Arts & Culture

Brian Regan finds laughs in the mundane

Brian Regan mines everyday happenings, like visits to the optometrist, for jokes.
Brian Regan mines everyday happenings, like visits to the optometrist, for jokes. PHOTO BY BRIAN FRIEDMAN

Everyone knows Pop Tarts are good eatin’. But most people probably never thought of their comedic potential until they heard Brian Regan’s bit about the directions on the side of Pop Tart boxes.

“Can there be a simpler food item than Pop Tarts?” he begins in his most popular bit. “No. 1: Remove pastry from pouch ...’ ”

Of course, it’s better when you hear him actually do it. But that’s what a good observational comic does — he finds things that we should have known were funny, then let’s us know what we missed.

Regan, who performs at Cal Poly on Feb. 11, sheds funny light on mundane things like visits to the optometrist, airline travel and ironing boards.

After dropping out of college, Regan began playing clubs in South Florida in the early 1980s. Hoping to spur his comedy career, he moved to New York in 1988, and three years later he was on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

A veteran of 23 appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and two of his own Comedy Central specials, Regan recently released his latest comedy album, “All By Myself.”

Q: Did you have a worst gig?

A: Oh, sure. That’s how you get good is to do bad. You have to learn how to handle bad situations. In fact, the club I started at, they let the local comedians — the young comedians — go on at the end of the show, after the headliner was over. This was as the audience was walking out. So I would go on every single night. But I remember there were other local guys that would look around and wait and see if it seemed like a nice audience or not, and they would decide at the last second, “Ah, no, no, no — I’m not going on.” And I remember thinking, “I am never going to say that. I’m going on every single night. I don’t care how bad it is.”

Q: Comedians must be some of the most humble people in the world because of what they have to go through coming up, right?

A: Yeah, I guess. That club that I was telling you about, I had this whole routine built around people walking out of my shows. They were getting up and putting their coats on and leaving. So I had this whole self-deprecation routine about how bad I was. The people that were hanging around would laugh. And the first time I got promoted — they let me open the show — I went on-stage, and I didn’t know what to do. Because nobody was leaving.

Q: You do a lot of observational humor. Are you always looking out for things? It seems like you’d always be working in a sense.

A: I don’t walk around and go, “Man, I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open—I’m on a red alert, looking for comedy.” I just kind of do what I would do normally. I’m a husband, I’m a daddy, I watch TV, I read, I go to the store.

I just do what I’d normally do and then every once in a while you’ll experience something, or you’ll see something or you’ll read something and you go, “Hey, man — that might be a bit.”

The way I describe it is like when you’re in junior high school and you’re the captain, and you have to pick the basketball team, and all the kids are lined up, jumping up and down, waving their hands. That’s sort of how bits are to me. A Pop Tarts box will jump up and down as I’m walking by, going, “Heeeeey — look at the directions on the side of me. Can I be in your show?”

Q: You’ve been on Letterman a bunch of times now. Do you have his cell phone number? Do you text him during the day?

A: It’s funny — I’ve never met him before or after a taping. The only time I’ve ever seen him is literally on the stage of “The Late Show with David Letterman.” But that’s fine with me. I’ve heard he’s just not a social butterfly, so to speak. And I’ve heard from people on the show that he likes what I do as a comedian. And that to me is the highest honor. Just hearing him laugh behind me while I’m doing my stand-up means everything to me. I don’t need to go to Central Park the next day and fly kites with him.

Q: Do you pay attention to the songs that Paul (Shaffer) plays when you come out?

A: I’m allowed to request them. It’s a really cool thing. They say, “What song do you want to come out to?” Oddly enough, you never hear it when you’re walking out because you’re in such a zone. You never hear it until you watch it on TV and you go, “Oh, that’s right — they played that song I asked them to play.”

Q: I noticed the YouTube videos (of your shows) have a lot of hits.

A: It used to be you were playing for laughs. Now I seem to be playing for red dots. I do a bit and you see like 20 red dots come on. They’re not supposed to be taping, but it’s out of control, so they tape your little bit on their little cell phone camera or whatever. But you can see the red dots. Then you finish the bit, and you start another bit, and they all go off, and only two dots come on. So you’re like, “This is only a two-dot joke?”

Q: Especially with comedians, there are a lot of those moments where somebody acts out or something goes awry and it ends up on YouTube. You’ve got to always have that in the back of your mind.

A: I would think there are very few comedians who haven’t snapped at some point on stage. Especially when you first start, you’re playing in situations that are not ideal. And sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to take control of the stage. And sometimes people get on your nerves, and you can snap and get angry. Luckily, none of those were recorded in my past. That was before they had the technology to bring my career down.

Q: Have you seen the one where the comedian hits a guy with his guitar?

A: I worked with him before that happened. He was the nicest guy in the world. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in that situation where you’re so angry that you want to do something. But he crossed the line in actually doing it.

We’ve all been onstage where people don’t shut up. And it’s incredibly rude. And it’s like—what are you going to do?

Q: Hit ’em with a guitar. A: That’s what you do—

you hit them with a guitar. So now that’s part of a training manual for comedians.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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