Hawaii comedy fans have been fortunate enough to see some of standup’s biggest stars come through the past few years.
Bill Maher has toured Hawaii across seven straight New Years, including bringing some pretty big guests — Margaret Cho, Jeff Ross, Bob Saget and more — the past three. Kevin Hart is due back in town in November just two years after doing two big shows at the Blaisdell Arena.
Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, Dennis Miller, Ali Wong and Jim Gaffigan are others who have made it out to the islands. And of course, on another level was Jo Koy with his rock-star-like 13 sold-out shows on Oahu and Maui last November.
Brian Regan is the comic all the comics love even if he isn’t a household name across America, and on Friday night at the Blaisdell Concert Hall he showed a bit of why his peers enjoy him so. Regan and his safe-for-all-ages comedy were as funny — and lively — as you’d expect if you’d seen him in his latest Netflix special — “Nunchucks and Flamethrowers” — or heard any of his seven comedy albums.
But the real value in the show was what the audience saw and heard that’s not in the TV specials or streaming on Spotify. It wasn’t just that Regan worked in mostly new material, but that he gave those in attendance a chance to be in on the process as he turns over his act in preparation for his next Netflix special (due out in 2019).
When big-name comics fly out to entertain Hawaii audiences, they generally come with polished sets of jokes honed across many tellings. That’s where the craft of standup lies. As funny as a joke may seem when it is written, judgment day does not come until it is told before an audience, and it often takes several rewrites — a word changed here, an alteration of cadence there. Isle fans don’t get to see much of this refining, comics “workshopping” their new material, putting together their next “hour.”
In a phone interview from his Las Vegas home a few weeks ago, Regan estimated that in the few months since “Nunchucks” debuted, he’d turned over about 60 percent of his act. By Friday, it was closer to 80 percent, and sure, part of the joy was hearing new jokes he hadn’t put to record or video yet, but there was an extra thrill to be found in hearing the new material in different stages of development.
“The new stuff that comes in … some of it is tidier than other stuff,” Regan said in that phone interview. “That’s the process is that you work night after night after night and it’s fun making those choices. Like, when do I let a surefire bit fall away to replace it with a bit that’s not quite consistent yet? But you have to do it. You have to be courageous, and that’s what I love about comedy is that you have to let good stuff fall by the wayside.”
Regan showed that courage in spades Friday night. Some of his new material — bits on aging, the orchestra pit and tipping — had fans howling. Others — mainly a joke about Chubby Checker and “The Twist” that drew crickets— needed some work. Sometimes Regan stumbled through — “Did I say arch of the back? The back doesn’t have an arch!” — but the audience showed patience and was rewarded with an early look at jokes many fans won’t hear for another year or more.
Part of Regan’s charm is that he handled himself equally well in all those situations, starting a joke over when necessary, admitting when the Checker joke bombed and recovering to get a laugh anyway. It’s no surprise that after 30-plus years on stage Regan is adept at improvising when necessary, but that experience makes it no less enjoyable.
Regan left the stage to cheers after about an hour, and opening act Joe Zimmerman — who surely made himself some new fans with 20 fine minutes in the warmup spot — re-entered as a hype man of sorts, bringing the headliner back out for an encore. Regan seemed to be ready to launch into some more material, but when an audience member screamed out “Bagpipes!” he went along with the request … well, eventually. First he asked, “How does that one go again?”
After that understandable hiccup, Regan wound up doing about 10 minutes of requests and sent the crowd home happy. Next up is a show Saturday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.