Brian Regan is one of stand up comedy’s all time greats. Ask any comedian, they’ll put him in their list of the best comics performing today. His performances consistently elevate the art and the craft of comedy, and yet he is accessible to virtually any audience, and you’ll find among his fans every age, every demographic, and whether you are a seasoned critic or a casual comedy fan, everyone loves Brian. The last time I had the chance to speak with Brian, he was getting ready to perform at a major theatrical landmark- Radio City Music Hall- and he was doing it live for Comedy Central.
Now two years later and just days before he takes his place on another iconic stage, I sat down with Regan over coffee to talk about embarking on new challenges, including performing at Carnegie Hall and working with Peter Farrelly in his first role in a television series. This Saturday night, Brian will perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the New York Comedy Festival.
It’s another historic venue for Regan to cross off his list.
Performing at Radio City was, he said, a big deal. Especially performing live. “It was very intense. It was, like, the most I’ve ever concentrated for an hour straight with that kind of intensity ever in my life. If you do a Letterman or a Fallon or something like that, that’s four or five minutes of intense concentration and it can be very, you know, they’re not easy. This was an hour. I knew I couldn’t make any mistakes because it’s live, you know what I mean. I guess you could make a mistake, and that’s probably what viewers want to happen. But I didn’t want that to happen.”
Regan is a comedian who takes pride in trying to nail every word, every moment, and in a live broadcast, there is no opportunity to select a different edit. It wasn’t perfect, he said, but it all worked out. “I messed up a couple times in it, but I was able to fix it. I was able to go, okay, I missed this moment but I can fix it by saying this, and then another thing happened where I go okay, I just left out part of that punchline, but I can leapfrog to the next thing, you know, things you have to fix in the moment.”
Performing on a stage with history is not always what’s best for the show. “Because it’s high ceilings– you know, you want low ceilings, you want laughs bouncing around and that sort of thing. So it’s not fantastic for comedy,” he said. “But it’s a beautiful venue, it’s very iconic, it’s very historic, so it’s an honor to be able to play there. It’s fun to play regardless of the fact that maybe it’s more of a music venue than it is a comedy venue. So I loved being able to perform there.”
Regan has performed at many great theaters and can appreciate what it means to share stage where so many great artists stoop. Long before Radio City, for example, Regan played the Florida Theater in Jacksonville, where Elvis performed, and the Fox Theater in Detroit where he signed his name backstage next to the signature of a true legend. “They had one area that was covered with plexiglass, they were protecting some important signatures including Frank Sinatra’s. You can sign other places as well, and the people backstage took a liking to me and they said, “We’re gonna take the plexiglass off for you so you can sign this part.” Even in such a thrilling moment, Regan stayed humble. “I tried to keep mine smaller than his. You have to go alright, if he’s writing his name this big, I have to write it like a third that size, just out of humility, you know? So that was pretty cool, that moment when they took that off and let me sign there, you know? But also just to know, man, those people stood backstage right here, and I’m standing here, and it’s like, what happened to me and my life that I’m doing this, you know?”
And now he is getting ready to play one of the most famous houses in the world. “The thing I like the most is the comedy and having a group of people, wherever they’re assembled is almost incidental, but every once in a while you get fortunate enough to be able to play a place that, you know, like a Carnegie Hall or something like that. That’s pretty cool. When I’m 90 and I can’t even turn my head on the pillow, I’ll be able to think in my head, I played Carnegie Hall. You know? I’ll be saying that to the nurses and stuff and they’ll think I’m lying to them.”
But despite all of Brian’s successes and accolades that humility never goes away. He never stops appreciating his audiences and lets them know it. “Comedy is a two-way street. Comedy without an audience is nothing,” he explained. “I wish I knew more about science, but I think radio transmissions, you need a sender and a receiver. Nothing works without both of those. It’s the same with comedy. You need a receptive audience for it to work.” He also credits growing up in a big family with eight kids as a factor. “You get smacked down if you try to be bigger than the other seven,” he said. His grounded nature may have something to do with the fact that his mom and his dad always made sure to credit their kids equally. “Anytime anyone would talk to my mom about us, she always wanted to spread it around, and they’d go, wow, we saw your son on the show, and she’ll go yeah, and Pat’s doing very well as a firefighter and Peggy is starting to teach at a new school. She’d make sure all eight kids get talked about too.”
He illustrated with a story about his brothers. “My brother Pat one time, went to go visit my brother Mike who was a car dealer, and they always deal with, are you the comedian? Are you the comedian? So, he went to go visit Mike, and said, “Can you tell Mike that his brother is here?” And the guy said, “Oh are you…” and Pat is buckling up for are you the comedian? The guy goes, “Oh, are you the good golfer?” He is. And he was like, “Yes, I am the good golfer. I am that brother,” I’m glad Pat had his moment in the sun.”
