Brian Regan talks about the 'Brian Regan voice,' appealing to kids, 'Cup of Dirt,' performing on 'Letterman' and more
The genius of Brian Regan can be summed up in three words:
Cup. Of. Dirt.
In one of his most famous bits, the comic reflects on his feelings of inadequacy during grade-school science fairs, when he’d find himself surrounded by kids who brought working volcanos and foam-ball models of the solar system.
“I didn’t know what to do for my project, so I brought in a paper cup filled with dirt, just hoping she’d know I’m an idiot and walk right on past me,” he says on 1997’s Brian Regan: Live. “'What do you have there, Brian?’ 'It’s a cup of dirt. Just put an F on there and let me go home.’ 'Well, explain it.’ 'It’s a cup ... with dirt in it. I call it: Cup of dirt. You should move on now.’”
Like a lot of Regan’s material back then, “Cup of Dirt” was about the embarrassing inadequacy of youth. And in speaking to children of all ages, he unwittingly set a course to become one of the biggest comics in America — renowned and respected by comics from Jerry Seinfeld to Marc Maron for his clever, energetic and always squeaky clean material.
“I wasn’t trying to aim it at kids,” Regan said by phone this week. “In a lot of ways I was reflecting on my own childhood, but then when my first CD came out, it included a lot of stuff that was kid-oriented, about feeling stupid in school, playing Little League, stuff like that. And soon after that, I started playing in theaters, where you didn’t have to be an adult to go. And that’s when I first realized there were kids in the audience. It was kind of a head-scratcher for me — it was a nice surprise, but it wasn’t something I worked towards, or even thought about.”
These days, Regan, 56, also jokes about “having high cholesterol and signing mortgage documents,” he said. But there may still be some kids on hand when he returns to the Straz Center in Tampa on Friday (click here for details). It’s a bit of a hometown show: Regan grew up in Miami, but his 88-year-old parents and two siblings now live in Tampa. His son, 15, and daughter, 10, will also be there — the family managed to squeeze in a trip to Disney World before this weekend’s shows in Florida.
Regan was in his hotel room, preparing for a day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, when he called to dissect Disney, his distinct voice, his 26 appearances on Letterman and more. Here are excerpts.
Where does this rank among the strange promotional phoners you’ve had to do? Have you ever had to call a morning radio show from a doctor’s office, or anything like that?
(laughs) Nah, this one’s fine. I remember one time doing a radio interview, and this was back when I used to have this routine about dogs barking. I was worried about getting too loud, so I actually went into the closet of a hotel room so I could bark like a dog, because the housekeepers were out in the hallway, and I didn’t want them thinking, “What is this guy doing in here?” It was very strange.
I’ve interviewed people in airports and stuff, and I always like to picture the scene on the other end of the phone. I’m sitting at my desk, in my office, but other people are giving these long, autobiographical answers, just in the middle of the public. It must seem strange.
Here’s the weirdest one for me, ever: I had a CD come out, and I had to come up with track titles, and I had to submit them over the phone, because I was traveling, and I was at an airport, and I’m wondering what the people next to me are possibly thinking I’m talking about. I’m going, “'Whale Noises’ ... 'Kids in School’ ... 'Bad Mechanics.’” (laughs) 'What is this guy talking about?’”
So what’s on the agenda at Disney? Is your daughter still in Frozen mode?
Oh, yes. She’s huge into that. I took her to see that three or four months ago, and she loves to sing it. That thing has taken off. And Disney is turning everything into a Frozen thing. We were at Epcot, and you know, the different nations are represented, and one of them is Norway, and of course they have Frozen tie-ins. “This is what a Norway skier looks like — similar to the guy who saved such-and-such in Frozen!” It’s like, geez, you guys will turn anything into a tie-in. (laughs)
Were you a Disney family growing up? Did you make the trip up to Orlando as kids?
Yeah. I don’t know if we came up the very first year, but we may have. I remember getting up at like 3 or 4 in the morning, and going out into the station wagon, and we knew where we were going; it was very exciting. This was pre-seatbelts, and my dad just laid down a bunch of sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon, and we were just rolling around in the back on the four- or five-hour drive up to Orlando. It was pretty exciting.
In your “Stupid in School” bit, you dip into the “Brian Regan voice” — not your actual speaking voice, but the intense-bewilderment voice.
The dumb kid.
Just doing a funny voice speaks to kids, even if they don’t realize it, even if you’re saying something smart. Where did that voice come from?
I never really thought about it. I never planned it. Most of my bits are really little vignettes. They’re like little plays. The only way they’re going to work is for me to act them out. So it’s me and a schoolteacher, or it’s me and other little kids, or me and a doctor. Sometimes it’s me and an inanimate object — me and a refrigerator, or me and an ironing board. They’re little scenes. So when I’m onstage, I just push the pedal to the metal, and I do what I can to make sure that it lives on stage, and that requires doing a voice or getting physical or whatever it is to bring the thing as much to life as possible. Sometimes I’m surprised, though. If I listen to a bit of mine, or if I watch something on a clip and I’m like, “Jeepers. I didn’t know I put that much work into this. I should get a blue ribbon or something.”
