Jim Gaffigan Talks to Brian Regan About Hating Being Called a ‘Clean’ Comedian, Resisting Hollywood, and Playing Big Venues

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by Jerry Metellus and Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

This Saturday night, at 9 p.m., Brian Regan will be the first comedian to broadcast a live stand-up special for Comedy Central from Radio City Music Hall, a place only a select group of comedians could fill in the first place. But unlike those other comedians, Regan didn't get there through celebrity, as he explains it, "I just got lucky enough where along the way, my following just got a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger, and before you knew it I was able to make the jump to theaters without having a TV show." Over the course of a 35-year career, Regan quietly became one of the biggest stand-ups in the country.

To interview him, who better than Jim Gaffigan, another comedian with a similar arc? Though Gaffigan's TV Land sitcom, The Jim Gaffigan Show, is wrapping up its first season tonight (it's already been renewed for a second), this December, he will be playing Madison Square Garden on the back of a grassroots fan base similar to Regan's. The two comedians discuss playing big venues, resisting Hollywood, and how annoying it is to be considered a clean comedian.

Jim Gaffigan: Radio City, that's pretty huge. How do you feel about these big rooms? I've done some larger rooms, but do you like them? Or do you sit there and crave a 1,000-seater?
Brian Regan: Well, as long as I can make that audience one thing, one unit, then I'm okay with it. But, sometimes, the bigger the audience, the weirder it gets. Sometimes you'll play, like, a large venue – maybe an outdoor venue or something – where it's so big that you can see all of the disinterested people. You see the audience, but then behind the audience you see people eating ice cream, going for a walk. 

J.G.: Waiting in line to get a beer.
B.R.: In fact, I did a show a few years ago at a college. There was just one keg and everyone was in line. The line was so long that when somebody got a beer, they just got back in line again to get a second beer. So, the whole show was just to a line of people getting a beer. The bigger the show, the weirder it is. And then sometimes you just have to do that mind trick, I'm sure you know, where you just go, "Alright, I'm going for the people that are paying attention." 

J.G.: I feel like it is similar to a bus. I'm not saying a small comedy club is like driving go-carts, but you get these big venues and you're like a bus driver. I always imagine a huge wheel that you are slowly turning. Even how you set up and pace a joke. You have to sit there. 

Did you imagine that you would be doing something at Radio City 20 years ago? It's a very impressive feat. 20 years ago, the only people that were doing theaters were [George] Carlin and [Bill] Cosby and now there are a dozen of us. 
B.R.: Right. Right. When I first started, I could not have possibly imagined performing at Radio City Music Hall. All I knew of was comedy clubs. That was the ultimate goal. When I first started — actually, when I first started, comedy clubs didn't even exist other than in New York City and Los Angeles. I was just very fortunate that when I wanted to do comedy, comedy itself, as a newfound art form, if you will, at least for the nation as a whole, exploded. Then the first time I performed in a theater, I was lucky enough to open for Jerry Seinfeld. His TV show had been on for like two years and wasn't as big of a hit as it ended up being. And the first time I got onstage in a theater in front of his audience and had a good show, I immediately knew that was the new quest. It was like, "Wow, this is what I want." I want a room full of people who are sitting in red velvet chairs, who are facing the stage and 100 percent paying attention. As much as I love comedy clubs, there's more of a circus atmosphere sometimes to them. There are blenders going off in the background. It's John's birthday over here on the right. That group of people came out from work to celebrate John's birthday. They don't care who is onstage. They are there to have fun. And then you have a bachelorette party over on the left. You have to wear different hats when you're onstage at a comedy club. I still loved it, and I still do, but it's different. It's nice to graduate to a point where I've earned 100 percent attention. 

