Inside Brian Regan’s Live Standup Special

Brian Regan is one of the most trustworthy comics performing today: he can be trusted to make practically anybody laugh, from children to the elderly. He has a rare talent for performing entirely clean material – a challenge for most comedians. Regan’s skill and ability carried him through the comedy drought of the 1990s and brought him 28 performances on Letterman (which, coincidentally, is the record), two Comedy Central specials, and two albums.

Adding to his list of accomplishments, Brian Regan is about to be a part of Comedy Central history. Brian Regan: Live will be Comedy Central’s first ever live standup special, airing from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Saturday, September 26 at 9pm ET/PT. The format will doubtlessly carry with it some anxiety, but it also speaks to one of the most essential aspects of standup comedy: being “in the moment.” By broadcasting his special live, Regan will be able to give his viewers the feeling of being with him in the theater and sharing the experience with him and his audience.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Regan about his upcoming special, how his goals and dreams changed through the 90s, and the virtues of living outside the comedy scene.

Was it you who proposed to Comedy Central that this be a live broadcast, or did they suggest it?

I did. I had done two previous Comedy Central one-hour specials, and those were fun to do. Comedy Central does a lot of specials with a lot of comedians, and I thought, what could be a bit different? Then I realized, well… making it live. I don’t think they’ve ever done live.

I know in the past, some comedians have taken issue with how the special has been edited. Have you ever had any concerns with that in the past? Were you interested in keeping your jokes in the order you intended?

No. I didn’t really have that concern. The last two that I did, I was involved with the editing. I was able to help make those choices, so that was not a concern. Though, this one is going to be edited when they re-air it. What’s weird is it’s going to be 56 minutes live, because they’re going to have one four-minute commercial break in the middle, but then when they re-air it, they’re going to have the normal amount of commercials, which brings it down to 44 minutes. They’ll have to take 12 minutes out. Unfortunately, it’ll have to be chopped up anyway at some point. But if you see it live, you’ll get to see all of the stuff that didn’t make it into the final stuff.

All the more reason to watch it live! What’s going to happen during the four-minute break? Are you just going to be quiet on stage while ads happen?

That’s a good question. There was a lot of back-and-forth on this. Different things were proposed. Somebody said, “Why don’t you just keep going, but do weaker material for that four minutes that you know won’t be in the special?” I said, “No, man. I don’t want to do that.”

What I’m going to do is I’m going to say, “Hey, we’ll be back in a second.” I’m going to take a sip of water, and basically I’m going to start almost right away. I might take 30 seconds, but the second part of the live will be delayed by a few minutes during the commercial break. I don’t want that studio audience just sitting there for four minutes while I stand there, while we have a staring contest.

Just make people think you’re working on a very long-form joke.

I’ll do a Jerry Clower joke. The old-time comedian who had the long set-up and the big punchline at the end.

I think it’s interesting that we’ve had the ability to do live broadcasts for so long now, but you practically never see a comedy special on broadcast live. That’s odd because that feels like half the fun of seeing comedy: that it’s a live performance. What do you think has stopped other comedians from doing live broadcasts of their specials in the past?

There are downsides. If you were to write everything on a chalkboard, you’d have your pros and your cons. One thing is, usually when you do a taped special, not always, but a lot of times, you have the luxury of taping two of them. An early show and a late show, or two nights back-to-back, you wear the same clothes, and you can pick the best one as a master, and if a joke doesn’t work, you can pull the better version from the other show. You can cobble them together and they can look like one thing. There’s a safety net.

With a live broadcast, obviously, there’s no safety net. If you hit the stage and the crowd’s not good, well, that’s what’s happening. That’s what’s going out. That’s part of what I am excited about: that it’s an unknown. Every time I do standup, it’s live. Every time I do a show in front of an audience, that’s live.

I’m trying not to psyche myself out about it. It’s just that this will happen to have cameras in there and people out in TV land watching.

A lot of comics talk about how knowing that they’re being recorded changes how they perform, but if you’re broadcasting it live, you’ve sort of found a way to work around that feeling.

