A comedian walks onto the stage of a nearly packed venue that seats almost 3000 people. Each has bought their tickets for the New York Comedy Festival event in advance, and paid a pretty penny to do so. The comedian tells his jokes for exactly one hour. He never once loses the crowd; he consistently has the audience roaring like hyenas; he allows their money to be well spent.
How does one criticize a comedian like this?
When Brian Regan took the stage at the Beacon Theatre, every person in the crowd knew what they were going to witness. They were going to hear Regan wax faux-stupid. They were going to see him make hilariously bizarre faces. They were going to hear him relate his awkward social experiences. They were going to see his patented arms-wide-out pacing.
He’d squint his eyes. He’d yell into the microphone. He’d make ’em laugh. Everyone knew this, and they received exactly what they were looking for.
Yet Regan doesn’t pander. If he did, his comedy would be decidedly more stale and lame. The sticking point with his act, however, is how safe it is. Regan, in effect, never takes a risk. Some might say he doesn’t have to: he’s too funny as is, and his voice is so distinct that to venture into rough seas might constitute a betrayal of his true personality. If Regan dared to just once utter a four-letter word or allude to a female body part, he wouldn’t be himself, and his comedy would therefore be disingenuous.
To believe something along these lines, though, is a challenge to any comedian who considers him- or herself—or, whom we consider—an artist. To be an artist as a comedian is to ultimately grow as a person. The definition lies in the channeling of an inner vision, or rather, in the struggle to channel it. The art is in the process.
Regan, by comparison, does not seem to struggle with anything. He has one foot in that vaunted Jay Leno camp of safe and clean comedy—that insular cocoon where pushing boundaries and challenging others means less ears and eyes.
It’s not a calculated move, but it is a choice. And that choice is to not alienate anyone. By limiting how much of his true self he puts into his act, Regan is able to selectively mask his flaws. The bold and the brave comedians, on the other hand, do not mask their flaws; they embrace them. They talk about them. They work through them.
None of this is to say that Regan is not a gifted performer. Nor is it to say the several thousand people who came to the Beacon were given a phony or half-assed performance. Far from it. Regan put on a damn fine show. Hell, if one watched his entire 60-minute set and 10-minute encore and disagreed, then that person would simply be lying. The truth is, Regan killed. Regan slayed those 3000 sets of ears and eyes. His fans left happy, equilibrium was maintained, and all was right in the safe cocoon of clean comedy. But was it art?