Hitting up gigantic houses is only one way Regan is stretching his comedy legs. He’s also got his first of two Netflix specials coming out later this month, and he’s finally getting to live out a long-held dream of performing in a television series. And it’s not just any series, it’s created by director Peter Farrelly, and stars Ron Livingston as a substance abuse counselor who is a recovering alcoholic himself, and having struggles of his own as he attempts to steer a group of haphazard addicts through their pitfalls. The series airs on AT&T’s Audience Network and is getting terrific reviews. Regan plays one of the members of the group, who is struggling with some poor decisions he’s made. It’s a great series, and Regan, not surprisingly, was thrilled and humbled to be asked. “I was just offered this tremendous opportunity, and you know, it’s weird, I used to always be able to say that nobody ever did anything for me except for other comedians, which was always the case. Letterman was a comedian. Jerry Seinfeld put me in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Chris Rock put me in his movie. It was always comedians helping me out. You know? Beyond that, the Hollywood world, they just never … they always had a blind eye to me,” he said. “I don’t know why but they were never interested. Then Peter Farrelly has ruined my story. Completely ruined my story by putting me in his t.v. show. Now I don’t have a three minute anecdote I can tell.”
Farrelly saw Regan perform at the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, and approached Regan after the show. “He said he was doing this project, asked if I’d be interested. You know, what do you say to something like that? So I was like, sure, yeah, and then one thing led to another and I’m in this thing. It was kinda cool.” The character Brian plays couldn’t be more different from his on and off stage persona. He’s in recovery, and well, without giving anything away, let’s just say he’s a terrible father. But the chance to play a role out of character was part of what made the experience fun, and interesting. “It was very– scary is too strong a word, but, challenging for me,” he said. “The only other acting I’d ever really done was in the Chris Rock movie [Take Five] and that was … my scene was two minutes long. This one is more of an ensemble piece, and I have a character. Plus, the show has a lot of serious moments, it’s comedy, but also very serious.”
Brian admits to being nervous at first. “Especially that first day because I just wanted to pull my weight, you know? So, I was a little nervous because I don’t have any acting experience, so I’m trying to figure out can I even do this? So I was nervous, but as the shoot went on and I got more and more comfortable, and I started getting compliments from other people, I started thinking, okay, this is fun. Then I started enjoying it more and more and now I would love to do some more.”
He might have been in an unfamiliar environment, but some things never change, and awkward situations are somewhat of a hallmark for him. The first scene he shot gave him a great story to share that involved the kind of uncomfortability that Regan fans are used to hearing about. “The scene was in a homeless shelter. When I got there, I was looking around going, is this an actual homeless shelter and are these actually homeless people? Or is this fake and are these actors? I didn’t know. I didn’t know while I was shooting the whole scene. I swear. There was food set up and I’m like, I don’t wanna have any because if this is an actual homeless shelter, who am I to be eating the food, you know? I found out afterward these are all actors, and I’m like, you gotta be kidding me! I could’ve been eating. This was for us. I was starving! I didn’t want that to be the story that I’d carry around for the rest of my life. Oh yeah, Brian Regan takes food out of homeless people’s mouths.”
That first scene took Regan right into the deep end of the pool. “I had to shoot a scene where I’m reconnecting [with my daughter]… she works there, and I hadn’t seen her in years and I reconnect with her, I’m trying to. It was kind of a hard scene to do, and that was the first one that I did, and it was like, I didn’t know if I did a good job, because, with comedy, you hear laughs.” They kept redoing the scene with new directions each time. “No, do it like you believe it, but you know she doesn’t believe it. Now do it that you’re not sure you believe it yourself, now do it like you know that this is not true, but you’re trying to get one over on your friends who are standing next to you. It was like all these different … and I’m like … I felt like saying, I have been acting for five minutes. I have five minutes of acting experience, I don’t have the qualifications to be putting this all in my head, I barely know my line. I’m just happy if I get my lines out,” he recalled. “So anyway, when all of it was said and done, I guess it worked out, that scene.”
The role is also comedic- territory that is far more familiar- and gave him some room to adlib creating a few Reagan-esque moments that fans will appreciate. “Peter Farelly was very good at saying, if you think of anything that’s off track, do it, anything you feel is funny, anything you wanna do, just go for it. So I did a lot of that with this, and at first I was like, somebody else wrote this I don’t wanna like, be playing with other people’s lines, but more and more I got comfortable with … alright, well, he’s telling me to do this, that’s part of my job so I started playing around more and more and I got more and more comfortable with it.”
Hopefully the series will get picked up for a second season because the first season ends with a lot of questions that fans will want answers to, and there’s plenty of ground to explore for Regan’s character and the series in general. And the opportunity to see Regan grow in his new role as actor is just too irresistible to ignore. But in the meantime, he’s got plenty to keep him, and his fans busy, with a big date this Saturday November 11th at Carnegie Hall, the debut of his first Netflix Special and a second Netflix hour on the way.
Watch Loudermilk on AT&T’s Audience Network, and stay tuned for part two of this interview, talking with Brian about his Netflix Hour, Nunchucks and Flamethrowers due out November 21st. And if you’re going to be in New York this Saturday, don’t miss the opportunity to see brand new material as Brian makes his Carnegie Hall debut. Go to carnegiehall.org for tickets.