All the good comedians are liberal. That’s dogma, of course, for liberals—but even conservatives seem to accept it, submitting to their stereotype as grouchy and humorless.
But it’s not true. For the best comedian of our time, in my humble opinion, is what I would call, not a liberal nor a conservative, but a traditionalist: Brian Regan.
Regan was born in 1958 as one of eight children in a Catholic (of course) family. With only two children himself, it’s doubtful he remains any kind of Catholic today; at least he never talks about it. But it’s interesting how many of today’s best comedians were born Catholic and in large families, often the last of many. Stephen Colbert comes to mind, the last of eleven kids, about which he boasts constantly on his The Late Show. And he pretends (to my mind) to continue being Catholic today. He has three kids himself; he attends Mass, apparently; and he even claims to teach catechism on Sundays (in what version I shudder to think). But he is, in fact, viciously anti-Catholic, and constantly attacking the Church for its “positions” on abortion, homosexuality, and nearly everything else that makes it countercultural. Still, even high prelates accept him as one of their own. New York’s buffoonish Cardinal Timothy Dolan is a great pal, and Colbert was a keynote speaker at the annual Catholic charity Al Smith Dinner. His Late Show even has an “official chaplain” in Fr. James Martin, S.J., himself (in)famous today for his vocal support of homosexuality and “gay marriage” (even within the Church).
Then there’s Conan O’Brien. He’s one of six, with two of his own. After he served as president of The Harvard Lampoon in 1985, he became a wildly successful comedy writer till he got his own show, Late Night, in 1996. Then he replaced Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in 2009—for a total of seven months, after which Leno was reinstated and stayed on till 2014. But O’Brien promptly got another show, Conan, on TBS. He was “ordained” in 2011 as a “minister” of the “Universal Life Church Monastery.” So, no more Catholicism for him.
Then there’s Jimmy Fallon, born in 1974, just one of two. A former altar boy (about which he talks affectionately) he also considered the priesthood. After a long and successful stint on Saturday Night Live, he got his own show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, in 2009. Then, in 2014, he took over The Tonight Show from Leno, and was an instant success. He’s the most sweet-tempered of comedians, avoiding controversy and anything else that would get in the way of laughs. Only last year, having been forced to apologize to the Left for having tousled Donald Trump’s hair when Trump appeared on the show in 2016 as the then Democratic nominee, did Fallon touch political comedy. And his Trump comedy consists mainly of his own (gentle) Trump impression, which anyone can do, even me.
Then there’s Jimmy Kimmel, born one of three in 1967, now with four of his own. Also a former altar boy, Kimmel married Gina Maddy in 1988; they divorced in 2002 after having two children. Kimmel then had a “relationship” with the foul-mouthed, constantly Catholic-bashing Jewish comedienne Sarah Silverman from 2002 until 2009. In 2013, he married Molly McNearny (one hopes not in the Church) and had two more kids with her. Is he somehow Catholic anyway? Well, he attacks the “freedom to discriminate” against homosexuals (like for baking their wedding cakes), but nevertheless he once told a fawningly Catholic interviewer that he attends Mass “whenever he can,” which means never.
Then there’s Jim Gaffigan, born the last of six in 1966, and now with five kids of his own. He used to talk mostly about food (hilariously), but after having all those kids he started talking about Catholicism. He’s a practicing Catholic, under the influence of his wife, Jeannie, whom he calls a “Shiite” Catholic (meaning, very strict). Like most of the best comedians, he works “clean”; and he’s very gentle about the Church. Indeed, he’s orthodox Catholics’ only pride and joy—he and Jeannie even gave a joint commencement speech at Catholic University of America in 2016. But perhaps because he lives in Manhattan, and to avoid the ire of ever-vigilant gays, he had a “best friend” gay character on his short-lived sitcom; and, damnably, he marched in a Gay Pride Parade—with his children (no credit to “Shiite Catholic” Jeannie here).
