A talk with Brian Brinegar
By Scott Douglas
Brian Brinegar is a stand-up comic who appears regularly in the Portland area. On March 31, he’ll be performing at the Portland Players Theater as part of a benefit show to raise money for some South Portland residents whose homes recently burned. His Web site is brianbrinegar.com.
The Bollard: When did you start doing stand-up?
Brinegar: The first time I actually got up on stage was March 31, 2005. I’d been around it a little bit in Los Angeles — I worked for a morning radio station, so there were always comedians and people like that coming in, and I was very interested in it and wanted to see if I could do it one day. But in Los Angeles, there are just so many, and everyone seems so good, so I never did it.
After my wife and I split, I was really depressed, and a buddy of mine said, ‘You need to either get in therapy or get this out somehow. Just go to an open mic night and talk. You have the funniest stories. You should go tell them.’ That’s pretty much what I did the first time. I had a few pre-planned things, but pretty much, I went over to Acoustic Coffee on Danforth Street and spewed. They have a true open mic — no cost for anything, you just sign your name and get some time. I did that two times, and then did Portland’s Funniest Professional [Contest] at the Comedy Connection. I was disqualified — I went eight seconds over the time they give you.
Then the next time I was at Acoustic Coffee, there was a lady in the audience who was booking a room in town, and said, ‘I’ll pay you to come down and do a couple of minutes.’
Where was that?
Liquid Blue. Her name’s Tammy Pooler. She runs Laugh Your Ass Off Comic Productions to give another option to comics in town, to what had started to become, in a sense, a monopolized commodity. Comedy Connection was the only game in town, not through any fault of their own. No one else was trying, so it was their way or the highway.
I was introduced to the Comedy Connection people through a couple of people who had seen me, and Tammy was booking me, and Comedy Connection was booking me, and it was made clear that it was one path or the other – you can’t do both. So I chose the one I thought gave me the best option [Liquid Blue], and that’s what I’ve been doing for about a year now.
How long did it take until you weren’t cringing at your performances?
I will watch a performance the night or so after. For example, I did a benefit here a few months ago, and now I watch it and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is so bad. No, no, no — why are you doing it that way?’ I try to evolve things or refine things. The first couple of shows I did I still cringe at. I guess I’m very hard on myself that way. The farther I get away from something, the harder it is for me to watch. Right when it’s done and I think it’s fresh and new, I’m a fan of it. But once it gets older, I archive it and don’t want to look at it again.
Do you think you have to have a persona? Not a persona in the sense of Gilbert Gottfried, but an exaggerated version of you?
There’s a few pieces of comic wisdom that are out there that I really believe in, and one is that the funniest things are based in truth. Plus, they’re the easiest to remember. You lead people down a path, and you walk them a certain way which is believable and can happen to anyone, but then you tweak it at the end for the punch line or the ‘Oh, I see’ moment. For me, what’s funniest is when you don’t have to do that at all — here’s exactly what happened, and boom, people are laughing.
When I saw you the other night at Liquid Blue, you were very animated. Sitting here now, you’re not.
That side of me, the really animated side, is definitely for stage. But there’s a side of me in real life that can be like that. Some of my friends would tell you: ‘You just never know when Brian’s going to go off and be like that.’ So that was something I took up on stage that was already a part of my life and personality.
Is it hard to turn it off, the wisecracker part of your personality?
It can be, especially when it’s inappropriate. Jim Morrison said he had the heart of a clown, and it would force him to ruin things at the most crucial moments. I will go for the joke. I will face whatever reprimands follow, but I will go for the joke – I don’t care. And I’ve had to tell that to women in relationships, and to people at work.
What’s really hard is when people want you to turn it on, like, ‘Hey, he’s a comedian! Say something funny.’ Or even people who know you want you to be up all the time, and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, what’s the matter?’ And I say, ‘Nothing’s the matter. The spotlight’s just not on me right now.’ A lot of times I’m the one holding the spotlight on me. That’s OK. When I want it to be, I enjoy it.
At work, you’re the office funny guy?
