Standup comic Brian Regan is currently on a tour that will take him across the continental US, which includes stops in Hamilton and Toronto. The comedian, who recently agreed to film two specials for Netflix, spoke to The Varsity ahead of his upcoming September 8 show in Toronto about being labelled a ‘clean comic,’ life on the road, and comedy in the current political climate.
The Varsity: I was just reading your interview with Jim Gaffigan from a couple years ago, and you talked about this idea that your comedy is labelled ‘clean comedy,’ and how that label sort of makes you cringe. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that, and if deciding to pursue what other people refer to as ‘clean comedy.’ Was that a conscious choice or was that just something you were more naturally drawn to?
Brian Regan: A little of both, you know? When I first started, I was always mostly clean anyway, you know. But I wasn’t 100 per cent clean, I had a handful of— it’s just the word ‘dirty jokes’ sounds so strange — but I had a handful of jokes that were off-colour or whatever. But, you know, it’s so weird to me to do something only 97 per cent of the way. I tried to go 100 per cent clean. Just for my own head. It wasn’t because I was like a prude or something like that, it was more because I was very anal. I don’t want to be 95 per cent something when I can be 100 per cent something. I decided to go completely clean just because I like to see how hard I can get people laughing without using certain words.
TV: Do you still find it challenging to keep the act 100 per cent clean or is it natural to you at this point?
BR: It’s not hard for me. I mean, there’s plenty of things to talk about. I always try to be careful to make it clear that it’s not an ‘us against them’ kind of thing, you know? It isn’t like I’m trying to make a point. Sometimes people come up to me after shows and act like I’m on their side as opposed to the other side, but the other side is evil, or something. ‘Thank you Brian, for not being like them.’ You know what I mean? But I like them! I like them over there, they’re just different.
TV: Them is my friends.
BR: Yeah, you know. So to me it’s better when a lot of people approach comedy from different angles. I like that there are dirty comedians, I like that there are political comedians, I like prop comedians. I like that there are clean comedians, to describe it that way. It’s different people approaching it from different perspectives. It’s all good.
TV: Others would label you as a comedian’s comedian — I have quotes in front of me from Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Burr, Marc Maron, all listing you as one of their favourites. When did you realize, if you had this moment of realization, when you felt that your comedy appealed to the masses, but also to these career comedians who really admire your work?
BR: Well I never really — it was not something I sought out, to have comedians like what I do. I’ll put it this way, I didn’t try to do that specifically. I want to make everybody laugh, not just comedians and not just the audience. I want to make everybody laugh. There’s a term, the back of the room, and that means the comedians standing in the back of the room. And I think some comedians out there that care about the audience and not so much the back of the room, and there are other comedians who care about the back of the room and not so much the audience. And I’m a pig. I want everybody. I want to capture as many people as I can. Audience and back of the room. So when I found out that other comedians liked what I did, it was flattering.
TV: I want to know more about life on the road, because I think that that’s something that very few people experience or can really understand, is that life of touring. I know that you’ve toured pretty extensively, and you’ve also taken your family on the road at times, your children. What is that like and what are some of the challenges in doing that?
BR: It’s so much a part of my life that it feels normal. In fact, I woke up the other day and I was like, ‘Where the heck am I?’ You know, I looked around and realized I was home. It’s kind of strange. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is my house.’ It’s just the nature of the beast, but I’m also careful to spend plenty of time at home. I’m at home more than I’m away. And I do shows throughout the year but I’m not working every weekend. I’ve got plenty of time to be home with the kids, and all that sort of thing. I still enjoy it very much. I’m sure there’ll be a day when I grow weary of all the travel, but right now everything is fine.
TV: Are there some cities or areas of the country that you find are easier to tour in than other, or have the best audiences? Is there anywhere that you return to again and again and you feel like this is sort of your niche?
BR: Toronto. My favourite place on Earth.
TV: Oh, I see.
BR: That’s one of the things that is fun about doing comedy, is I get to go to a lot of places I might not have gone to otherwise. I like playing big cities, I like playing little cities, I like playing in New York state one day, and Des Moines the next day. It’s cool, people like to laugh everywhere. And also, to be able to go to Toronto, to be able to go to Canada, you know. If I had chosen another profession, I wouldn’t have been able maybe to do that at all or maybe certainly not as often as I do. So it’s cool, it’s fun.
TV: Okay, so speaking of appearing in Toronto, what are some of the biggest differences, I’m curious to know, between Canadians and Americans that you notice when you’re here?
BR: I like Canada. Well, I like all audiences. Canadian audiences, they’re really going out of their way to enjoy the subtleties of a joke. US audiences can do that as well but you can also catch a US audience that is more like, ‘Give it to us on a platter, comedy boy! Don’t make us think too much.’ Not always, occasionally you can catch an audience like that. But in Canada, it seems like more often than not, the Canadian audiences are willing to build half the bridge. You know, I always feel like the best jokes are when the comedians build half the bridge and the audience builds the other half of the bridge, and you meet in the middle. You want to leave certain words out of a joke, you want the audience to go, ‘Ah, I see where you’re going with this,’ and it’s nice to meet happily in the middle. It’s not as fun to catch an audience where, ‘Oh, I have to build the bridge all the way over to you, I see,’ you know? I mean it happens, what are you gonna do?
TV: I want to know where you stand on the debate of whether or not comedians should stick to performing a selection of their best jokes, or should they turn over their act completely every year or few years. Maybe what works best for you is a better way of putting it.
