Some comedians, such as Chris Rock, Sam Kinison, Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers, were born with larger-than-life personalities that jump out at you onstage and practically slap you in the face.
Brian Regan leans toward the other end of the comedy spectrum: He’s much more low-key, yet no less deadly. He’s like that self-deprecating, friendly neighbor or humbly witty guy at the office you’re always happy to talk to because everything he says makes you laugh.
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The still-boyish, 58-year-old Miami native, who tends to steer clear of profanity in his material, has an uncanny way of making mundane experiences funny, things like riding in an elevator, visiting the eye doctor or even a traumatic trip to the emergency room. Many have mastered this “observational” style of humor, including George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld, and Regan is right up there with them, having been praised by both his peers and idols as a true “comedian’s comedian.”
See for yourself as Regan – who combines the perfectly timed, dry delivery of Will Ferrell with an elastic physicality more subtle than Jim Carrey – performs Friday at downtown Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
He talked to The Miami Herald about returning home, whether we’ll hear anything new at his show, how he comes up with his material, how he feels about getting props from other comics, and the joke he most regrets telling.
You’re coming back down to the city in which you were born. How long did you live here?
Well, I was born … in 1958. I don’t know why I put a dramatic pause in there, but my whole family, we all grew up down there, my brothers and sisters. And I went away to college in Ohio from 1976 to ’80, and I went back down to South Florida and started comedy at a club in Fort Lauderdale, The Comic Strip, which no longer exists. I was there till about ’84, and then I went out on the road, so I haven’t lived there since 1984.
I guess it’s a lot different now than it was back then?
Every time I go back down there it’s different [laughs]. It’s weird – all the little mom-and-pop restaurants we used to go to in my neighborhood – they’re all gone, man! Pizza Patio is gone, and Old Hickory is gone, and Plantation Pit is gone [laughs]. The only two that are still hanging in there – I still go every time I’m down there – is Arbetter’s Hot Dogs and Frankie’s Pizza.
Nice shout-out! OK, the bulk of your humor is observational, taken from everyday life. Does that mean you’re on the job 24/7?
Well, I shut down that part of my brain as often as I can. I work half the weekends of the year, and I’ve got two kids so I like to be a daddy, so half the weekends I’m off. And when I’m off, I’m not trying to come up with comedy – I just do what I would normally do, and then every once in a while, you see something, or hear something, or experience something, and then you go, “Hey! Maybe that’s a bit!” I’m not actively seeking it out, but I just notice things sometimes.
Do you carry around a notebook or little recorder in case inspiration strikes?
I used to. Now, I have the iPhone with the Note App, which is really cool. Then when I think of something I can just jot it down in my Note App. I remember years ago – you know Sinbad the comedian? Years ago I worked with him before he became huge, and he had a little tape recorder, and [laughs] he would tape anything funny that he thought of, and I went to the movies with him and another comedian, and we sat down, and the movie hadn’t even started and he’d just take out his tape recorder and say stuff like, “Don’t you hate when you sit down in a movie theater and the floor’s sticky!?” And then he’d turn it off, and I was like, “Wow, he’s gonna be a big star, because he’s putting more work into this than I am.” [Laughs] I just complained about the floor being sticky and didn’t think it could be two minutes of comedy!
One of your best-loved bits was your trip to the emergency room. Was your brain working on how you could use that experience in your act as it was unfolding?
You know, it’s interesting. It is a true experience, the emergency room thing, but they say that a formula for comedy is “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Which means you go through something – it doesn’t have to be tragic, like a loss of life – but you go through something awkward, or bad, or weird, and then some time passes. And then you look back on it and go, “Oh, wow – there’s some humor in there.” And I’ve always tried to eliminate the time part, but I’m not that mentally healthy yet, where I can laugh during the tragic stuff. I can shorten the length of time, but I haven’t gotten it down to zero. [Laughs] It’s hard for me to be in the emergency room, in agony, and laughing.