Oh yeah, without a doubt. My cubicle, it’s got a beaker, it’s got Mad magazines. Everyone else has training manuals and all their software. Also, if you go away on vacation, I’ll do what’s called ‘spamming’ your office. And this is company-funded – they know I do this. I print thousands and thousands of the word ‘spam’ in various sizes – to cover up the one little word ‘Bic’ on your pen, all the way to covering your screen. Now, when I went away on vacation, they wrapped my office. The general manager says it’s definitely changed since I got there, and that’s cool. It’s a fun environment. We now all own Nerf dart guns, and come 3 on Friday, it’s on.
With benefits, like the one you have coming up, do you feel like, ‘I can use only 62 percent of my material?’
Yeah, there’s certain things I will definitely pull back some material for. Like this upcoming one, it’s community involvement, let’s get together and help these people out. Yeah, I’m going to stay away from anything that’s going to alienate a certain segment, just because of the topic.
I also realize that some people that go to a benefit… just want to come and help. [They think] ‘Oh, it’s going to be comedy. That’s fine. We like Red Skelton and Bob Hope.’ And then I come out: ‘Nine-inch dildo!’ Well, I will still use that one, but there are some things I’ll leave out. But I am the type of comic I am, and I can’t take too much of that away, but I definitely have certain acts for certain venues.
Of the stuff I heard the other night, how much of that were you doing in some form, say, 10 months ago?
The other night, did I do the thing about punching my mother-in-law in the face? The bit that first got me recognized was that, yes, I’m divorced, and that sucks, but the one good thing about being divorced is that I don’t have to deal with my in-laws. I fucking hated my in-laws. So that’s great — now I don’t even have to pretend to be listening to her. I’d like to punch her in the face. it’s a really overly comical bit, screaming, and the first time I ever did it, I got a standing ovation. A good portion of what you heard… is what I’ve been doing almost since day one.
What about the potential problem of someone saying, ‘I saw Brian a couple of weeks ago, and I went to see him tonight, and I feel kind of cheated — I’ve heard most of this’?
That’s one of the dangers of being a live performer, a comic. Some people don’t realize that if you go to the 7:30 and the 9:30 show, you’re going to see the same show. There are comics out there who you can see again, and maybe 50 percent of their show is new. That’s a lot to be changing constantly….
I saw Emo Phillips a few years ago, and half the stuff he did I remembered from college more than 15 years earlier.
Yeah, there are people who pretty much, who they are, that’s their shtick. Bob Marley…. I come from Los Angeles, where there’s a million comics, and you come to Maine, and there’s only one, Bob Marley. I’ve met him. Nice guy. Found him very funny. But the thing I was hearing from the people in the crowd that night was, ‘I’ve heard that.’ I’d never heard it, so it was all new to me, but it was interesting to hear him and realize it’s a tradition. That’s what you do — you go see Bob Marley. That’s great for him.
Have you felt any pressure to develop Maine jokes?
I have one Maine joke. To me, it’s not funny, because I don’t get it.… The only one I have is when I was driving down 295 and I saw you could adopt a highway, but that’s too much pressure and commitment, so I’m a weekend Big Brother to a dirt road in Biddeford. When I was in L.A., it was a dirt road in Riverside, so it’s not really so much a Maine joke.
I have a quote here from Nietzsche, which you no doubt get all the time: ‘That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.’ While you’re performing, are there times where you’re like, ‘OK, I’m about to do this punch line, and I am so fucking sick of this joke’?
Absolutely. That’s one of the drives to write new material.
There are some jokes that are born out of a certain amount of pain. Not so much in my stuff, although there are some things that come out of some really sad places. But there’s a lot of comics out there with some hardcore bad things going on in their lives that this comedy is very therapeutic for, and so it serves its purpose — you bring it full circle by owning it and delivering it, and at some point in time, you’re done. It was therapy, but now you’re just rehashing it.
Do you have that?
I have a little bit of it. There are some jokes that I wrote out of a certain amount of spite, or, ‘Fuck you, I’m going to go talk about you on stage and make people laugh at you.’ I’ve tried to move a little bit away from some of that. Some jokes serve their purpose and then they go by the wayside.
You don’t really tell jokes in the sense of ‘Three guys walk into a bar….” You tell stories. What happens in those situations where people come up and say, ‘Tell me a joke.’
Usually what I’ll do is let them know that I’m a very high-energy kind of storyteller — I don’t have a joke to tell you. If we’re hanging out, stick around, I’ll probably say something funny. If not, I’ll drop a card and say, ‘Come see a show. Here’s a free pass.’