Clean comedy is something of an oxymoron these days. In an age that finds stand-up at its crudest, most brazen and experimental, and with little in the way of limitations, the clean, folksy, identifiable comic has gone the way of the buffalo. Those who haven’t abandoned their “comedy” act are either ’90s road hacks appearing on Comics Unleashed With Byron Allen as a last ditch effort for semi-relevance, or are concluding their sets with, “Thanks! God bless! Stick around for a super cool sermon from youth pastor Dave!” Of course, there are exceptions. More accurately there’s an exception, and his name is Brian Regan.
Unlike the vast majority of his cohorts in cleanliness, Regan has sustained popularity since the late ’80s. He can command a stage for 90 minutes without offering an inkling of his political or religious standing, and he’s one of the most respected performers amongst even the harshest and most depraved of his fellow comics—despite the dearth of curse words, sexual innuendo, and sensationalism in his act. About two years removed from his last Milwaukee appearance (at the Pabst Theater), Regan returned to town Saturday with a new batch of affable anecdotes to bestow upon a bursting Riverside Theater.
Coming out to a standing ovation from theatergoers spanning three generations, Regan immediately dipped into his familiar well of self-depreciation to cull chuckles early and often. He explained his difficulties at parties with bits about not remembering someone’s name and messing up handshakes. The 57-year-old delved into his diminishing body image, complete with a tale of trying to make banana juice, and his take on how the elastic band on underwear changes with one’s metabolism. “You know it’s time to change your underwear size when you take ’em off and people can read Egyptian hieroglyphics off your body,” he started, in the familiar cadence of his dullard on-stage alter ego. “Cleopatra says you aren’t a 34 anymore.”
The bachelor kept the course with examples illustrating his lack of smoothness with women, punctuated with a wordy, wonderful version of how the “Wanna go out? Meet you at 8” TV and movie archetype would go if he’d ever try it. Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, he told the consistently chuckling theater about his memory loss. (“Every now and then, I’ll hear the microwave ding and have no idea what’s in there.”) Whether jabbing his own shortcomings, dissecting sports clichés, or unleashing a hilarious rampage upon the dreaded “rewards card” request, the veteran comic’s off-kilter everyman musings were accompanied by frantic shouts, song-and-dance, and regular visits from his oafish stage persona.
Regan was almost always chipper and focused, and even his departures from the standard set were worthwhile. Realizing he couldn’t pantomime a taxidermist during a marching band-related joke, he admitted, “I gotta fix that joke, okay! It’s not gonna be a taxidermist tomorrow.” When an audience member offered an alternate punchline to a new joke, the headliner kept the laughs coming. “Now let’s go back and fix some of the previous ones,” Regan said before explaining earlier material.
Sure, a few bits bordered on cheesy (“Whoever invented bagpipes, I don’t think he’s finished!”), but the glut of the 90-minute performance landed in topic matters that resonated with almost all in attendance. As his set drew to a close, Regan rewarded longtime supporters with tales from school—including a spelling bee experience, one about making a science project at the last minute, and his famed “Moosen” joke about when he was taught animal plurals. As the beloved and demographic-blending character of a clumsy and flawed average Joe, Regan guided Riverside Theater through the constructs of everyday life in a way that capably pulled funny from the familiar. And he didn’t even need to say “fuck” to do it.