The Postmodernists have it at least partly right. Context isn't everything. But it's certainly something.
Brian Regan is one of my favourite stand-up comedians. He's never been in the movies or on TV, apart from performing his stand-up on Letterman, Leno, Conan, and all the other shows. Maybe there were movies and sitcoms in the works for him at some point in his career, maybe not. But he's built an incredible career for himself as a touring stand-up comedian. He plays concert halls of several thousand seats, and his fans are enthusiastic and devoted. They even shout out requests for favourite bits, which he'll perform for them as an encore. If you ever have the chance to see him live: do it. Don't miss him. And buy his DVDs and CDs. He's truly outstanding.
His material is entirely clean. This might have been deliberate on his part. It has certainly helped him do well on TV and on the radio, where his stuff doesn't need to be cleaned up, and thus loses none of its power.
I got into him listening to his first CD Brian Regan: Live. It's one of the funnier comedy albums I've ever heard. Check out the opening track (the relevant material for this short article comes in at 1:30, if you've got too much going on to listen to the whole thing - it's the "Take Luck" bit):
Regan did some promo spots for Coca-Cola that ran in movie theatres. Here's one of them, which employs that same "Take Luck" bit:
In the CD the material is brilliantly funny. In the ad it's so bad it's embarrassing. And consider the difference in context. In the CD he's performing at the comedy club. He's the headliner. The audience has been warmed up by the other acts. They're there for comedy. He's a comedian. He tells jokes. People laugh hysterically. In the Coke ad he's just some guy at the concession stand. He's shoe-horning his material into a regular exchange with the cashier. He's talking louder than people generally do in that situation. The other customers don't know what to make of him. Neither does the cashier. He's downright annoying. The material - containing the same words and delivery - isn't funny at all. Strangely enough, this is the gist of the ad. In theory this bit should be funny enough to make us in the audience laugh. But nope.
Context isn't everything. The strong material, the years of experience and Regan's own talent are part of what makes the CD version so good. But none of those elements save that Coke ad from making him look like a schmuck - it's hard to imagine that material being funny in any context after watching that ad. And all of that makes me want to buy Coke a whole lot less than I did before.