I feel like I can do a more balanced show now. Like, in comedy clubs, I had to muscle my way through the check spot. (For people out there who don't know what that is, it's when the waiters and waitresses drop the checks during the headliner.) You had to figure out a technique to get through that. You had to do louder, sillier material, perhaps. But now that I have the luxury of an audience paying attention for an hour straight, I can do some subtle jokes during that time, when in comedy clubs I would have been putting my foot on the gas. It's fun, and I'm sure you know that feeling as well. You kind of feel like you're onstage and you're the Pied Piper. It's like, "Wow, these people are going to go wherever I take them." It's a very powerful, beautiful feeling.  

J.G.: You and I talking, we can't not talk about the conversation I hate talking about. I'm sure it's the conversation you hate talking about, which is the "clean" thing. I was interviewed by Larry King and he said to me afterward, "What's so interesting, it used to be I would ask comedians why they are dirty, and now I'm asking comedians why they are clean." I always say it comes down to whether someone is funny or not, and if there are 4,000 people, there are only 100 people that just come because you're clean. There's a strange cringe I feel when I'm described as a clean comedian. 
B.R.: I'm the same way. 

J.G.: All of our friends are filthy comedians! But I don't even consider them filthy; I just consider them comedians. Look, there are far worse burdens to carry in the entertainment industry, but do you feel there is something about the clean thing?
B.R.: Well, it's interesting that you use the analogy that we're bus drivers. What if somebody hopped on a bus and the only thing they ever said to the bus driver was, "Look how clean you are! Man, you're just so nice. You're such a clean bus driver." Well, "Yeah, but I'm getting you to destination safely. Can you give me a little credit for that as well?" I agree with you. The word cringe certainly is perfect, because a lot of people think that it's a mission statement. Like, I'm trying to make a statement that clean comedy is somehow better or loftier than dirty comedy, and I don't feel that way at all. I just think it's different. It's different. There's rock music, there's jazz music, there's reggae music: All of those forms are different.  

J.G.: It's strange because I also know people need to write articles and they need to have angles in them and I'm grateful when people are doing articles, but I always say there's not a great mystery to stand-up comedy. I'm sure you curse in everyday life. I curse in everyday life. But, it's not as if comedians are that different from who they are onstage. So, comedians get a lot of credit or criticism for doing something they would do anyway. Lewis Black should be Lewis Black onstage, and Chris Rock should be doing exactly what he's doing. The first ten years I was doing it, I wanted to be Dave Attell. I started with [Greg] Giraldo and I remember Giraldo wanted to be you and I wanted to be Dave Attell. And I feel like somewhere in between there we shifted. But we just end up doing what we're going to do. People think it's some grand marketing plan. When people say, "Why are you clean?" I would say, "Because Jesus told me to." It's not like I just leave the stage and return to a state of prayer.
B.R.: I was in a bar after a show with a local radio producer, and he's telling his girlfriend, and I don't know where he got this, he said, "Brian has never had a drop of alcohol and he's never cursed in his entire life. Isn't that right, Brian?" And the waitress came up right then, and I said, "I'll have a fuckin' beer." Just to shoot holes in his whole theory.  

J.G.: So, you tour constantly. I tour a lot. I have five kids and I know you have a couple kids, and it's a balancing act of you feel horrible that you're away but there is something about the road that is rather liberating. Is there something about the road that you like? 
B.R.: Actually, I realized very early on that I was going to wrap my head around loving every part of this career. When I first started, my cars would explode on me, so I used to buy these 30-day Greyhound bus passes, and that's how I would get from gig to gig. One time, I finished a show somewhere, early in the morning, and I see this bus at a gas station, and it had an old, rusty Greyhound sign hanging from these chains, and I'm thinking, "I don't know if a bus is going to pull up. The schedule said a bus was going to pull up." Well, sure enough, right when it was supposed to pull up, it did. The bus driver opens the door and he's laughing, "I've been doing this run for two years, and you're the only person who's ever been here for a pickup." He says, "You're welcome to get on, but the bus is completely full." And I get on the Greyhound bus and literally every seat was taken. So I asked the driver what I was supposed to do, and he goes, "You have to sit on the floor." I was laughing, "Wow, I guess this is what you call paying dues. Man, if only I could be one of those people sitting on a Greyhound bus seat." You can't just sit there and be angry, you have to go, "Listen, I'm going to another city to tell jokes for a living, and if this isn't the most beautiful thing in the world, then I don't know what is." 

