Ask any pro comic about Brian Regan, and their response will be some variation of that quote. Try it. For more than 30 years, he’s been turning clubs and theaters inside out with a steady stream of hilarity, thanks to an almost supernatural ability to write relatable material and a deft sense of timing and physical comedy. And if the last year’s any indication, his star continues to rise, thanks to two Netflix hour-long specials, a 4-episode TV series produced by Jerry Seinfeld and a theater tour selling out all over the world. We caught up with Brian on a rare day off from an insane touring schedule for a phone chat about what it’s like to be so admired by his peers, working with Seinfeld, and his record-setting run of Letterman appearances….
French Davis: I watched you just recently on the Comedians In Cars getting coffee with Jerry Seinfeld and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the behind the scenes of that experience and what it was like to do the interview and that special.
Brian Regan: You know, he just shows up, he pulls up in a car. Well, they mic you up, you get in a car, there’s all kinds of cameras in the car. There’s a van following you around. Sometimes it’s next to you, like at red lights and stuff with a film crew in it. It’s weird because you know you’re being filmed, but occasionally you kind of forget that. You forget that, you think, “Oh my gosh, we’re just having a conversation.” And then you look over and you see a film crew hanging out of a van at a red light. Hey, I forgot where you’re talking about.
FD: You’ve been frequently referred to as the “comedian’s comedian.” The admiration working comedians have for you — that’s got to be a little heady, right? Like, is that too much flattery or too much gravitas to carry around? How does that make you feel when you hear people like Jerry Seinfeld talk about you in such glowing terms?
BR: Well, it’s incredibly flattering, I love it. It makes me feel like I’m on the right track. All comedians want to make audiences laugh, but if you can also get the respect of your peers on top of that, it’s especially gratifying. At the same time, there’s an expression called “playing to the back of the room.” And that means you care more about what comedians think than you do the audience. And I’ve never wanted to take it that far — I do want audiences to laugh as well. So I’ve always said, I’m a creative pig. I want everybody in the room laughing. I want the audience and the back of the room laughing, not one or the other.
FD: Letterman’s a huge fan. It was 27 appearances you did on Lettman, I think?
BR: Well now I get to brag, it was 28.
FD: Do you still remember what it was like the very first time?
BR: The amount of nerves involved is hard to explain to people…I had done similar things before, I had done a Tonight Show with Johnny Carson — now I’m dating myself — but Letterman was like the show people really wanted to be on. To have that first opportunity was huge for me. It would be huge for any comedian. So as you’re being introduced, it’s an amazing experience. You’re walking out to who knows what, you don’t know what’s about to happen. You’re hopeful, you hope that your comedy will pull you through and that the audience will hook in and you’ll get some laughs, but you don’t know, that’s part of what’s thrilling about it. The audience could do absolutely nothing. They could sit there and stare at you for five minutes straight and if they do, then you’re going to have to live with that. But… Probably the bigger phone call… Or as big of a phone call, of getting the first one is the second one. When you get that call where they say, “Hey, we liked them, we want them again.” That’s when you go, ah, okay, this is the real McCoy. They must have liked what I did.
FD: At the other end of the career, now you’ve got a lot going on, including two new Netflix specials, one that’s out already. How did all that come together? What was that process like?
BR: Well, my situation with Netflix is kind of complicated so I have to explain it. I have two separate deals with them. One is for two one-hour stand-up comedy specials. One of them I already did, that was called Nunchucks and Flame Throwers that came out a couple of years ago and the next one hour stand-up comedy special I’ll be taping next year… Then separate from that, I had a 4-episode series that Jerry Seinfeld executive produced and that was a comedy hybrid show called Stand Up in a Way with Brian Regan.
FD: Was it Netflix that reached out to you or is that something that you pitched?
BR: Well, I don’t know how to say it without feeling like I’m patting myself on the back, but I’m so honored that Jerry Seinfeld likes what I do as a comedian. He had reached out and said that he would spearhead a show idea for me because he felt like I should have a TV show, which meant I don’t even, I don’t know how to find a metaphor for how amazing that is, but you just go, what in the world is happening to me in life that I’m getting this phone call? So I met with him and I had this idea for this show and I pitched it to him… He said, “yeah, I like it, let’s do it.” Then he was kind of the muscle that got it through at Netflix, you know, when we walked into the meeting they went, “Jerry Seinfeld and another guy!”
FD: That’s a helluva tip-of-the-sword to bring to that meeting with Jerry Seinfeld leading the way. The endorsement alone of someone who’s arguably one of the guys on the Mount Rushmore of comedy. Speaking of, who else would be on your Mount Rushmore comedy right now?
BR: Well, if you look historically at like the last 50 years, probably some of the obvious names are the ones that I would go with, George Carlin, definitely a master. Richard Pryor. I would put Seinfeld up there and then Steve Martin. Steve Martin…was quirky and silly and I like silly. I think silly combined with smart can be amazing. And I found his comedy to be a double barrel of silly and smart.
