When it comes to politics, comedian Brian Regan usually avoids the subject in his stand-up. Uproarious stories about spelling bees and growing up with seven brothers and sisters in Florida are strewn throughout his numerous albums and taped specials, but Donald Trump? The Clintons? You would have to search far and wide throughout Regan’s significant body of work to find any direct mentions of either — let alone politics in general. Even among his 28 appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, you would be hardpressed to find anything.
Enter Nunchucks and Flamethrowers, the first of two comedy specials Regan will premiere exclusively on Netflix. The majority of the new hours features the comic’s trademark takes on everything from becoming a father to his aging father’s unique brand of humor. Yet it also features a few brief forays into the undeniably timely topic of American politics, though not in the same direct manner as comics like Judah Friedlander or Patton Oswalt. As Regan explained to us, he wants “people on both sides to enjoy” his comedy. “I might try to sneak a few little points in there,” he says, “but nothing too divisive.”
I missed your Carnegie Hall performance during the New York Comedy Festival this month. How’d it go?
It was cool, man. I ended up crowd surfing, which is not something you would normally do in a comedy show. It was a tremendous experience. The place is obviously historic and iconic, and to be able to stand on that stage is pretty amazing. When I was backstage I was looking around at all the posters of all the people who had performed there, all the pictures they had from previous shows, I thought to myself, “What happened in my life that I’m going out on that stage?” It’s a strange experience, but a very rewarding one, too.
I assume that show featured a lot of new material since Nunchucks and Flamethrowers is out on Netflix.
Yes. I have a deal for two specials with Netflix. The first one I recorded a few months back, and it will be coming out Tuesday, so I’m already in the process of beginning to try and move away from that and replace it. But it’s hard to do it on a dime. It takes a while. For the Carnegie show, about 60 percent of it was probably from the special. Maybe 50 percent. I don’t know. Little by little, you add some things and you drop some things. You keep doing that over a certain period of time, and hopefully, by the time the next special is due, the new hour will be ready to go.
How much time will you typically spend crafting a new hour?
Well, it depends on when the next one is due. The previous one, Live From Radio City Music Hall, came out about two years ago. It was a live special for Comedy Central. So with two years to spare, I already had a tight turnaround for Nunchucks and Flamethrowers, and now I have another tight turnaround for the second Netflix special, but I like it. It motivates me. I like to write, anyway. I like to create stuff. But knowing there’s a specific date I have to have it finished by gives me that extra incentive. But if it doesn’t work out, my ace in the hole is that I come out, do one joke, and then pretend like the audience has been laughing at that joke for 59 minutes. I’ll just stand there sheepishly like, “Aww, come on folks! I know it’s funny, but it’s not that funny.” It’ll be 50 minutes of cutaways to people in the audience howling at that one joke.
Speaking of audience cutaways, viewers at home don’t always realize what goes into filming a stand-up show. The cameras, the equipment, the outtakes — it’s all there. So I was pleased to see you include a brief window into that process during the credits when you repeatedly flub that one line.
I appreciate it. We did a few shows and cobbled it together Frankenstein-style for the special. During one show in particular, I completely flubbed the easiest sentence in the English language. I was trying to say, “I don’t know what it is about people,” and for whatever reason, my brain and my tongue said, “This isn’t going to be as easy as you think.” It came out all goofy, and I was trying to fix it, and I went off on a tangent about the lights. Sometimes, those moments are fun where you’re off-roading. I’m nowhere near the highway, but it’s bumpy and it’s still fun.
When those tangents happen, especially when recording a special, does something have to happen for you to say, “I really like that. Let’s keep it”?
I had a special a few years back. Not the Radio City one, but the one prior to that. Somebody heckled me. They were making a bit request during another routine. When we were editing it, the initial instinct was, “Let’s take this out.” But it was a playful moment, and what happened was kind of humorous and real, so the editor looked at me and said, “I don’t know about you, but I kind of like that.” And I was like, “You know what? So do I. Let’s keep it.” Every once in a while, you’ll put real moments like that in the special, but you want to be careful not to do it too much. You don’t want people out there thinking, “I know how to get in a comedy special. I’ll just shout!” You don’t want to reward that behavior too much.
I suspect that happens a lot. You’ve got quite a few famous bits — especially from your album Brian Regan Live — and I’ve seen people request them from you at live shows. That said, you’re always gracious about it.
It does happen. I try to push it to the encore so that the main hour that I’m doing on stage is my newer stuff. That’s the stuff from the last year or two, or whatever I’ve been working on at that moment. When I come back out for the encore, however, I don’t mind it if people shout out older bits at me. But if they do it during the main hour, I have to as graciously as possible say no. If you give in and go, “Sure, I’ll do that bit,” then it becomes a free-for-all in which everybody says, “Let’s get our guns and start shooting at his feet! Let’s make him dance!” So you have to say, “I appreciate that you like it. Maybe, a little bit later, I’ll get to some of that.”
