Brian Regan: “Poking a stick at the world”

Curator's Note

Brian Regan, who has been working continuously as a standup comedian since the early 1980s, has, as described by the New York Times in 2015, “been uncool so long that he’s become kind of cool.” A stalwart road comic, he has gained a following across the U.S. and, despite his mainstream appeal and oft-labeled “clean” and “safe” material, he is revered by alternative comics like Marc Maron and Patton Oswalt. While Regan’s material largely addresses the mundane and his apolitical, curse-free act seems on the surface to shoot for the middle, he is a stealth cultural critic. His milieu is the car, the “township,” the protracted customer service interaction. He is not the urban, edgy man with swagger who has perceived control over his destiny but rather the put-upon, ineffectual, middle class, suburban Everyman, slave to corporate America and societal norms. As such, his reactions to the absurdities of modern life provide a specific point of view and commentary on issues such as capitalism (the fantasy of an airline giving away piles of money to passengers), civility (the behavior of a rich driver who bothers only to raise a pinky finger in thanks) and social class (making special accommodations for trailers of “show horses” vs. “dumb old donkeys” on the highway). Playing the bewildered, powerless, confused consumer or citizen, he emphasizes the ubiquitous injustice, incompetence, greed and randomness to which all audiences can relate. Regan is a victim of the systems of government and commerce, but not an outwardly angry one. As Oswalt asks, “How does Brian Regan scorch the earth down to the last blade of grass without muttering so much as a ‘hell’ or ‘damn’?” Where Bill Burr rages about the ignored plight of the American male, Regan counters the system with sarcastic barbs and beleaguered refrains of “I’m trying.” Though similar in societal role – husband, father, avid eater – to Jim Gaffigan, Regan does not whine or complain but uses subtle, nuanced expressions and stunned silence in response to an uncaring, faceless, senseless, monolithic “they.” However, while self-deprecating and humble in his various scenarios, he manages to come off as triumphant after describing, for instance, the humiliation of dealing with lost baggage in the airport or the parking lot of the emergency room. In part this is due to his physicality, as he typically bounces out of an exaggerated, often hunched pose after playing a beaten down man. The juxtaposition of his visceral humanity and intelligence betrays an awareness of his critical position.


It's refreshing to read Kathleen's post on Brian Regan, a comedian whose work is in stark contrast to the cringe-worthy comedies and comedians that typically draw a lot of critical attention. The words themselves are not terribly funny, but his embodied humor really extracts the last bits of amusement from the performances. Regan's critique of social class (seen in this clip) is strengthened by Regan doing the caricature of himself and assuming a somewhat normalized demeanor when playing his conversational partners who are in-the-know. I struggle to think of how other stand-up balance the caricatures of self and others. Does all stand-up need to have that "straight man" on the stage somehow?

Thanks for the post. Two initial thoughts that are a little short of fully formed. First, it seems from your description and a bit from the clip you attached, that the implication of Regan's everyman is a bit of anti-intellectualism. Now, I'm not sure that's really a critique of him, because I would consider myself an intellectual and I did find his humor had a kind of wholesomeness that made it hard to really be offended at this implied critique of someone who likes art, but I think I have to agree with Kathleen (and disagree with the NYT) that he's not quite as apolitical as he seems on the surface. Second, in response to Lisa, I think many comics balance the caricature of self and other through their projected relationship with the audience. Even as Regan creates a straight man for himself in this clip, there are actually three positions being articulated in his performance--self, other, and audience--that seem important to understanding how the comedy works.

I find this aspect of Regan interesting. He claims to be apolitical in his comedy, but I wonder if he just means that he doesn't talk about politics. He's such a humble guy that I can imagine him downplaying all this high falutin' talk we're projecting onto him. He seems to be holding back some fierce intelligence on some level, but I don't mean that disrespectfully. Maybe he is just purely authentic.

No doubt intentionally, Kathleen chose a clip that speaks to something she discusses so well: hierarchies of taste in comedy. When he describes marveling at still-lifes ("That looks just like a bowl of fruit!") and critiquing Picasso ("Pablo, look around you. Does anyone have two eyes on one side of their head?") he really does show himself to be a layman's Bourdieu: this is a classic function-vs.-form debate. What keeps the bit from being obnoxious for an effete, pretentious snob like me (i.e. his party interlocutor) is that he is, as Kathleen suggests, somehow able to pinpoint precisely the position between and outside the naive and pure gazes that can be critical of both. Speaking of function and form: the Oswalt post gives credence to some conventional wisdom about comedy that I imagine isn't taken at face value around these parts: that comedy works independent of content. Hence, both Attell's material works regardless of its sexist nature. My hunch is that this is both a bit true and a bit of a cop-out; what is the nature of the relationship between style and content (for lack of a better term) in comedy?

Good food for thought on your last comment! I am suddenly thinking of so many of the comics I enjoy who, if I read transcripts of their act would probably find puerile or worse. But look at our crop now - Bill Burr, Attell, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, the list goes on. There is much more to what they are expressing and projecting than the words they utter.

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