Brian Regan cut his touring schedule in half the day his son was born.
Fatherhood is one of the subjects this comedian can be quite serious about. But there are others. For instance, ask him about his career path and he'll tell you about some not-so-funny failures. Ask him what makes him laugh and he'll reference scientific formulas and use really big words. Ask him about intellectual property in the Internet age and he'll give you an intellectual answer.
Regan, who will perform this weekend at Vivint Arena, spoke with the Deseret News in advance of his Salt Lake City shows on March 18 and 19. He talked about flopping at Rodney Dangerfield's comedy club, his appeal to Utah audiences and why he doesn't like to tell people he's a comedian.
The following is his interview, edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: How does a comedian build a following?
Brian Regan: I don't know. And I'm not trying to be flippant. It's never been my goal to build a following. If that happens along the way, then certainly I'm thrilled about that. But I just try to continue to talk about things that interest me comedically, and I just try to keep replenishing — out with the old and in with the new; keep talking about new things. I'd like to think that the fact that I keep switching up the act helps in that regard. But I'm not really doing it for that reason. I'm doing it for myself.
I get bored if I talk about the same thing all the time. I like to keep moving along. I'm just trying to do things that I think are funny. I want audiences to agree, but I'm not trying to figure out what audiences think is funny. I think that's a mistake to sit there and be like, "What do these people want?" I don't think I'm there to do that. I think I'm there to tell you what I think is funny. If a following happens along the way, then that's great. If it doesn't, that's also great.
There are comedians out there who are being true to themselves who might not have the following that I have, but they shouldn't be considered as less-successful. They might have less people that tap into what their message is. That doesn't make it any less valid.
DN: Looking back at your career, what were some of the defining moments that led you to where you are now?
BR: Well, there have been a number of things that have happened that have been very fortunate for me. But I've also had a lot of things that didn't happen that I was hoping to happen that fell through. You know, crushing defeats, if you will, along the way. But instead of quitting I just kept going and, boom, around the corner something happens in a good way. I guess it's like anything else. You're going to stumble. You're going to fall. But you gotta get up and keep going.
I think that working your way through challenges is just as important as enjoying your successes. More people are aware of the successes because those are the things that they see. But they are not as aware of the failures because they don't get to see the things you didn't get because you didn't get them.
DN: Was there a particular performance that you'd like to forget?
BR: It's never fun to do a show where it doesn't work. It's never fun. It's never fun for anybody. If you're doing it in an atmosphere where a lot of people are seeing it or something like that, it's even more difficult to deal with. But unless you're willing to risk yourself, you're never going to succeed. You have to take on risks in life if you want to succeed. I guess some people want a much more comfortable life and choose not to have as much risk involved, but I like that risk-reward philosophy. I will risk falling on my face in a big, big way to hopefully become even more successful.
I had a big audition years ago. Rodney Dangerfield used to do the HBO young comedians special. They were having auditions in New York City at Dangerfield's comedy club. I wasn't even good enough to be on the audition. I was emceeing the audition. And then at the end of the audition they took me aside and said, "HBO and Rodney Dangerfield are interested in you. … They'd like you to do a full set tomorrow night." So I went in the next night and it was just a tiny little audience, maybe 35-50 people, and Rodney Dangerfield and the HBO people are in the back, and I had to go on first to an audience that wasn't warmed up — not to make excuses — and I died. I had a bad show. And then I walked off stage and Rodney Dangerfield came up and said, "Hey, you know, we'll see. It's up to them. You know what I mean?"
Of course, I never heard anything. I didn't get the show. At the time, it would have been huge for me. And instead of it being huge, I got nothing … other than hurt and pain. It was difficult. It was very difficult. What do you do in a moment like that? Do you quit and become a shoe salesman? Or do you say, "I'm doing another set tomorrow night and I'm going to keep moving along and see what happens"?
DN: How many months of the year are you out on the road?
BR: What I try to do is work half the weekends of the year. So that's 26 weekends of the year, and a weekend to me is four nights. I'll do four one-nighters. … Salt Lake City is an exception because it's a bigger venue, so I just do Friday and Saturday.
DN: Have you come to expect anything unique or different about Utah when you're here?
