched a Richard Pryor special recently that I hadn’t seen in a long time. And, he’s on stage doing his thing, and I literally start crying. Because, like, seeing somebody raise comedy to the form of art, watching this master—I’m thinking, “Wow, some people can do this in a way that is just elevated.” Somebody can turn comedy into beautiful art. 

Steve Martin does double-barrel comedy. It’s a mixture of silly and smart. His character is silly and naive and unaware. But the comedian who created the character is brilliant. And so, at least for me, when I’m laughing, I’m laughing at both. I know there’s a character, but I also know there’s a comedian who created it and I’m enjoying it on both levels. 

You grew up in an Irish Catholic family with seven siblings—did it ever occur to you that standup comedy could be your career?

When I was young, no, it didn’t even dawn on me. But one interesting thing is that in my eighth-grade class, there was a group of students who were supposed to put together a little booklet about all of our experiences, and they wrote down all of the students who were graduating from the eighth grade. This committee wrote what they thought those people were going to be when they grew up. Next to me, they wrote “comedian” and “showman.” Somebody showed me this after I was a comedian, and it’s so weird that they knew before I did. 

It was when I was in college. There were a number of moments that pushed me in the direction of standup. I took a speech class, and I used to try and make my speeches funny. I remember killing it in front of my class. You know, there were 35 students in the class. Our teacher was in the back of the class, and I had everyone laughing, including her. She was, like, howling. I remember thinking, “I’ve never impressed a teacher with anything in my life.” When I walked back to my dorm, my brain was on fire. I remember thinking, “I don’t feel like this when I walk back from biology class.” I knew whatever experience I just had was something that I wanted more of. 

You’ve made jokes in previous shows about having OCD and social anxiety. Was it a hard decision to add jokes about mental illness?

I want to be careful with the OCD thing because I say in my special that I self-diagnose. I did have a therapist who strongly suggested that I have it, but it’s never been an official diagnosis. If I do have it, it’s in the area of being incredibly meticulous and organized to the point where it’s almost debilitating. I know there are people out there who have OCD in a much more debilitating way than I do, even if I have it, so I try to be careful not to be too light-hearted about it because I know that there are people who are super affected by it. But I do experience things that are borderline debilitating like my need to control things and my need to organize things pushes itself into my life in a negative way. In terms of comedy, I like to talk about things that interest me. I find humor in a lot of things, including things that might be difficult, so I like to share them on stage and see what people think. 

How do you feel late-night television has contributed to the careers of history’s greatest comedians? 

The importance of these late-night talk shows has waned a bit over the years. When I first started, you know, every single comedian wanted to get on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson—that was the gateway to becoming a star. Over the years, cable came into play, and more and more talk shows came out. Now there are podcasts and so many different forms of entertainment. Even though they still matter, they’re not as hugely important as they used to be. I was fortunate, I did 28 Letterman’s, and the fact that David Letterman liked what I did meant the world to me. It meant that I was pretty good. It is a milestone, like being knighted, if you will. You feel like someone has put a sword on your shoulder. 

Do you still get nervous before appearing on stage or TV? 

It depends on the situation. If I’m out on the road and going into a room full of people who have a ticket with my name on it, I’m pretty comfortable. They’re not there by accident, right? But if I’m doing a TV appearance like Fallon or something like that, the audience didn’t come to see me; they came there to watch a TV taping, and I just happened to be a small slice of the pie that night. So it’s a different animal, in those situations, you have to prove it. So I do get nervous from time to time. 

Is there a specific laugh you’ve gotten that just felt more satisfying than the others?  

One of my favorite laughs had nothing to do with my being a standup comedian. I was playing blackjack. And I try to be low-key—I don’t want anybody to know who I am or what I do. And this drunk guy sat down, and every other seat was full. After this drunk guy sat down, he was loud and brash and kind of a jerk. He lost a hand and pointed to me and said, “Well, maybe if this guy had made the right move, maybe I could have won that hand.” Like, he called me out, taking a hit when I shouldn’t. And I paused, and I said, “I was placed on this earth to suck all the joy out of your soul.” And everybody at the table, even the dealer, just howled. It was such a rewarding laugh because it’s like, you know, this guy who’s calling me out is a jerk. I’m not saying this from the perspective of a standup comedian; I’m just a guy who needs to put another guy in his place. It felt really good. 

Brian Regan will perform at the Missouri Theater in Saint Joseph, MO on Saturday, April 29. Tickets are available here.

Categories: Culture