Then there’s George Carlin, who was born in 1937, the second of only two, and who died in 2008, at age 71. He’s by far the oldest of this group, but was a groundbreaker and inspiration for them all. For about ten years he worked as a straight-laced, thoroughly conventional comedian, even appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. But he entered a hippie phase (which lasted the rest of his life) with his 1972 album FM & AM, which made him a huge star among baby-boomers. Though by then he’d already departed from his Catholic faith, he shared hilarious memories of growing up Catholic, which can be found on his other 1972 album, Class Clown. They’re so dead-on accurate that any Catholic today, even the most devout, will find his reminiscences sidesplitting. They might also appreciate his comments about the troubling changes in the Church after Vatican II. Yet, in his later years, though he could still be funny in TV interviews, Carlin’s routines were mostly bitter and unfunny rants—against the Church, and against America herself—and relied heavily on the word “bulls**t.”
Catholics dominate not only the ranks of comedians, but also the best comedy writers. There’s O’Brien, as mentioned, before his talk-show career. Then the somewhat older Jim Downey, another Harvard Lampoon president, who began his career with Saturday Night Live in its second year (1976), and quickly became head writer. He stuck with SNL on and off for decades, most of the time as head writer, only retiring in 2013, having written many of the show’s funniest and most memorable sketches. Former SNL cast member Dennis Miller has called him the second most important person in the show’s history, after executive producer Lorne Michaels. Though Downey started his career as what he called “a standard-issue Harvard graduate commie,” some among his most recent (and much younger) writing staff sneer that he evolved into some sort of Bush Republican. Ridiculous, this is a man who said he could never find anything funny about Barack Obama.
Then there’s George Meyer, born in 1956 the eldest of eight, and also a former altar boy—as well as another Lampoon president (sensing a trend?). He was the undisputed genius behind The Simpsons from 1989 to 2005. Though he detested his Catholic upbringing and is an avowed atheist, baptism makes a mark on the soul, and so to some extent, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Perhaps that’s why many of his Simpsons’ lines are still quoted reverently by my own thoroughly orthodox Catholic brother-in-law Sean and my two grown sons, Michael and Joseph.
To round off this short list, there’s my Harvard roommate, Steve O’Donnell—still one of my three best friends, who comes to my kids’ weddings all the way from L.A. to Virginia. He was born in 1954 the ninth of ten, having preceded his twin brother Mark (also a comic genius, but who died tragically at the height of his career) by several minutes. Although he was already gently lapsed from Catholicism when I met him in 1972 (he never went to Mass), he did once correct my ignorant assertion (as then a Jew) that Jesus never existed. His glorious career began as a writer, then quickly head writer for Late Night with David Letterman, a role he later served for three other shows, the penultimate one being Jimmy Kimmel Live!, for five years starting in 2003 (Steve was one of Kimmel’s childhood idols). This, of course, was when Kimmel was still funny, and well before he anointed himself, along with Colbert, head of the Anti-Trump Resistance.
Before I move on, a word about Jewish comedians and comedy writers.
Nearly all the great comedians and comedy writers of our grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ time were Jewish—which is amazing, since Jews then, as now, were a tiny minority (about 3 percent of the population). Comedy may have been a way of being liked and fitting in an often-hostile Gentile world; for the same reason, many Jewish entertainers changed their names to hide their Jewishness: Melvin Kaminsky became Mel Brooks, Allan Konigsberg became Woody Allen, Jonathan Leibowitz became Jon Stewart, and so on. But that outsider status is far from the case now. Still, relative to their population in America, they can be said to dominate comedy even today. A single Seinfeld in a Jewish population of 5.3 million still beats fifteen Catholic comedians in a Catholic population of 70.5 million. Nevertheless, the takeover of comedy at its commanding heights by (born) Catholics over the last two generations is the biggest comedy story of our time.
But back, at long last, to our subject: Brian Regan. Lest the praise I heap on Regan seem gross hyperbole, I’m leaving out of this article the late Robin Williams, the greatest comedian of all time, a fact which nearly every other comedian acknowledges. If you doubt his greatness, watch Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind on HBO Now, a two-hour documentary almost as brilliant as its subject, released as I was writing this. But let’s just say we’re sticking to human beings here, for surely Williams was superhuman. He created much of his funniest material instantly while onstage. In a two-hour 1986 performance at the Metropolitan Opera, 25 percent of his material was made up on the spot, according to his then-manager. The only other comedian who could do that was Williams’s boyhood idol, Jonathan Winters, whom Williams credited with his wanting to become a comedian, and whom he later brought on as a character on his breakout 1978 sitcom, Mork and Mindy. He was also a superb actor, appearing in 73 films over his career (sometimes providing only a voice—but what voices), winning one Oscar and being nominated for two others. But even superhumans turn out to be human: it was only as Williams sensed he was losing his improvisational genius due to Lewy body disease, a precursor to Parkinson’s, that he took his own life on August 11, 2014, at age 63.