Yeah. Letterman was nice to me over the years, and I’ve done a bunch of those. I have enough experience from knowing the difference between a TV taping and a live taping to be able to meld the two together into one thing. A Letterman though, a TV spot on a talk or variety show, is more of a TV thing that has comedy in it. This hopefully will feel more like a comedy show that happens to have cameras in it.

I’m interested in that audience. That audience that’s there. I want to make that audience that’s there laugh. That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the fact that people are watching out there as well, but I want TV viewers to feel like they’re watching me make the Radio City audience laugh.

I think that at the present moment there is more desire from comedy fans to experience something live, to have “you had to be there” moments. The way we digest comedy for the most part is just recorded. It’s on the internet. You’re can never really miss anything. But seeing something broadcast live is such a different experience. It really puts you there.

Yeah. I hope people feel that way, and I hope this adds a little extra excitement around the whole package. The fact that it is immediate, or at least as immediate as you can get on TV. They always force little delays in case somebody will curse and stuff like that. But for the most part, it’s happening as you’re watching it.

I assume that’s not a particular concern for you, though.

Right. I could flip out and just all of the sudden go nuts! What would they do? They’ll be in the control room going, “What the hell happened to this guy? He was our safest bet, and we were wrong!”

“Brian Regan Has a Complete Meltdown, Live!”

Yeah! I don’t know, but I wonder if that factored in to Comedy Central’s reasoning to say yes. They probably feel like I’m a relatively safe choice, at least in terms of language.

Plus you’re one of the most widely-accessible comics out there, joke-wise.

Yeah. I feel like I just patted myself on the back with that answer. I should’ve been quiet there, instead of saying, “Yes! I agree with that compliment!”

I mean, I assume it’s a part of what helped you survive the comedy scene in the 90s, which was a notoriously hard decade for standup comics. What was it that you think allowed you to go get through that so effectively?

I think what happened was, in the 80s, standup comedy, as a thing that people could go to, exploded. Not even, necessarily, the individual comedians who were in the comedy clubs. It was the notion that comedy clubs throughout the country were opening, and somebody in Cleveland or Indianapolis or Seattle could get in a car and go down the road and watch a comedian. It was like, “Wow, let’s go see this great thing, this new standup comedy.”

Standup comedy was on TV for everybody, watching George Carlin and stuff like that. But the fact that you could go to your own city’s comedy club became the draw. I think one of the things about comedy is that comedy’s like music. Everybody likes music, and everybody likes comedy, but not everybody likes every kind of music, and not everybody likes all kinds of comedy. To me, having a comedy club and not having any idea what kind of comedian is in there is just as absurd as just having a big building on the side of the road that just says “Music Club.” “Hey, do you want to go to the music club Friday night?” It’s like, “Okay, let’s go!” You go in, you don’t know if it’s going to be reggae or rock or jazz. If you go in there and you go, “I didn’t like that music club, therefore I don’t like music!”

I think comedy was starting to burn out because people were going and not necessarily seeing comedians that they liked. The ones that were surviving through the 90s, the comedians that were surviving, were the ones that had a little bit of a draw. I was just lucky enough where I caught that little wave where enough people knew who I was, where I could go to a comedy club and if you took an ad out in the paper and said, “Brian Regan at the comedy club,” you’d go, “Oh, I’ve heard of this guy. I’ll go see him.” People were less likely to just go to the comedy club not knowing who was there, but because I had a little bit of a draw, I felt like I was able to work my way through that.

What did you dream of achieving throughout all that? Did you have a specific goal in mind? Did that change, or did you just kind of plug through every day for the love of comedy alone?

My goals changed. When I first started it seemed like the thing that made a comedian successful was if they got a sitcom. It was like you got to a certain point where the powers that be say, “This person should have a sitcom.” I wanted to get a sitcom, not even because I really cared about a sitcom. I just liked it because it represented the trophy that you could hold up to say, “Hey, look. I was a pretty good standup comedian. In fact I was good enough that they gave me a sitcom.”

