There are few stand-ups as universally respected by stand-ups as Brian Regan. Besides his impeccable craftsmanship, Regan was one of the first, if not the first, to sell out theaters on the back of his stand-up alone. He didn’t need a sitcom or breakout role in a big movie, he just hit the road and convinced audiences one at a time. All without cursing. Now, Regan enters his fifth decade as a stand-up, and his popularity has only grown, likely because Regan, unlike so many, refused to settle for what’s working. On his most recent special, On the Rocks, which came out on Netflix earlier this week, Regan is more personal than many would ever imagine from him, as he discusses his struggles with mental illness and darker thoughts.
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Regan discusses talking about his OCD in his act, why he doesn’t use curse words while performing stand-up, and more. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
On Opening a Show
When you’re coming out onstage, you haven’t said anything yet. That’s always the most difficult part of a routine for me. I was fortunate enough to do a number of Letterman’s [shows], and I do Fallon’s. Five-minute spots. It’s the first 30 seconds that you agonize over. As far as the viewer is concerned, they know nothing about you. Nothing. “Ladies and gentlemen, here is something.” “Here is someone you know nothing about.” That might as well be the intro. So the curtain opens up, and there’s just a guy walking out and, in my case, it’s me.
I always say that the difficulty in doing stand-up comedy is not knocking down the pins, it’s setting up the pins. A lot of people can be funny and knock down the pins. It’s the setting up the pins that weren’t there to begin with. So when you come out through a curtain, you have to set up pins quickly. You have to go, Okay, I have to establish something.
With [“Reading” from] Epitome of Hyperbole, I wanted to come out and just go right at it. Years ago, I was going to do one of those comedy shows where there’s like five comedians on the show. Man, I’m blanking on the guy’s name. He was great. But I was agonizing before the taping about how to get into my first joke. And this other guy said, “What’s your first joke?” And I told him and he said, “Why don’t you just do the joke?” And I’m like, “What do you mean? Like, just come right out and do it?” He goes, “Yeah, why not?” And I’m like, “You have to come out and go, ‘Hey, how is everybody doing?’” He said, “They know you’re a comedian. They know why they’re all sitting there. Just come out and do the joke.” And I did, and it worked. It was a lifelong comedic lesson for me that you don’t need to put a lot of butter on stuff. You can just come out and go, “Here it is.” Audiences are willing to ride the ride. It’s says “comedy” out on the marquee. They’re not all out there scratching their head, going, Why is this guy telling us a joke?
On Talking About OCD in His Stand-up
Human beings go through a timeline of life, and for something to be entertaining, it should be relatively truthful for that moment in time. I’m at a place where I want to maybe share a little bit more about myself than I would normally have done in the past. The first time I did the OCD bit, I was like, Whoa, this is weird. That seemed a little personal. But then you realize people are cool. I was worried everyone was just going to get up and leave right after that bit: That’s it. We don’t like you anymore.
I wasn’t petrified about doing the bit. I thought there were plenty of funny things about the subject, at least about my version of it. But it was a little awkward to be like, Okay, I’m kind of baring my soul here more than I normally do. But I was okay with that. It made me feel good to give it a go.
I do think OCD is great for my stand-up — not as a topic, but the way I organize things. I’m very meticulous with how I put sets together and jokes together and words together. When you’re getting ready for a five-minute spot at a Letterman or Fallon, there’s a lot of work that goes into these bits and moments, and the organizational and meticulous aspect of it helps in a tremendous way. I have a very mild version of it. It is a difficult thing for many, many people in the world, and I don’t in any way make light of it as a whole. But the meticulous organizational aspect of it, which is what I deal with, can be cumbersome in life as a whole. But, for comedy it has helped me in terms of keeping track of bits. If I have to know what I did on that show four years ago, I have it all organized.
On the Impact of Social Anxiety to His Comedy
I was a huge fan of Johnny Carson. To hear that he was really kind of awkward and quiet when he was out and about is interesting to many people, especially myself, where you go, The guy was in everybody’s living room every night. How’s thats even possible? But I relate. I put it this way: I’m not the guy at the party with the lampshade on his head. I’m the guy on the other side of the room, making fun of the guy with the lampshade on his head. It’s that way in comedy. When I’m onstage, it’s not a conversation; I can control everything. I control what I’m saying, what I’m saying and how I’m saying it, I control the timing. I do everything. But when you get me into a social situation, that can be so frustrating. I’m not always telling funny stories, but any story has timing and moments and beats, and it just kills me, the cacophonic aspect of life with people jumping in. You’re at a party, you’re telling a story, and somebody just comes in, “Hey, Julie.” And you’re like, I was just about to say the important part. The social world is very challenging for me. It’s like, Get me back up onstage, where I can say my story the way I want to say it.
I like the observer part of comedy. It’s like I’m observing things and I’m noticing them and I’m realizing what they do in my head. Sometimes they make me feel dumb. Sometimes they make me feel angry. Sometimes they make me feel this way or that way, and that’s where the comedy comes from. But when you go to a party, you can’t just say, “I’m just here to be an observer. Can you put me in a corner so I can observe?” You’re kind of expected to mingle. And when you’re a comedian, a lot of people think, Oh, he’s going to be funny and entertain us, and that makes it even more challenging. I don’t want to be around anybody that thinks I’m going to be the life of this party, you know?
On Not Using Curse Words in His Act
I do wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech, but not saying certain words as part of that freedom of speech. I’m free to not use the F-word in a joke; that doesn’t mean like I’m not exercising my freedom of speech rights, I am wholeheartedly exercising my freedom of speech rights. This is what I want to say and this is how I want to say it. I don’t want to hit certain words that I think disproportionately get reactions. It’s not that I’m against other people using those words — there are plenty of comedians who work dirty who I think are fantastic, who are great. As long as it’s organic to who you are, go for it. But it’s not organic to me, at least as a comedian. I can be filthy offstage with my friends, but the kind of stuff I think about for my onstage act doesn’t really go in that direction.
Another thing that bothers me about the “clean” thing is when people try to suggest it’s less real, you know? It’s like, well, I’m getting “real.” Well, I’m real. I equate it to if somebody takes a color photograph of a beautiful landscape, and somebody takes a black-and-white photograph of the beautiful landscape: Is one less real than the other? They’re both pictures of something but seen in a different way. Was one more real and one less real? Then you could say that the photograph that was in color — well, there’s no sound. So that’s not real, you know what I mean? I guess I’m using this weird analogy to say that if I’m doing black-and white-comedy, it’s just as real. It’s just done differently, you know?
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