J.G.: I did a college in, I think, southern Illinois. And they dropped me off at the hotel. I checked into my room, and I noticed that the door didn't lock. I went to the front desk and I was like, "I think there is something wrong with my door." And the guy goes, "Yeah, that door doesn't lock. It's never locked." And I was like, "What am I supposed to do? Is there another room?" And he was like, "That's the only room we've got, but don't worry, it's never locked. It's never been an issue." That's stand-up. 

Now, you live in Vegas. I live in New York. I don't regret it, but 90 percent of the entertainment industry does happen in Los Angeles. As rewarding as stand-up is, sometimes I have moments where I'm like, "Should I have gone that way? Should I have gone there?" I know you lived there probably. Do you ever feel like there is some stuff going on in L.A. that we should be involved in?
B.R.: Well, you know what's weird is, doubling back to the Seinfeld thing. When I opened for him and he was performing in theaters, I thought the only way to get to theaters was to get a TV show. Well, I just got lucky enough where along the way, my following just got a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger, and before you knew it I was able to make the jump to theaters without having a TV show. My passion for getting a TV show just plummeted. It was like I had already achieved what I wanted to achieve. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't love to have a TV show, but now I'm much more selective. I don't want to be a TV star for the sake of being on TV. I want to have a TV show that's based around my comedy, which I know you're doing now. Congratulations on that.    

J.G.: Oh, thanks. 
B.R.: If somebody were to give me the keys and say, "Hey, you've accomplished enough as a stand-up, come up with whatever and we'll give it a shot," then I would love to do it. But, I don't want to be in a conventional kind of sitcom. Those have been done, and they've been done well. I'd like to just have a shot at the plate. I can't guarantee I'll hit a home run. Maybe I'll strike out. Hopefully I'm getting close to someone at least giving me a crack at it.  

J.G.: It took me a long time to understand not to get caught up in other people's expectations. It really comes down to creative fulfillment. It took me a while to realize I don't want to just be on a show to be on a show. In fact, I was on a show where I had a couple of lines a week and everyone was very nice, but it was not creatively fulfilling. For stand-up comedians that go onstage and get to write and perform and direct, and do all these things, the allure of a television show is still there but if it doesn't offer a level of creative fulfillment, it's oddly unappealing. Comedy is a very lucrative business now, but when everyone first went into it, it didn't make sense from a financial standpoint. We're the beneficiaries of stand-up becoming very popular. The whole idea of celebrity is flattering – it helps you get into restaurants and stuff – but once you obtain some creative fulfillment, which you do on a nightly basis as a comedian, it's hard to give that up just to be the wacky neighbor on a show.
B.R.: I personally have no interest in being a star or a celebrity. I want my stand-up comedy and how I think as a comedian to be recognized and successful. Now, I realize I have to go along for the ride. I'm attached to it. Because of that, I also have to be recognized. And I'm okay with that. I like the fact that they like the comedy. But years ago, for a very short time, I used to host a show on Comedy Central called Short Attention Span Theater. I was behind a desk and throwing to other comedian's clips: "Here's three comedians talking about sneakers." And people were starting to recognize me as the host of this show. But I didn't feel particularly funny while I was on it. I remember people coming up to me going, "Oh, wow. You're the guy who hosts Short Attention Span Theater." And I would say, "Yeah. " And they would say, "I watch that show all the time." And I would go, "Yeah." And then they would just walk away. And I'm like, I didn't hear a compliment in there. I remember realizing how empty that felt. I wanted people to come up to me and say, "I like your comedy." And now, because I haven't been on anything else, I know it has to be about the comedy. It's a cool feeling.