With others focused on the election, comedian Brian Regan keeps moving forward

Andy Downing
Brian Regan

For many people, the election has been at the forefront of every thought for weeks. But for comedian Brian Regan, not so much.

Asked about his currentsold-out run of shows at the Funny Bone, which kick off today, Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 3), and run through Thursday, by when the presidency will most likely be decided, the standup admitted that he hadn’t even considered the unusual timing. “I didn’t even make the connection that the first show was election night,” Regan said by phone in late October. “I’m sure things will be in the air, but I tend to avoid politics. I mean, I might touch on it, but I try to do the kinds of jokes that both sides would laugh at. … I do more quirky, slice of life kind of things. The comedy I like to do, I like it to be a reprieve from the difficulties in life.”

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Regan’s approach is increasingly rare in an era when even previously apolitical comedians such as Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia have emerged on social media as vocal critics of Donald Trump. (Anecdotally, Regan wondered what effect this political pivot might have on their approaches to comedy moving forward.) At the same time, the comic admitted that it has become increasingly difficult to avoid third rail subjects in an era when seemingly everything can be politicized. “It’s tricky, because it seems like it’s become sport to take sides, to take this us against them mentality,” he said. “I like to find those common areas, I guess.”

Regan has honed his Everyman comedic voice for more than 40 years, beginning in 1980 when he dropped out of his final semester at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. The standup said he auditioned a range of onstage personas during early open mics, telling bawdy, off-color jokes, attempting impressions and even experimenting with the occasional prop, “not that it was a prop act,” he stressed. 

“And it takes a few years before you start realizing what feels the most real and the most natural for you,” Regan said. “When I look back at the first year I was on stage, I did anything I thought was funny. Then, after a while, you start realizing, ‘I don’t need this dirty stuff, it doesn’t feel natural to me. I don’t need these props.’ And then you start gravitating to the stuff that makes you yourself laugh.”

For Regan, that meant returning to the family dinner table, where, growing up, both parents and children cracked jokes and told ridiculous stories in an attempt to elicit laughter. The comedian described his approach to standup as a hybrid of his parents’ humors, mixing his dad’s dry, sarcastic wit with his mom’s sillier, more animated style. So when Regan does a bit about two logging trucks passing each other in opposite directions on the highway, it’s easy to hear his late father in the deadpanned punchline (“If they need logs over here, and they need ‘em over there, you’d think a phone call would save ‘em a whole lot of trouble”), while his mom’s side surfaces in more ridiculous asides, such as one when he inhibitsa boisterous cranberry salesman.

No matter his approach, though, Regan’s humor, as well as his act, are always evolving, even if in subtle ways. The comedian traces this internal drive to his real first brush with success, which left him overly reliant on the material he had developed. 

“When you first start comedy, it’s thrilling, but you want to get laughs because you’re brand new, so you work quickly toward developing your first five minutes of comedy, and then your first 10 minutes, and then you want to get to 20 so you can get out on the road as an opening act,” Regan said. “And when I got my first hour, I made the mistake of feeling comfortable with the laughs, and I rode that material out for a few years. But then you lose that love of experimenting, and eventually you see those ticket sales drop, and I realized, ‘Wait a second, it’s because I haven’t given people anything new.’”

Nowadays, Regan is quick to jettison material, searching out new observations and asides that can keep both his brain and set sharp. For this run of shows at the Funny Bone, the comedian estimated that 25 percent of the material could consist of new jokes, particularly since these are the first gigs he’s done since recording a forthcoming Netflix special (in the run up to taping, sets were less exploratory as the comic necessarily focused on sharpening his existing material). 

It helps, of course, that out of necessity Regan is again playing in comedy clubs the larger theater spaces he has toured for years are currently shuttered by the pandemic comparatively intimate spaces that are generally well-suited to this kind of experimentation.

“As honored as I am to have the opportunity to do the Netflix special … I also like making footprints in virgin snow,” Regan said. “As much as I like laughs, and knowing something will get a laugh, it’s also quite entertaining to not know if something is not going to get a laugh. When you throw something out there, you have no idea, and audiences don’t always react the way you think they might. … That’s the thrill of creating, and that’s why I realized I always need to be moving forward.”