Don't Ask Brian Regan to Tell You a Joke

And other things we learned from the comedian before his two local shows this weekend—including using his comedy for good, not evil, and how people manage to mispronounce his name.

By: Tanya Pai

Growing up, Brian Regan planned to become an accountant. But after a change of heart in college, he switched to standup--and is now one of the busiest comedians in the United States. His everyman personality and riffs on quotidian subjects, such as shipping a package with UPS or those gross peanut-butter-and-jelly combo jars--plus his notable lack of profanity--make him appealing to audiences across the board. He's now got three CDs, two DVDs, and a whopping 24 appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman under his belt. We caught up with the Miami native, who performs two shows at the Warner Theatre this weekend, to chat about his comedy style, performing on TV, and the question he hates to be asked.

Where are you at the moment?

I'm at my home in Las Vegas, and I want to apologize--my regular phone isn't working, so I'm on my cell phone, which is what my building has to call if anyone is here. And there are workers coming by.

What kind of work are you having done?

I live in a condo; I just purchased it about a month ago, so I'm having TVs put in, and--I don't know if I'm the laziest guy in the world, but I also have blinds that I want to be able to control with buttons. I mean, can you imagine how stressful it would be to have to open them yourself?

So like the window-covering version of the Clapper?

Yeah! Then I want to get a Clapper that controls the remote for the blinds, so I never have to get up from my La-Z-Boy.

Speaking of sitting in one place, how long is your tour this time?

You know, the tour itself is like the Gilligan's Island tour--you go out for what you think is three hours, and you never go home. I started back in the 1980s and just never stopped. But I come home in between; I'm on the road for about 100 days, which leaves . . . using my computerized math skills . . . I'm home about 265 days a year. I've got two wonderful kids at home, and I'm here more than I'm away, so even though it seems like I'm away a lot, when I come home I'm in home mode.

As a comedian, do you hate it when you meet people and they ask you to tell them a joke?

I . . . do. [laughs] I try not to use "hate" in my vocabulary, but I guess that would rise to that level. I try to be careful not to put it on those people who say that, because they might not know better, but for me internally I'm going through an experience I would call hatred.

How would you respond if someone asked you that?

I still don't have a good response, I really don't. I try to honestly say, "I think it'd be best if you just check out a show." My stuff . . . they're not really jokes, they're more like bits, they're kind of out of context. Most people get it when you do that, but then you have your freight trains who go, "Oh, do a bit for me, I'm Mr. Don't Take a Hint." Then you just say, "I'm turning around and I'm walking 180 degrees from you."

How do you come up with your routines?

There's a theory, a formula for comedy, which is that comedy equals tragedy plus time. The word tragedy is used very loosely; it just means any awkward and uncomfortable experience, like tripping or banging your head or waiting in a doctor's office for too long. After some time you look back and joke about it with your friends, like, "Remember that time I was trying to change a flat tire in the rain?" I wish I was so mentally healthy I could eliminate the time part and enjoy it while it's happening, but I can get frustrated like everyone else.

What's a better recipe for comedy, laughing at other people or laughing at yourself?

Laughing at yourself. That's just my own preference, though; you can aim comedy in any direction. I don't like to use my comedy for evil. I think there's plenty about me I can make fun of, I think there's plenty of observational--[gets interrupted by another call]. Sorry. I'm never going to work my blinds if I can't work my iPhone. I personally am not into jabbing others. I figure we're all capable of making mistakes, and I'll make my own.

Are there any subjects that are off-limits?

That's an interesting question. Comedy is sort of like music: There are a lot of things that happen under the umbrella of it, everything under the umbrella is fair game, but not everybody goes after everything. It all depends on your point of view. I might not go after certain things, and I might shy away from certain types of comedy. I like that there are political comedians, dirty comedians, silly comedians, I just have my own little niche.

You've got a reputation as being a cleaner comedian, as in, you don't use a lot of profanity. Was that intentional?

It was never by design. I always kind of worked that way. I was about 95 percent clean anyway, even when I first started. I had a handful of dirty jokes, if you want to call 'em that, that had a four-letter word or something. But it was never a big part of my act, and then I decided, "What if I just go 100 percent with it and see what happens?" But there are comedians out there who are blue and work great.

