Live vs. Live: Audience and Approach in Brian Regan’s New Comedy Central Special

Comedy Features
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What if our star blanks out and forgets a joke? What if there’s a wardrobe malfunction or a mic-snatch that involves the phrase “Imma let you finish”? What if no one laughs?

If these worries bothered Comedy Central execs plotting the network’s first-ever live telecast of a stand-up show, they could not have chosen a better inaugural performer than fan favorite road fiend Brian Regan. With this confident, approachable and unfailingly clean comedian at the helm, certain things were assured. Regan would sweep up the audience at Radio City Music Hall with ease; he’d tackle interruptions technical or circumstantial handily; and if he botched a bit, he would take it in stride and likely score some laughs in the process. If they so chose, the network brass could have eliminated the standard broadcast delay outright. Heck, they could have given the guy in charge of bleeping out naughty words the night off.

The question for Regan, however, was not whether or not he could pull it off. With some five years since his last recorded CD, All by Myself, he would have material. With the reserve of goofy charm and technical precision at his disposal, he could sleepwalk through a show and make his acolytes happy. The live broadcast would be a good gimmick, no doubt, but the real challenge remained in addressing the vaguely curious and unfamiliar on the other side of the screen. Could the show win over the middle-aged, middle-American channel-surfers? What about the curious millennials streaming the show in a spare window on their laptops? Could Regan rouse Radio City and gain a few new fans in the process? Looking to answer the question for ourselves, Paste went to suck up the live show on Saturday night and then, on Sunday, re-watched the show with fresh eyes on the Comedy Central app.

As anticipated, Regan carried the show off without a hitch. Taking the stage with assurance, pacing with his own sort of twitchy poise, Regan woke the crowd with topical jabs about disaffected New Yorkers. (One, involving the very recent Papal Visit: “New York, the only city in the world where people say, ‘Please tell me the Pope is gone!’”) From there, the comic did 56 minutes of material about fancy restaurants, the awkwardness of dance and whether one should reject friends for using the term “cinema.” (Some of the material, like his take on sports announcers who misuse terminology like “must win game,” has made it to air on Letterman, but never in a full-length show.) He stuck the landing with a rant about hotel clerks who shirk responsibility by asking whether a lost reservation might have been made under another name, and called it a night.

There are natural advantages to being at a show in person, of course. Opening acts Joe Zimmerman and Joe Bolster were not allowed to set the tone for those on their couches at home. And from a seat in the massive Radio City, buoyed by the crowd’s overwhelmingly positive energy, it was easy to feel each one of Regan’s jokes land. There was not only laughter but random hoots, isolated fits of applause and phrases recounted to neighbors. Regan, for his part, knows how to fill big spaces; playing, and selling out, venues including Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado surely helps. Highly physical business including his reenactment of a soon-to-be-slaughtered cow’s “little juke moves” reached the back of the house without having to watch the screens on either side of the stage.

Though the TV broadcast is without the immediacy of the live setting, Live from Radio City Music Hall retains the appeal of Saturday evening’s show. While it’s clear that Regan is unquestionably playing the room, rather than some imagined audience somewhere behind the cameras, this focus helps jokes land at home. The swirl of varying sorts of camera angles—not just close-up and medium shots, but angles from behind the set and from up in the auditorium’s balcony—looks to satiate short attention spans that could not be there the night of the taping. Cameras trained on Regan’s rubber mug reveal details few in his live audience could have fully appreciated, e.g. the disturbing, artificial smile Regan pastes on while doing his best to dance successfully.

Beyond concerns of tech and technique, there are certain qualities that read whether watching this comedian live or on tape—his interest in banana juice and animals’ legs, for instance. Quite often, Regan’s world is about ingrained stupidity in himself, in others, or in our unexamined, day-to-day existence. At the Radio City show, Regan talked about desperately trying to squeeze liquid out of notoriously dry bananas with his new juicer; he also wondered why we say “turkey leg” and “chicken leg” but instead of lamb leg we “frontload” the term and say “leg of lamb.” These simple demonstrations of idiocy, slowed down and pored over for the audience’s benefit, reveal Regan at his best. When a skilled comic helps a crowd laugh at everyday nonsense—their own or someone else’s—those jokes easily transcend the medium.

Matthew Love has written for venues including Rolling Stone, Condé Nast Traveler, the London Evening Standard and Time Out New York, where he was formerly the Books and Comedy editor. He hosts shows including Selected Shorts and Uptown Showdown, and is a bit less loquacious @thematthewlove.