BR: I like to turn it over. I’m fortunate that every few years I can record an hour of material, whether it’s a TV special or a CD or whatever. And then once it’s recorded, I can feel like okay, that material, I worked on it, I created it, I made it as good as I think I can make it, and now it’s recorded and now it’s out there and now I can move on from it. There’s pressure for me to be doing stuff that is new. The newer the jokes, for me, the more excited I am to tell ‘em. So I think it helps me as a performer. Also I have the nice byproduct of people wanting to come back. You know if people come up to me after shows, I always like when they say it’s funny, but I also like when they say it’s new. To me it’s a compliment. I had somebody on my Twitter feed last week, was performing in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Somebody — didn’t reply but it made me laugh — said, ‘Hey, I’m coming to your show in Hampton Beach, will the material be new? I’m like, ‘In relation to what? I don’t know when the last show you saw was, buddy.’ It’s new from 20 years ago, it’s not new from the day before. So new is a relative term. But I love letting old jokes fall by the wayside and letting new jokes come into play.
TV: And I like the idea that he has already purchased tickets to your show and if you say that the jokes are old he might not come.
BR: Yeah, maybe he should have asked before he bought the tickets.
TV: This question may veer a little bit into the political, but I was curious, in your recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon, you said that you thought a really good dad might be able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I was curious, do you think that Jared Kushner is that dad?
BR: [laughs] I don’t know. I mean, I think I get political without getting overly specific, you know what I mean. I just, like, to me, that joke is — even though it is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s about how dads can solve problems quickly. So the joke is almost reverse engineered. I just think it would be funny for somebody to solve a political crisis like a dad would solve a problem between two kids.
TV: On that appearance, you led up to the joke by talking about the political climate in the US. Do you find anything has changed with appearances since the election? I guess your comedy isn’t so inherently political, but do you find anything that’s different in what maybe people are willing to laugh at versus not? Or have you not had that problem just because of the nature of your material?
BR: Well, I think everything is fair game, you know. Every single subject is fair game, if you ask me. It all depends on what perspective you’re coming from. And not every comedian wants to touch on every single thing, but I think with as many comedians as there are and as many subjects as there are, everything should be fully covered. I don’t think of myself as a political comedian, but I do like to touch on it. It is part of the world, and part of what affects me and that sort of thing, so I do like to touch on it. But for me, at least right now, I don’t want to faction my audience. I don’t want to go there, cut my audience in half. Like, hey, this half will enjoy what I’m talking, the other half hit the highway. I’m not opposed when comedians do that, I mean, there are comedians who definitely have a point of view and they’re not shy about sharing it cause their act is political in nature, that’s the nature of the beast. But you know, I don’t want to cut my audience in half and then the next joke talk about donuts, and donut sprinkles. Half the people are in their cars driving home going, ‘Man, they could have really gotten into this donut sprinkle joke and the only thing I hear is comments about Trump.’
TV: We’ll move on to the few rapid-fire questions I have and then I’ll let you go. First question is, salty or sweet?
TV: Sweet, okay.
BR: Eleven Krispy Kremes is my record. I’ve never done a dozen, but I’ve done eleven.
TV: If there was a movie based on your life, who would you want to play you?
BR: Will Ferrell.
TV: Describe your sense of style in three words.
BR: Kirkegaardian with Machiavellian undertones, and a Nietzsche perspective.
TV: What is the longest road trip you’ve ever taken?
BR: Probably a month.
TV: From where to where?
BR: Well, I used to do shows, I used to stay in a comedy club for one month, and I had two one-hour shows that I would rotate back and forth. So when I say a road trip it wasn’t really — well, I have silly answers. This is rapid fire and I’m getting too into it.
TV: That’s totally fine.
BR: Comedy clubs for a month, but I also drove across the United States one time and I took three weeks and that was a blast.
TV: What were you like in college?
BR: I was like a new baby chick coming out of the egg.
TV: Last question: would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?
BR: You’ll have to repeat the question, it’s a bad connection. It sounds like a very important question, I don’t want to get it wrong.
TV: It’s very important, the people need to know. Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck? I can tell you afterwards what President Obama said, but I definitely want to hear your answer first.
BR: Okay, I just want to make sure I’m hearing it correctly. Would I rather fight, like a fight—
TV: Yes, like a physical right.
BR: Okay, a hundred duck-sized, like a duck, like a duck in the water?
BR: Or one horse-sized duck.
BR: You know, I always have my notes in front of me, to lead me into something. This isn’t leading me towards any of my notes.
TV: This is a famous Reddit question, so I didn’t actually make this up, I don’t want to take credit for the question.
BR: Alright. I would rather fight one duck-sized horse.
TV: Oh, but that’s not an option.
BR: Oh, I messed it up.
TV: It’s one— one horse-sized duck is maybe what you meant to say?
BR: One, yes. I would rather fight one horse-sized duck.
TV: Okay. That was President Obama’s choice too.
BR: Because, you only have to deal with one brain.
TV: Yeah, a hundred is quite a lot. Even if they are duck-sized.
BR: Yeah, then it’s like, you know, hey, I have big knees, but these guys are forming a faction and they’re coming around on different sides. At least the one horse-sized duck, I can face it the entire time, and I could beat it with my brain power. I can outsmart a horse-sized duck any day.
Brian Regan will perform at Massey Hall on September 8.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.