How did you get into comedy? Was there a particular comedian who made you consider it as a career?

I always liked comedy, but it wasn't on my radar that I could be a comedian. I mean, you grow up in Miami, Florida, you don't think, "One day I'll grow up and be a comedian." They live a million miles away in this fairyland called Hollywood. I went to college thinking I was going to be an accountant, then sophomore year of college I realized I didn't want to do the accounting, so I switched to communication and theater arts. That was when I decided. As far as comedians I liked, I wasn't necessarily inspired by them, since I was turning off the TV and thinking, "I'm gonna become an accountant!" I liked Steve Martin, Johnny Carson, George Carlin, Jonathan Winters--I'm dating myself . . . maybe I should pick some more contemporaries so I don't sound 86 years old. [goofy voice] I liked all the comedians on the Ed Sullivan Show!

Do you get stage fright?

I get it when I'm performing in front of people who don't know who I am or what I'm about. If I'm performing in front of my fans, now I'm lucky enough where I'm in a theater or something and everybody has a ticket with my name on it, they didn't just happen upon the place, so I feel like I'm in friendly territory. If I'm doing a TV taping--maybe "fright" is a little too strong, I get a little nervous. Because they're not there for me. And then somebody gets onstage and goofs up my credits and mangles my name.

How do you screw up "Brian Regan"?

I get "Reagan" [like Ronald Reagan] all the time. And it's the people who ask before they go out onstage--they're the ones who are gonna get it wrong.

You've been on David Letterman's show 24 times now. Can you remember what the first time was like?

I had auditioned for it a number of times over the years without being able to get it, and then that one time when I did the audition they said, "Yeah, they're going to put you on." You talked about stage fright--that's about as close as you can get to it. It's like, "Wow, there's David Letterman behind a desk introducing me." It's thrilling and you're happy to do it. You go out there, and it's different performing in front of fans. You have to prove to them that you're funny; they have an idea you probably are, but that can be a little nerve-wracking. But when you end up having a good set it's very exciting, like, "I was just on national TV!"

Have you ever thought about doing your own TV show, or movies?

I would say as far as a TV show, I'm not interested, but it depends on what comes my way. I tend to shy away from wanting to get involved with television unless it has something to do with my comedy and the way I think; I'm not as interested in just being an actor on a sitcom. A movie is different; I would be open to something like that, but I think the way that world works is they have to call you. I don't think I can just call Steven Spielberg and say, "I am now willing to do movies! Where's my parking space?"

Do you have a dream gig in mind?

I don't know about a dream gig. If I could do a television thing that really revolved around how I think as a comedian, something that would include some type of quick-hit, sketch-oriented type of thing, I could be jazzed by that. If I could get something where a TV network would say, "Come up with a show and do what you want," that'd be great . . . but that doesn't seem to be common. They like to sit down at the table with you and say, "Hey, we're underqualified, let us give you notes."

Can you think of a time when you did a show and just completely bombed?

I mean, usually there're some laughs. But I had one show one time--it was the most bizarre thing. It was for a country club in New York state somewhere, and it was these elder gentlemen, golfers, all guys; there were no women. It was one of those situations where they were there for another reason. This was before anybody would know who I was, and they clearly had no idea. So I got onstage, and there were about 400 of them. They were incredibly polite; nobody talked, nobody shouted out, nobody left. Usually when you're having a bad show people start murmuring among themselves, but they were all incredibly polite and focused. They were just not laughing at all. Like they all decided, "I guess this guy's not funny." So I just muscle through, and I get offstage--and you're trying to pretend like something happened that was worthwhile, like, "Thank you!" I get offstage, and this guy is standing by the bar and hands me a glass of Scotch. I don't even drink Scotch. And he goes, "I thought you might want this," and I go, "You might be right." And then he goes, "What do you do for a living?" He must have thought I was moonlighting. I had to say, "Believe it or not, I do this every night."

Brian Regan performs at the Warner Theatre Friday, May 18, at 8 PM, and Saturday, May 19, at 9 PM. Tickets ($39.50 to $49.50) are available through LiveNation.