MARK BENNETT: Comedian masters rare art of choosing words wisely

Coming to the Haute: Comedian Brian Regan performs Sept. 5 in Hatfield Hall on the Rose-Hulman campus. Courtesy Friedman Bergman

Words matter. Brian Regan defies popular culture by choosing his carefully. In doing so, he’s exercising freedom.

An audience in Terre Haute next month won’t hear waves of profanities or political rants from the veteran comic. Regan aims to get laughs anyway. That formula has the 61-year-old at the peak of a four-decade comedy career. His second Netflix special is due out next year. Jerry Seinfeld serves as executive producer of Regan’s Netflix series “Stand Up And Away!” He’s played to capacity crowds in iconic venues like London’s Leicester Square Theatre, New York’s Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and Radio City Music Hall, and Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheater.

In each setting, what Regan doesn’t say is as purposeful as what he does say. As a result, he’s often labeled “family friendly,” but insists he does so for himself, not those watching.

“I love freedom of speech, but part of freedom of speech is choosing not to use words. That’s also a part of freedom of speech,” Regan said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“I feel like some people think, ‘Oh, we should be free to say what we want, and so we’re going to say the F-word 57 times a minute.’ Well, you can, but you can also choose not to.”

He likes taking on the challenge. It’s working. In one of his classic bits, Regan satirizes a trip to the emergency room. There, a hospital staffer dutifully poses the standard question — “What seems to be the problem?” — as if it’s a mystery. Regan’s response: “Well, it seems like everything on my inside wants to be on my outside.”

Irony, facial expressions, timing and voice inflections. That’s what cracks up the crowd, not blue language. It’s all his preference.

“Sometimes, it’s fun to self-impose rules,” Regan said. “I want to see how many laughs, and how hard of laughs, I can get without hitting certain words and certain subjects. I enjoy it creatively, and the challenge. And then, along the way, I found out that a lot of people like that, in terms of fans. It’s like a byproduct of it, but I didn’t do it for that reason.”

He’s not a prude. Regan enjoys other comedians’ styles. He even plays a recurring role as an outcast alcoholic in “Loudermilk,” a “dark comedy” on DirecTV’s network that is “earthy and gritty” and “not necessarily clean.” Regan has played the character Mugsy for three seasons, so far, on the series and likes “the departure.” It’s directed by Peter Farrelly, who also guided the Oscar-winning film “Green Book.”

“When I do my comedy, I like to do it the way that I do it,” Regan said. “But when I’m doing somebody else’s project, I’m fine with doing whatever their vision is. [’Loudermilk’] might be surprising for some of my fans, but they know when they come to my show what they’re going to get.”

Wading into politics isn’t his thing, either, other than to riff on its polarity. “I try to do jokes that both sides can laugh at,” he said.

Conjuring and delivering ideas to elicit laughs is an art, both literary and physical. Regan confessed to being a “terrible student as a kid,” growing up with eight siblings in Miami. “But I knew how to diagram a sentence,” he added. That ability serves him well as a comic who transforms life’s peculiarities into onstage material.

Again, words used and not used matter.

“Once you have the idea for the joke, there’s a craftsmanship in what kind of words you’re going to use to convey this thought,” he explained. “You don’t want to use too few words. You don’t want to use too many words. And, how are you going to put the words together? It’s a beautiful thing to do. I love it.”

Regan, Seinfeld and other comedians often gather after shows in Las Vegas, where Regan lives. They talk shop “about words and beats and comedy,” Regan said. “I imagine it’s like those impressionist painters who used to hang around back in the 1800s, or whatever. It’s like a kinship among the people who like to do the same thing, and we have that.”

Don’t get the idea that Regan eats, breathes and sleeps comedy, though. He likes to golf. That’s why Regan chose a Cadillac XLR for his second appearance on Seinfeld’s popular “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” series on Netflix. Seinfeld, a classic car aficionado, derided the choice by Regan, admittedly “not a car guy.” Seinfeld called the XLR “the automotive equivalent of a man who colors his eyebrows, wears shorts with a belt, and tucks his shirt into the shorts.”

Regan has a simple explanation. “There are very few two-seaters that can also fit golf clubs in the back,” he said Wednesday. That Cadillac can.

He likes taking breaks from comedy, just as an electrician may not want to rewire fuse boxes every night after work. Venues often send drivers to pick Regan up at airports, and they’ll have a video screen tuned to a comedy channel for him.

“And I’m like, ‘That’s not what I want to do, buddy,’” Regan said. “I mean, I appreciate the spirit, but put on some jazz, please.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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