For the rest of the interview check out the unabridged online version at <INSERT URL HERE>
Brian Regan plays three show at the Paramount Theatre in Denver: Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 8 at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Tickets start at $49.50, www.paramoountdever.com for more information.
FD: With respect to stand up, I think that’s an interesting point. Steve Martin’s a great example, someone who segued into an amazing movie career. Or other great comics who were standups first like Eddie Murphy or Jerry Seinfeld who are able to move into TV or movies — meanwhile you have never left stand up. It seems like that has always been your first passion and it’s something that you’ve never wanted to stop doing. How do you kind of keep that feeling fresh? I’ve heard work from you across your career and I’ve never thought to myself, well that feels like he’s phoning it in. It’s always been something where it’s evident that it’s a consistent growing process for you, which is I think what any artists would look for. What’s the secret for you? I mean, how many shows have you done, if you could cont, have you counted them all?
BR: Gosh, I don’t know. Now I do about a hundred a year, but before I was doing theaters, I did more than that. When I did comedy clubs, sometimes you do three shows on a Saturday night, two shows on a Friday night, stuff like that. So I don’t know, I know I’ve done thousands of shows over the years, but to answer your question, first of all, thank you. It’s a nice compliment. There was a time when I got lazy, and it was a short period of time, but I was in comedy clubs, had my act, I was doing well. I started filling comedy clubs, and then a couple of years later the numbers started dropping off, and I realized that I had lost the passion to experiment and be fresh, like I was resting on my act. I made a decision that I’m never going to do that again, I just said I need to get on stage and be willing to fail. You don’t want to become a victim of your own success.
BR: I would rather feel like I’m experimenting and trying new things and turning new corners and that sort of thing. And some of it will work and some of it won’t. So I immediately doubled down on getting back into the creative side of it and getting back into that joyful fear of walking on stage, having no idea what was going to happen. So, the downside is, your shows are going to be inconsistent for a while, but the upside is you’re going to come up with some new interesting stuff. So since then, and that was a long time ago, one of my favorite compliments in addition to people saying, “Hey, I thought you were funny,” I love when people say, “Hey, I saw you two years ago and most of what you did tonight I’ve never heard before.” So, that to me is a compliment. New is a compliment to me.
FD: Yeah, no, I get that, totally. As a musician, that rings true for me as far as just striving so hard to avoid the gigs where I’m playing the same music over and over and over again.
BR: Yes, I tend to use analogies and metaphors — I think that’s how I think comedically — so I think of new jokes as opening the door to a brand new, fresh virgin snow and you’re running out and you’re creating new footprints. Just something fascinating about that, cause you don’t know. I don’t know if this is going to work, if it’s not going to work, you know? And if it’s snow with a thousand footprints on it, it’s not as exciting.
FD Yeah, that’s it. That totally sounds like something Miles Davis might say. Okay, two more questions. One, what goals do you have left to achieve that you haven’t yet?
BR: Well, I always wanted an HBO one-hour comedy special and I was never offered one. I had a Showtime special, I had Comedy Central specials, I’ve had Netflix specials, I’ve self-produced one-hour things. I was close with HBO. There were a couple of times where I’d been told, “Oh, you’re going to get one, they’re going to come out and check you out.” And then things fell through and I never had one. What’s weird is HBO isn’t even the top dog anymore, so that the dream has diminished over the years, but that was one thing that I never accomplished. Other than that, I’ve been pretty fortunate to have had an opportunity to do the things that I wanted to do. The last one was creating my own show, which was the one that Seinfeld executive produced for me, that was a dream to be able to come up with a show and do it….I guess the only other thing that I can throw in there is I have ideas for shows and movies that have nothing to do with me. I just tend to think of weird things and I’m going to be meeting with my agents out in L.A. soon to say, Hey, listen, here’s 10 ideas I have for T.V. shows and movies; they’re not even shows that I’m in, I just think they’re good ideas. How do I pursue this? What do I do? I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to navigate that. It’s like, do I get a writer first? Do I talk to a producer first? I don’t know, so, I’m going to have them help me try to get some projects going. So I guess that would be the answer to your question.
FD: All right, final question and this was a great line that definitely stuck with me. You said, “butterflies are the memory makers,” the butterflies in your gut. A) thank you for that line. I really did like that. And B) tell me a couple of the other times that you either still get the butterflies or maybe some of the most memorable butterfly moments for you aside from the ones we already talked about.
BR: Well, thank you for liking the thought. The first time I noticed butterflies was when I was in high school playing sports, you’d get butterflies playing football in high school and you get butterflies before a game and you go, what is this feeling? … And then I started getting butterflies with standup comedy and that sort of thing. And then it dawned on me that as uncomfortable as those butterflies are, and some people might say, I don’t like this, I want to avoid these, I realized whatever happens after that is the kind of stuff that you tend to remember in life. So there’s a reason for those butterflies. So I say seek them out instead of avoiding them.