BR: I'm not naive to the fact that I have a strong following in Utah. I know that. But I'm also proud of the fact that I have a pretty good following in a lot of places, maybe not quite to the avid degree that takes place in Utah. But I like to think I have a pretty good following anywhere and everywhere. In fact, a few years back, when I knew I could play a larger venue in Salt Lake City, I said, "No. I don't want to do it until I'm also playing larger venues in other cities. I don't want people thinking, 'Oh, well, he's doing that in Utah.'" I waited until I got Red Rocks (Amphitheatre) in Denver, which is an 8,000-seat outdoor venue. And I was like, "OK, now that I'm doing this in other places, I will also do this type of thing in Utah." So I'm proud of my following everywhere.
I'm sure the fact that I work clean is a huge factor in the Utah area. But I'm just doing what I do. I'm not trying to please anybody. I'm not trying to please a particular audience. I just do the kind of comedy that I like, and if somebody out there gravitates toward it, then wonderful.
DN: What makes you laugh?
BR: The answer is very elusive. There are scientific formulas to what makes people laugh. And one of them is, comedy equals tragedy plus time. Tragedy is defined loosely. It doesn't have to be a death. It just has to be something awkward or uncomfortable. Then time passes and you look back upon the experience and you can make it funny. You know, like my emergency room routine. I wasn't laughing when I was on the gurney. Yet when you heal up and look back, you say, "Hey, that was a funny experience."
Another mathematical formula for comedy is that all comedy involves incongruencies, which means things that don't make sense. But that doesn't mean that all incongruencies are funny. You can write nonsensical things, and most of them won't be funny. So there has to be an incongruency, but there also has to be something about it that makes people laugh.
You can't program a computer to make comedy. You can program a computer to make incongruencies. You can program a computer to go, "All right, let's find awkward things and let some time pass, and therefore those things will be funny." But that won't necessarily work. You need the human component to see an incongruency and to see something that was awkward and find the humor in it. And that part is elusive. … I'm answering your question like a scientist.
DN: And you're using big words, too.
BR: I have a thesaurus open in front of me and the wind is blowing, and it just stops on a page and I say whatever word is there. I have no idea if it makes sense or not.
DN: Are you an introvert? Are you an extrovert? Are you always trying to be the comedian?
BR: If you were to look at it as a big graph as far as a line, I'm probably more introverted than I am extroverted. I'm not so far over to the point where I'm painfully shy. I don't ball myself up in a fetal position when people are around. But I'm more socially uncomfortable than people might think. I'm much more comfortable on stage in front of a thousand or more people than I am sometimes in a small group of people because I know what my role is as a comedian. I know what my function is. But when you're in a smaller group of people, your role is murkier. And it's more challenging to negotiate. And plus, I'm not funny all the time. And it's weird when you're around people who think you're supposed to be funnier than you are. It's always challenging for me. I never tell people I'm a comedian offstage unless they point-blank ask me. I'm an honest person, so then I'll answer it. But if they don't ask the question, I very rarely offer that up.
DN: I'm sure you've seen how some of your material is repurposed on YouTube. There's so much of that material out there. Do you have a general reaction to things like that?
BR: I do believe in intellectual property, and I do believe in intellectual property rights. And I find it weird that hundreds of years of intellectual property rights legislation is supposed to be thrown out the window because now we have technology where anybody anywhere can just take something and put it on the Internet. So I believe in the philosophy that people should be able to own their creative material. But having said that, sometimes there's a benefit to people putting something out there. But that doesn't mean that it makes it OK for someone to use that as a reason to think that they can do it. That would be like me breaking into somebody's house and robbing them, and then they go on to make a movie about it and they make a million dollars. And then I go, "See, it was good that I broke into your house." No, it was still bad what you did. It's always intriguing to me when people who just like to throw things up on YouTube say, "Well, these artists get a benefit out of it." It doesn't matter whether they do or not. It's still not up to you to decide whether you can put it out there.
But for the most part, I don't like to live day-to-day in angst, and there's so much material out there. I have to let it go. You have to be like a water-under-the-bridge-type of philosophy. Years ago, we tried to control it. It was like a never-ending battle. And after a while, it was like, "You know, instead of swimming one way, go with the flow and just let it be."
DN: You've talked about your kids in your comedy. How has your role as a father and parenting changed over the years?
BR: That's job one. That's more important than being a comedian. When my son was born, that's when I decided to work only half the weekends of the year. I cut my schedule in half the day he was born. … I wanted to be home a lot. So, I don't do it for this reason, but I think it helps the comedy if you're grounded, if you have feet in reality. You don't want comedy to be all buffoonery. You want there to be some reality to it. So I think living a real life and living a normal life and being a daddy and doing the right things helps you to see things that are not right.