For Brian Regan, it takes real smarts to play it dumb
If you watch enough standup comedy, you start to notice seemingly original voices housed in comedic templates. You see a Bill Hicks disciple followed by a Mitch Hedberg clone followed by a student of Richard Pryor. More rare is the comedian without an obvious influence, the progenitor of an identifiable style and delivery.
Brian Regan is one such comic. He’s in the silly vein, which isn’t groundbreaking in itself, but the total package (writing, delivery, persona) is unique and immediately identifiable, so much so that he’s spawned a legion of followers who consciously or unconsciously mimic his cadence or physicality.
“It’s very flattering,” he said of his imitators, on the phone from his Nevada home. “There’s a difference between being influenced and stealing, so I have no problem with somebody kind of adopting a little bit of this or a little bit of that. That’s how we all learn.”
Joke thievery is an ongoing problem in comedy, but the cheek-achingly funny Regan has never been a victim of it, largely because his essence is greater than the sum of its parts.
“I think my comedy is glom-proof because people tell me they tried to tell my joke at a party or somewhere and everybody just stared at them,” he laughs. “I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not. Maybe you need the whole thing. Maybe it’s got to be me saying it or else it just kind of falls flat.”
He is also clique-resistant. Comedians of all stripes revere him. But he’s not playing to the back of the room: Regan is the rare breed of comics’ comic who also happens to be a fan favourite, proving one needn’t pander to be a hit with the masses.
The confessional style of comedy is all the rage these days, but Regan soldiers on doing what he does and slaying audiences with his brand of self-deprecating goofball humour. He’s not afraid of making himself look dumb, but make no mistake: it takes ingenious skill to pull it off.
“I guess what’s frustrating is when you do a whole show, you make people laugh, you like to think through some concepts, and people after the show go, ‘I love it when you cross your eyes and hunch over!’” he says. “Wow, I could have done that for an hour! I guess I didn’t need to say anything.”
If there was any influence on the younger Regan, it was another smart dummy, Steve Martin, who opened his eyes to the possibilities of playing the halfwit.
“I remember laughing in a different way at him than other comedians,” he says. “Sometimes I think you gotta be smart to be that stupid.…His character was just incredibly naive and dumb, but the way the comedy was put together meant the comedian was incredibly brilliant. So you’re getting a double-barrel effect. I’m laughing at the dumb character, but I’m laughing at the brilliant guy who created it and I’m enjoying the whole experience.”
While he shies away from pop culture, politics, and personal stuff in his act, Regan is a believer in evolution. You won’t catch any of those P-topics when he plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday, but don’t rule out anything for the future.
“I don’t like to make absolute rules because I think comedy is like a growing organism. You keep changing,” he says. “I don’t know what I’ll do in the future, so I don’t like to say I would never talk about religion or politics, because I’m finding more and more that kind of stuff interests me in my regular life, and maybe that will creep its way in. I like to keep doors open.”
He won’t even talk about his two children anymore, after his eight-year-old daughter expressed embarrassment at his family-related material.
“Sometimes I wonder, is my comedy less valid because it’s not autobiographical? I like to think my comedy is just as valid as anybody else’s; it’s just different, you know?”
It is different. As long as you’re seeing the original version, and not one of the legion of copycats.
Brian Regan plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday (March 17).