Then I was able to open for Jerry Seinfeld in a theater. This was when he had his sitcom. It was my first time performing in a theater. They weren’t there to see me; they were there to see Jerry Seinfeld. It was such a tremendous experience that my new goal then became to perform in theaters. It was like, “This is what I want to do.” Even then I thought, you have to get a sitcom so you can perform in theaters. I still kind of wanted a sitcom, but so that I could get enough of a draw where I could perform in theaters.

Then, after a few years, I was fortunate enough to be able to make that jump to theaters, just because I had enough of a following. When I was able to do that, it was like, “Woah! I need this sitcom thing like I need a hole in the head. I’m already performing in these places!” My goal of getting a sitcom just plummeted.

Now, I still have a wish to get a TV show, but it would only be under the correct circumstances. It would have to be about my comedy, and it would have to be where I’m making creative decisions. I don’t want to be a star on a sitcom just for the sake of that. That doesn’t interest me at all. I want my comedy to be represented on a TV show. If someone would be kind enough to… If someone out there is reading this and is in charge of a network and would be kind enough to bring me into their office, give me a show, and then leave me alone from that moment on, I’d be very interested!

So in the end you realized that you really wanted the sitcom secondarily, as a way to reach a wider audience, so that you could perform in more of the theaters.

Yeah. I was looking at what Seinfeld had accomplished. Seinfeld was always a great standup and always had a following and that sort of thing, but when he got his sitcom, his name was pushed into a much higher stratosphere and therefore he had to perform in theaters. It was like, “Wow,” but he was still a standup. That’s kind of what I thought I had to do.

And you still perform in theaters and for giant crowds practically every time. Most comedians, especially from my perspective in New York, are up at clubs and bars where there might be varying sizes of crowds, and you can more safely insert newer material to see whether or not it works or not. How do you test your new material, I guess is my question? I imagine it would be hard to judge from such large audiences, plus the fear of letting them down would be that much greater.

I just get it in there. When I first started doing theaters, I was reluctant. I thought, “Wow, these people are here to see a more polished show, so maybe that’s what I’m supposed to give them.” Then I realized, “Wait a second. That’s part of this art form: creating. And I certainly don’t want to give that up.”

I guess I’m a little bit more careful than I would be in a comedy club where you can be a little bit more free-flowing. In a theater, I’ll map it out. I’ll book-end new bits between bits that I feel are strong. It’s like, “This would be a good place to can this one in.” I do it that way.

Right. And you’re not really centrally located in New York or LA, right?

I live in Las Vegas. I lived in New York for a while and then I lived in LA for a while. I did both coasts. Now I just like… People think I’m in Las Vegas for showbiz reasons, but I’m not. My kids are in Las Vegas, and I don’t even perform there. I don’t like to perform where I live. I just like the reality of being in a city that has nothing to do with, at least, television. People do have shows out there, but when I go out there, I just feel like I’m home.

Yeah, you’re not caught up in the same… Your observations are more in-tune with the rest of the United States and not just specifically New York or LA.

I think that there’s a lot of truth to that. For me, for the comedy to work, it has to be rooted in reality. You want to do things that people do, and see things that people see, and watch things that people watch, so that you’re commenting from an everyman’s perspective. If you’re too far removed from that, I think that you lose that touch.

Another thing is, I have a lot of comedian friends, and I love hanging out with comedians and I love talking shop, occasionally. But it’s also… it can wear on you. It’s nice to be around people that have nothing to do with that. It’s nice to just be chatting with someone who’s talking about a grill they put together and the new hot dogs they’re going to try to grill Saturday for their family cookout, and you’re like, “Wow. This guy is not telling me about an audition. He’s telling me about hot dogs, and I’m happy. I’m happy that he’s telling me about hot dogs and not a part he should’ve gotten.”

Right. It’s hard to hear the same thing over and over again, in a way.

Yes. And coincidentally, there was a part that I should’ve gotten…

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Inside Brian Regan’s Live Standup Special