This special has one of my favorite introductions to politics I’ve seen in recent memory. Instead of coming out and blatantly saying anyone’s name, you approach the election in a very abstract way — but not so much that the audience doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
I like the fact that there are comedians out there who have a perspective, and if they want to bash Trump, they should go for it. That’s their thing. Or, you might have somebody who supports Trump, though you don’t see a lot of that in the comedy world. But if comics want to do that, that’s fine too. I’m trying to walk a tightrope. I want people on both sides to enjoy my comedy show, so I might try to sneak a few little points in there, but nothing too divisive. I try to remain cagey about certain subjects like that — both in how I approach them, and what I say about them. I want both sides of the aisle to come to my show and say, “All right, I can laugh at this.” Comedy is a big tent, and all kinds of things can happen underneath it. There are people who want to take sides, and that’s fine, but most of my comedy is not political. For me, taking sides during the ten minutes I’m talking about politics isn’t worth cutting my audience in half. The ten minutes of laughs I might get from at least half the room in that situation just isn’t worth it.
It makes sense, especially since if you do divide a crowd, then you have to win them back. Then again, I suspect you don’t really have to contend with angry drunks all that much anymore.
Yeah, I’m at a fortunate place in my career where, when people come to see me, they’ve either already seen me or a friend has told them, “You should check this person out.” So the whole room is usually there to see my show. When you go back to the earlier stages of my career, however, the audience wasn’t necessarily there to see just me. That’s when the percentage of successful shows goes down. Sometimes they still work out, and sometimes they don’t. Though I’ve never had the kind of act that, even when nobody knew who I was, I was saying or doing anything that was really controversial. I’ve never really poked a stick at anything that caused people to get angry and shout things out. Then again, that doesn’t prevent a drunk person who hears a joke about donuts from wanting to yell out incoherent stuff. It still happens sometimes.
Was there ever a particular comedian, or comedy style, that initially inspired you to adopt this non-divisive approach to stand-up?
Not really. I mean, I like watching other comedians, but I also try to be careful not to pattern myself after anybody else. It’s like, “Let this man do what he does. Let that woman do what she does. Let everybody make their own comedy path.” I try to do my comedy thing, and the way I like to approach it is, I want everybody who is in that audience to have a good time. I don’t want 90 percent to have a good time while the other 10 percent is really angry with me. I certainly don’t want only 50 percent to have a good time, and 50 percent to be angry. I want everybody who’s there to see me to have a good time. But like I said, I’m not opposed to other comedians who are more politically motivated, or who want to make their political points through comedy. They often have no problem with dividing their audience in half, especially since they’re so good at winning them back. That’s fine too. Everybody has different choices they can make, and they’re all valid choices.
Politics notwithstanding, your comedy typically features stories about you and your family more than anything else. What do they think about your material?
I think they’re okay with it. I try not to throw anybody under the bus. I mean, I’ll throw my brothers and sisters’ names in there if I’m doing a bit about them, and when I do that, I’m usually telling a true story. Or, a bit that’s based on a true story. But I’ll never cross a line where it’s like, “Wow, my brother is really stupid.” Or, “My sister is really a jerk.” It’s more the kind of humor they can laugh at as well. Like “Yes, that did happen, and that is me.” I don’t want to embarrass anybody, but I want to be somewhat autobiographical while I’m onstage, though without going too far in that direction. I also want the audience to feel like they’re relating to the stories I’m telling because their own families might have similar stories. So I don’t want to get so specific that they’re laughing at me and my family. I want the audience to laugh while thinking, “I know what he’s talking about. That happened to me, too.”
I had to pause the special during the final story about your brothers, I was laughing so hard. My father’s family often recalls a similar experience whenever we get together.
That’s funny. Yeah. Well, the story I tell is absolutely true. I fudge it a little bit here and there, just to water things down and simplify it for the jokes, but the gist of what I tell is what really happened. It’s fun to be able to share stories like that, and it’s fun to hear the crowd react in a way that lets me know, “They’re not laughing at me, they’re laughing with me.” It’s a different kind of laugh. I think comedy comes from a point of view, and one comedian’s point of view might be, “This world is really messed up, it’s horrible, and I’m here to tell you about it.” But I prefer the message to be something like, “This is a pretty damn cool ride we’re all having.” Yeah, there are some goofy things that happen along the way, and we can laugh along with them, but at the end of the day, life is great.” I want my audience to feel good. That’s my goal.
We spoke about your Netflix deal earlier. Your first special is coming out on the heels of new hours from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Amy Schumer. Others, like Ellen DeGeneres and Dave Chappelle, have more Netflix specials on the way. That’s some stellar company to count yourself among.
It’s great for me. I like doing a new hour of material every few years, and I’ve done it in various ways. I’ve made self-produced CDs, self-produced DVDs, and specials for Comedy Central. Now with Netflix being in the picture, I like what they are offering to comedians. I don’t mean money-wise, but opportunity-wise. To be able to know I have not only this new hour that’s out now but also another hour I’m working towards, is a great feeling. It gives me motivation and comfort. I know I’m in the game for the next couple of years because I’ve got another special right around the corner. They’ve already agreed to it. I like that.
It makes me feel like I’m a player. [Laughs.] That’s the first time I’ve ever called myself a “player,” and it felt quite awkward. Maybe that will be the name of my next special, Brian Regan: The Player.
Brian Regan: Nunchucks and Flamethrowers streams today exclusively on Netflix.