But again, back to Regan. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld and a string of comedians after him, Regan never had a sitcom. As a result, he had to write all his material himself. Seinfeld, by contrast, got used to writers writing his best material on his sitcom, Seinfeld. After the show ended on May 14, 1998, and he sold it into syndication for an uncountable fortune, he resumed stand-up, but was never nearly as funny as in his pre-sitcom career. (Only months after his show’s end, he took up with a married woman, Jessica Sklar, just back from her honeymoon. They married in 1999.) Since 1998—that’s twenty years now—he has produced: one stand-up comedy special, I’m Telling You for the Last Time (1999); an online series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (2012–present), featuring him and a fellow comedian chatting in one of Seinfeld’s countless classic cars (hey, what else do you do with $950 million?); and a loving self-tribute in a 2017 Netflix special, Jerry Before Seinfeld, where he recounts his stand-up career and explains what makes him so damn funny. Regan, by contrast, has produced six stand-up CDs since 1992, including three in just the last three and a half years, and one Comedy Central special in 2000.
As I said, not having a sitcom may have had something to do with Regan’s development and durability. Unable to rely on other writers, he was forced to obsess every day over whatever he could find that could be funny. As a result, his act was constantly changing, unlike most other comedians who update their acts only every one or two years.
Another of Regan’s strengths is his seeming total recall for everything that happened to and around him in childhood through adulthood, of every person he has met and everything he has learned (much like my college roomie Steve, who astounded me recently by reeling off most of the U.S. presidents by name, in their proper order, with their years of service and places of origin—something he no doubt learned as a Harvard history major, some 40 years ago).
Regan also worked “clean,” that is, without the foul language used by so many other comedians (a trend getting worse and worse). As Seinfeld himself has said, using foul language in a comedy act “is too easy.” Any comedian can get a laugh from the infantile adults who make up such a large part of our population; after all, even you can get your toddler to laugh by saying “poop.”
Finally, Regan is a great mimic, unlike most comedians. He does many impressions, but not of celebrities or particular politicians—anyone can do them; I have a dozen or so myself. Rather, he imitates universal types, with just the right amount of comic exaggeration. Because his facial expressions, voices, gestures, and body language are so essential to his comedy, it’s impossible for his routines to have their full impact in print. But here’s one anyway:
Well, I’ve been watchin’ the whole political thing. I love watchin’ the ways these politicians don’t answer questions when they don’t feel like it. They have tricks that no one ever seems to call ’em on. “I’m sorry, I’m not taking questions today.” Oh, okay. I wish I would’ve known that was an option when I was a kid in school. “Brian, how do you find the square root of a fraction?” “I’m sorry, not taking questions today.” Yeah, life is a lot easier when you just stop taking questions. Just don’t take ‘em anymore. “Where were you last night, honey?” “I’m not taking questions today. Yeah, sorry. I’m just not taking any.” Another one that politicians say: “Well, let me answer that by askin’ you this.” What kind of fliparoo is that? I wish I had that stunt ready in school, too. “Brian, how did World War One affect the economy of Central Europe?” “Well, let me answer that by askin’ you this: How much wood would a wood-chuck chuck if a wood-chuck could chuck wood? I think I’ve made my point.”
Regan continues to be fresh into his sixties, as he deals with matters familiar to us aging baby-boomers, like this choice bit:
Apparently the sign of a good doctor is not being able to get an appointment with the guy. “Oh, he’s a great doctor; you can’t even get in to see him.” “He sounds sensational.” “He’s an amazing doctor. Some people wait six months just to see him.” “Yes, but I’m bleeding profusely today. You know any so-so doctors, with bandages and such, who can deal with the blood spurting outward on the day that is this?”
At 60, Regan no doubt has two or three decades left to live. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he keeps on performing and finding fresh material till the end. But what ultimately makes Regan a comic genius—yesterday, today, and perhaps tomorrow—is that he adheres to the only comedy tradition that matters: seeing deep into the heart of Man’s fallen nature, and finding it not only tragic but funny.
(Photo credit: Talks at Google / Youtube)