A chat with comedian Brian Regan

(Jerry Metellus, courtesy of Loshak PR)

Brian Regan is widely recognized as a leading figure in comedy, known for his observational humor, clean jokes and physicality on stage. Regan began his career in the 80s, and in 1991, he made his first late-night debut on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”

He has appeared on various shows, such as Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” and has an impressive collection of specials, including “Nunchucks and Flamethrowers” and “On the Rocks,” both on Netflix. You can catch Regan at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday at McCain Auditorium.

Do you have a process for gathering show material?

Different comedians work different ways. Some people like to sit down and write; that’s not how I work. If I sit down in front of a blank piece of paper for an hour, an hour later, it will be a blank piece of paper. I’m not good at forcing my brain to come up with stuff. I just go through my day, go through my life the way I normally would. Occasionally, I’ll see or experience things that feel funny to me, and then I’ll write them down. Then, I’ll try them out on stage and see what happens.

When you go on stage, is your routine planned?

I have an outline, but I try to not be stuck into it or regimented with it. There are times when I’m on stage and I’m like, I’m going to skip over what I would normally do and do something that’s usually later in the act, I’m going to do it now. So I think that the freedom of being able to move around when you’re on stage makes it feel more real and immediate for the audience. Whereas, if you do it the same exact way every night, it would get boring to me, and therefore it would also be boring to people watching.

Is there anything you do to prepare right before a show?

It’s going to sound very boring, but I like to have a cup of coffee before my shows. I do like to be by myself. I look through my phone at new bits, new jokes, things that I’ve written in my iPhone apps, things that I might want to try to hit if I can while I’m on stage.

What makes your process and performance unique compared to other comedians?

Oh, I don’t know. I try to be careful not to make it competitive. I don’t want to come off like I’m better than other comedians or anything like that. I just try to be as funny as I can be. … I do feel like I put a lot of work into what I do, and I’m proud of that, especially if I have five-minute TV spots, you know, like Fallon or something like that. There’s a lot of work that goes into those. I don’t think the average person realizes how much work goes into a five-minute stand-up routine. I work for months on it, practicing it in front of audiences and working on words and moments and beats — all for five minutes. Somebody would just watch that and think, maybe the guy just came out, told us what he came up with the previous day, but there’s a lot of effort that goes into comedy.

Do you rehearse your jokes with someone before performing them on stage, like a family member or fellow comedian?

If there are new bits that I’m working on, I’ll just run them in my head; I’m the audience at that time. One of the fascinating things about comedy is that there’s no way of knowing until you get on stage. There’s no way of knowing how other people are going to react to something. You can have a gut feeling about it. You can go, well, I feel pretty strongly that people are going to think this is funny, but you could get to a point in your show and people just stare out or don’t laugh as hard as other bits. Then sometimes you’ll do a bit that you didn’t think was going to get a laugh, and it’ll get a stronger laugh than you expected. But that’s part of what is so fun about it; it’s an inexact science.

You seem so comfortable performing, so knowing you rehearse in your head is really incredible.

Well, I appreciate it. I say that when I get on stage half of me is comfortable and the other half of me is trying to look like I’m comfortable. It is a technique. It’s a skill. You want the audience to feel like you believe you belong up there, and if you look skittish or scared or nervous, the audience is going to feel that. So you have to go on stage and feel like you own that place. Then once you get a crowd going, it’s pretty comfortable. It’s still 100% concentration, you know, it’s like a surfer on a big wave; you still have to put your mind into what you’re doing to stay on that surfboard. So it’s the same with being a comedian — you still have to concentrate 100%, but I love it. It is thrilling.

I realized that most of the strong memories in life are of things that happened after you had butterflies. You know, those little butterflies in your stomach. It means you’re about to do something important, and those important things are the things that stay in your mind. … I played football in high school and in college, and you get nervous before games; you get those butterfly feelings. I remember thinking, this is uncomfortable, I don’t like these butterflies. But then as I went through life, I went, well, wait a second, they’re there for a reason. I call them memory makers.

What should the audience expect at your K-State performance?

I always say, if people like music and people like dancing and people like comedy, come on out, because I’m doing one third of that. … It’s always weird, because when I think about my topics, if you will, it’s not so much the topics that are interesting — it’s what one does with the topics. I equate it to a painter who paints a bowl of fruit. If you ask a painter, “What are you painting these days?” he goes “I’m still painting bowls of fruit.” People might think, well, it doesn’t seem very good, but his paintings can be beautiful and wonderful and interesting with how he captures light with his paint strokes and that sort of thing. It’s not what he’s painting, it’s how he’s painting it.

Do you have plans for each city you perform in, or do you just do what you are feeling?

It’s more of how I’m feeling. I’m always working towards the next hour. You know, there’s three goals in comedy. There’s individual jokes, there’s five-minute spots for like TV appearances, then there’s one-hour goals where you’re doing a special for Netflix or something like that. So, I am working on all three of those goals at the same time, including the hour. It’s been a year and a half or so since I’ve done a special, and so I’m working towards another hour. Every night I get on stage, I’m kind of massaging that. If you watch my show from night to night, you’ll see a lot of similarities, but you’ll also see little incremental changes. That’s sort of the process. So, performing at Kansas State University is just another night in the process, not to diminish that night. Every night is important, every show is important, but it’s also part of a process.

Is there a moment when you knew you wanted to be a comedian?

I decided when I was in college, and I don’t remember the exact eureka moment. … My nickname in college was “Rip Van Winkle,” meaning I slept all the time, but it was very hard for me to wake up, and I’m still that way. So, I remember having a 7 a.m. class, walking across campus in the cold and in the dark, and I’m thinking if I have a job or I have to be there at seven in the morning, you know, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to be functional in this world. Then, a comedian performed at my college, and it showed at 8 p.m., and I remember thinking, well, if this guy starts at 8 p.m., I think I could do that. I mean, also, I loved the idea of making people laugh.

So, when you’re on stage, I’m assuming you feel passion. Do you always feel that passion or are there some days when you feel like you’re getting to the end of the road with your comedy?

Well, I always like the stand-up. The stand-up itself, the getting on stage, that experience is always incredible, but there’s a lot of traveling involved, and there’s a lot of work that goes into having a career. … I have an internal debate in my own head like, do I want to retire and enjoy life and not have comedy be such a big component? Or do I want to just pedal to the metal and keep doing comedy for the rest of my life? So that’s something I think about; I tend to lean towards wanting, at some point, to stop and be done with it.

I remember Johnny Carson, after he retired from “The Tonight Show,” in one interview, he was asked that question: “Is it hard being retired?” He said the only part that’s difficult for him is thinking of something funny during the day and realizing he doesn’t have a stage that night to say it on. So it’s something that I think about because I think of funny things all the time, and I know that I eventually can say them on stage. If I took that away from myself, would that be too hard for me? I don’t know yet.