In a particularly funny routine by observational comic Brian Regan - a deserved theater headliner because, truth told, almost all of his routines are funny - he explores the nuances and ripple effects of being a cranberry salesman. The bit occurred to Regan as he was walking down the juice aisle of a grocery store and noted the cross-pollinization of various fruit juices with cranberry juice.
"I don't know what's going on with cranberries, but they're getting in all the other juices," Regan says in a live recording. "Whoever the salesman is for cranberries is doing a great job."
It seems a simple if admittedly amusing premise, but Regan's extrapolation of the idea through the aggro approach of the cranberry salesman and the dismay of the comparatively unsuccessful banana salesman is like riding a tsunami tide of hilarity.
"Why don't you back off, Cran-Man," Regan's "rival salesman" character says in the calm-down manner of a soothing psychiatrist. "Why don't you take your sales trophy and have a vacation?"
You might or might not see that routine tonight when Regan appears at the MGM Grand Theater at Foxwoods. Though he indeed does a few of his "greatest hits" during the encore portion of his set, Regan prefers to come up with new material.
By phone last week from his home, Regan, who is 54 and has been doing standup for 30 years, explained his approach.
"When I was doing clubs, old material routinely fell by the wayside, and I'd just automatically replace it with new stuff," he says. "When I moved to larger venues, I didn't realize people would start to shout out requests for older material. It was a shock to me. The first time I ever got an encore in a theater, people were yelling for the Pop-Tarts or airplane passenger bits, and I guess that's when I started doing a few of those after the main set."
Regan is by now a genuine star. Later this year, Regan will make his 25th appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman" - a record - and his in-concert CDs and DVD and three Comedy Central specials have been wildly successful.
Here are excerpts from the conversation with Regan.
Q: I'm fascinated in standup by the sound of words and the images they summon. For example, in one of your bits, about patient experiences in a hospital emergency ward, you describe showing up with "a cannon ball wound." The idea of such a thing is so ridiculous and hysterical that I almost forgot the rest of the routine. On one hand, the phrase "cannon ball" just basically sounds funny. On another level, how many types of wounds did you try out before you decided on cannon ball?
A: I remember early on in standup learning what they call the Rule of K. The "k" sound is just funny. Not necessarily the literal letter "k" but that hard "ck" sound. Cannon ball definitely has that.
It definitely wasn't the first thing I thought of in that routine. An early version, I think, had me with a machine gun wound. But with that you run the risk of someone in the crowd who actually has a relative or friend who was shot with a machine gun. You don't want someone sad coming up to you after the show saying, "You know, my friend Norbert was killed with a machine gun." I don't worry so much about that with a cannon ball."
Q: That sort of broaches the subject that your material is fairly inoffensive. You don't swear much and you don't talk about sex or really dark topics. At the same time, I'd be surprised if you didn't occasionally at least think of some pretty funny stuff outside the parameter of your image.
A: It's weird because I've tried over the course of my career not to paint myself in a corner or become a caricature of myself. I try to continually get away from how I've been defined. For a while, I was the guy who crouched onstage and prowled and people were acting like I was a Cro-Magnon. So I started standing up straight. If you work enough - and I'm lucky - you're always going to get certain preconception issues.
The truth is, I like working clean. It's fun. Now, that doesn't mean I don't have plenty of dark and twisted thoughts. But I always imagine some 9-year-old girl in the audience, and for some reason she always has a balloon. And if I say something pretty foul, I don't want to bust her balloon. I mean that literally: I don't want what I said to be so dark that physical shock literally flows up her arm, through the string, and explodes the balloon.
Q: At the same time, while you're very self-deprecating, you can be fairly vicious about everyday idiots. Your routine about rude people on airplanes is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. The thing is, as I watch, I'm laughing at what you've observed, and you have thousands and thousands of fans who have similarly related and laughed at the bit - so who are these idiots on the planes? Do they not see this about themselves? And are riffs like this your way of therapeutically dealing with such things?
A: (Laughs) Well, I've come to believe that 90 percent of the population is just doing what they do, completely unaware, and the other 10 percent of us just watch in amazement over how self-absorbed they are. As for therapy: after the fact, yeah. Another rule of standup is that comedy equals tragedy plus time. You might go through something that's really awkward or uncomfortable, but the next day or a week down the road you can make it funny.
Q: One aspect I really like about your work is that a story doesn't seem to just end with a punchline. It's like you reach the obvious point of the piece, but you can't stop. You just seem to spin-off joke after joke purely out of thin air. There's a manic momentum to it that becomes hilarious and amazing on a cumulative level of sheer greatness.
A: I remember a comic saying something about me, and it sounds like an insult but I think - I hope! - it's a compliment. "Brian Regan takes a joke and he beats it and beats it until it's dead and then he beats it some more." What I hope he means is that maybe there are more ways to explore a punchline and get everything out of it.
Q: You sell out theaters and have long since left the club days behind. You not only have a tour bus but your own merchandise. You can get Brian Regan tour shirts free! Would you ever wear one?
A: (Laughs) Oh, no, no. no. That's a definite no. I would feel incredibly self-indulgent. It's weird enough having a tour bus. I mean, it's nice, but it's not like there are eight rock 'n' roll guys riding on it. It's me and a driver, my manager and maybe the other comic on the tour. It's very under the radar. There's no sponsor or big pictures of my face on the side. Once in a while we'll get off the bus at a fast food place, and customers are always asking, "Whose bus is this?" For a long time, I didn't know how to answer that, so I made up a country singer. "It's Moe Scruffle's bus." You can't believe the number of people who say, "Moe Scruffle? Oh, I just love him."
Q: In the context of fame, what's your backstage hospitality rider like?
A: The rider's pretty simple. A pack of gum. I'm serious. You know, when you're done with the show and walking out, it's nice to have a piece of gum if someone wants to say hello. I've been talking non-stop for an hour. (Regan affects the voice of fan): "Yeah, I met the guy. What horrible breath!"
I also have one black Sharpie and a very small bottle of peach Schnapps. The alcohol content is about as close to zero as you can get, but it's sort of a traditional thing. And that's it. What's funny is, you know, normally, the folks at the halls try to make a nice presentation for you backstage, and I guess I don't give them a lot of artistic leeway. They'll give me three packs of gum instead of one. And they might try to make the gum logos all face the same direction. I don't know who I offended on one occasion, but the gum was just tossed randomly on a horrible card table, one of those where all the legs don't touch the floor. But other than that, I like to think I've been easy in the rider department.