Has that energy changed over the years?
It has changed. One reason it changes for me is that I’m always careful not to become a caricature of myself. I resist trying to find that thing that works for me and writing towards that, which, I don’t know, I guess that’s what smart comedians do: “Oh, wow, I guess people are responding to this; I’ll move further that way.” I stop as soon as I feel like I’m being defined one way. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony.
Early in my career, I found I had a lot of bits about feeling dumb or feeling stupid. Then I started seeing that in reviews — not as a negative, but just as an observation, you know, “Brian feels dumb or stupid in his bits; he’s the guy who feels like an idiot.” I don’t want to be The Guy Who Feels Like An Idiot. So I would write away from that, start exploring anger fantasies and things like that. And for a while, too, I was crouching over on stage. I would prowl around, and people would say, “Well, he’s the guy who always crouches over and prowls around on stage.” Then I’m like, “Well, I don’t want to be that. I don’t want a room full of people to be like, “I can’t wait till he crouches over!” It’s like, “I’m going to show them I’m a normal biped! I can stand like everybody else!” I just want to make it hard to describe.
Even the best comics are imitable in some way. Everyone from Seinfeld to Chris Rock to Gaffigan to Aziz Ansari, people can do an impression of. Your comedy is like that. I’ve heard other comics say they’ve written jokes that sound like Brian Regan jokes. How do you feel about having that distinct a comedic persona?
I’m very honored by it. I like when audiences like what I do, and I like it, also, when comedians like what I do. I guess there’s a thing to it that some people might be able to glom onto, maybe even subconsciously.
When I was doing comedy clubs, you don’t pick your opening act; they just pick some local people to perform with you. And I’ve noticed sometimes I had to follow myself. You’d work with a couple of comedians who maybe were kind of influenced by my style. But I never called anybody on it. I was honored. I think it was probably something that got into somebody’s bones, and when they’re on stage, you go, “Uh, that felt a little like me, there.” But I try to do the right thing in my head, and go, “Well, that’s pretty damn cool, that they would like what I do enough to not even realize they’re doing it in front of me.” (laughs)
You’ve been on The Late Show with David Letterman 26 times. Dave, from everything I’ve read, can be kind of a closed book. In all those appearances, what, if anything, have you learned about him?
Well, I’ve never hung out with him. Usually, the only time I’ve ever seen him is on stage. But they kind of know me at the show now, and they just let me walk around. It used to be, you’d go, and they’d escort you to your dressing room, and you just kind of hang in there and get ready until you actually go out there and do the taping. But I was just kind of wandering around before a taping recently, and he was walking by with a producer or something. He was wearing shorts; it was before he got dressed. I was like, Wherever I am, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here. (laughs) I felt like maybe this was his private domain. I felt awkward. I wasn’t expecting him to even know my name. But he was like, “Hey, Brian.” I was like, Oh, man! I know he knows my name when there’s a card in front of him and I’m out there on stage, but that felt pretty cool.
What’s the key to being a good talk show guest?
I don’t know the magic formula. Cobbling together a set for Letterman or a TV spot is something that, I don’t know that I’ll ever figure it out. Of the 26 I’ve done, I don’t think I’ve done a single one where I felt I’ve done it perfectly. Even though it’s only four and a half minutes, you’ve worked on this thing, you’ve worked on these words, you’ve worked on these transitions, you’ve worked on everything, and some hit better than you expect them to, and some don’t quite get what you expect them to. You might flub a word or a line. There’s a lot, lot going on. It’s just 100 percent full-on concentration while you’re out there. And also, you’re trying to enjoy it at the same time. But the enjoyment is more when you’re done. I’ve had many where I finish, and I go, “Okay, I as pretty happy with that.” But I don’t think I’ve had a single one where I went, “Every moment was perfect.” I’ll still go, “Man, that first thing was flubbed,” or “I didn’t wait long enough on the laugh on this,” or whatever. It’s a never-ending quest to try to get it 100 percent, and that’s part of the fascination with it, is that you’re never going to get quite there.
To put a button on "Stupid in School," for my own curiosity, have your own kids had to do science fair projects?
They’re home-schooled, so they have a tutor. They’ve done some science stuff, but it’s not the kind of thing that would be around other kids. But a few years ago, before they were home-schooled, my son had a science project, and I remember going to the school, where they had all the science projects, and they did have the solar systems. I was wondering, Does anybody here realize I’m the guy who makes fun of these? I try to be low-key offstage; I don’t want anybody recognizing me or anything like that, and plus I don’t want to make fun of an actual kid who’s making an actual solar system.
But it’s the one time in your life you could have actually said, “You’re breaking some new ground there, Copernicus.” You weren’t tempted?
(laughs) Yeah. I’m sure that was inside me wanting to come out, but I squelched it.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*