What can we tell your fans to expect from your show this time?
You know what’s weird? A nice compliment for a comedian obviously is, “Hey, that was funny.” And I certainly like that compliment. But I also equally like when people come up and say, “Hey! Most of that stuff you did, we never heard before.” And then later, as I’m driving home, I go, “Wow, they never did say it was funny” [laughs]. But, to me it was still a plus. So, I just did a special for Comedy Central about a month and a half ago, and I’m already in the process of moving away from that material, and so I’m trying to throw a lot of newer stuff in. And some of it’s gonna be strong, and some will be a work in progress, but for the most part, it’s stuff I’m trying to do that’s a little bit different.
Have you ever regretted doing a joke for any reason?
Yes. Yes. I don’t like hurting actual people, you know? I’ll tell you the joke, but I’ll also tell you that I would certainly no longer do a joke like this. Years ago, do you remember Baby Fae? They put an orangutan heart in her, and when I first started doing comedy – this was one of my early jokes – I said, “Hey, I guess you all heard about Baby Fae. A lot of people don’t realize, but she is actually my niece. And when they told me that they were gonna put the orangutan heart in her, I just said, Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”
And so, it was like a decent joke, but Baby Fae’s an actual person, you know what I mean? And I don’t want that girl to grow up and feel bad, and I don’t want her family to feel bad. So I don’t do jokes like that, because I don’t like to hurt actual people.
I guess that sort of points to the power that you have, right?
Well, you know, words are powerful, man! It’s always weird to me when people say things like, “Well, they’re just words.” As if they don’t have power? Words and thoughts and concepts have power, and you can hurt people with them. You can make people feel good with them. You can do a lot of amazing things with just words. And so I’m just on the comedy side of the equation – I’m not trying to change the world, but, you know, I do like people to feel good, and feel good about the human condition and that sort of thing, so I try not to use my comedy for evil [laughs].
Do you get tired of being asked why you keep your act clean?
Yes and no. I mean, yes [laughs]. Mostly yes. Two-thirds yes. But I also realize it’s just the nature of the beast. If you’re a pitcher in Major League Baseball, and you lose the game, the reporter’s gonna say, “What happened? Why did you lose the game?” That comes with the territory. If you work clean, you are going to be asked the question, and so I just know it’s the nature of the beast. What’s weird to me, though, is that it’s clearly much more important to other people than it is to me.
Comedy can be clean as a style. It’s not a mission statement. Some people mistakenly think,
you know, I’m trying to ride in on a white horse and go, “Look how lofty and wholesome my comedy is, as opposed to those others, on the other side of the hill!” I like their comedy, too! As soon as I finish my show, I’m riding my white horse over the hill to enjoy the dark, twisted comedian brothers.
You’ve gotten some amazing praise from true legends such as Seinfeld and Chris Rock and Dennis Miller and so on. What does that feel like – do you feel validated, or is it kind of just a nice thing?
It’s a tremendous honor, you know what I mean? To have people who do what you do like what you do is just a huge, huge honor, and it means the world to me. And it’s especially comforting, because I never felt like I really broke through in terms of the entertainment and media world, you know, Hollywood and the networks and stuff like that. I was never the Golden Boy. So I always felt like the people who have truly helped me out over the years have been other comedians. You know, Jerry Seinfeld did a “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” [episode] with me – I was one of the first ones that he did. And it was like a huge feather in my cap, you know? It was like, “Wow, he likes what I do.” Maybe nobody else gets it, but he knows comedy, you know what I mean? Dave Letterman had me on his show many times. He’s a comedian. He likes what I do. Chris Rock is the one who asked me to have a scene in his movie ["Top Five”] – he’s a comedian. So for me, it’s always been other comedians who have given me the boost upwards, so I have just incredible feelings about my fellow comedy brothers and sisters, and it means the world to me that they like what I do.