The nice guy finally finishes first.
Pete Lee is the epitome of what it means to be from the Midwest. When Lee, a native of Wisconsin, is onstage, everyone is invited to the party. Even that kid that never got any attention in school. He’s there, and he’s laughing just as hard as everyone else. And when Pete Lee goes into some more raunchier territories, such as a joke in the first five minutes about the time he tried cocaine (which he compares to him being like “a soccer mom at her kid’s tournament who tried something weird and now is in conflict with that”), there’s an admirable earnestness to it all. The spirit of Pete Lee is so damn infectious. And you can’t help but laugh.
“I would say that my comedic point of view, specifically, is just how much it sucks to be nice,” Lee says of his approach to comedy. “And I never say that sentence. I never tell people that that’s what I’m talking about. But that’s kind of what I’m talking about.”
Any comedian knows that finding your voice and point of view takes years of doing stand-up. Nothing is organic over night. When Pete Lee first made the big leap to New York in 2005 to try and make it as a comic, he found himself trying to emulate the more edgier style of comics like Patrice O’Neal, Greg Giraldo, Jim Norton, and Colin Quinn. However, he came to the conclusion that he wasn’t able to be the mean guy onstage. That just wasn’t him.
When he did eventually find out what it was that he could do, he was worried about what he was talking about would be perceived differently in other parts of the country and even the world. That perhaps the jokes about being “nice” could be seen as being too-Midwestern. However, over time he discovered that was not the case.
“I thought perhaps it wouldn’t resonate in like let’s say Boston or Long Island, New York,” he explains. “But everyone has someone in their life that they’re a pushover for. Like in Long Island or New York, big tough men who look like they’d be in the mafia would be like ‘Oh my god. I know what you’re talking about. Like I’m a pushover for my mother.’”
He continues, “I realized [this was] my comedic point of view when I was trying to get paid at a comedy club. There’s a saying that comedy is the only job where you have to ask to get paid. In every other job, the foreman comes around and says “Here’s your paycheck, dude.” And in comedy, you always have to walk up to somebody and be like “Hey, can you please pay me? Remember the service I did? I know that you’re avoiding me, but I need to get paid.” And I was trying to get paid at The Comic Strip, and the bartender was just ignoring me for no reason. I was like “Um sir. Could you please…” It was almost like Milton in Office Space. And Adam Connover was just like “Oh my God. Everything is a struggle for you. You’re so kind. You’re struggling with asking to be paid right now. This guy owes you money, but your brain doesn’t see it that way. You’re like ‘Hey, I just want to get paid with as little conflict as possible.’”
It was actually while playing Governor’s on Long Island where Lee felt like he tapped into what kind of comic he wanted to be. “The first joke I ever told where I feel I tapped into that sense of humor was “I feel like on Long Island, when I walk around all Midwestern being like ‘Hi,’ and everybody here is like ‘No!’ It blew the roof off. And I was just like ‘There’s something there. I need to be self deprecating about being too friendly.’”
In his new special on Showtime, Tall, Dark, and Pleasant, it doesn’t take long for you to get on his side. The special he describes as his “greatest hits from the last 23 years of doing comedy mixed in with stuff that I had written two days before I had done the special.” His idea was that since he had waited 23 years to get a special, he should blow it out. “Let’s put the greatest stuff that I could possibly put into a special. Because I don’t know if I’ll get another one. I saved nothing.” The result was what he calls the greatest time he ever had onstage in his life.
For Lee, he’s always adapting the material. There’s always new areas that can be explored. Sometimes, he’s adapting the material as he is doing it. There’s been a few of his Tonight Show appearances that have featured moments of him genuinely riffing live on air, which he says has always amazed Jimmy Fallon. Perhaps that’s part of what has allowed Pete Lee to become one of his favorite comics, with Fallon inviting him on the show 6 times so far. These appearances have managed to go viral and even became memes.
“Everything changed after Fallon. And when I say it changed, I mean it got infinitely better. I was sort of stuck in my career, shadowboxing in the dark. (Laughs). But as soon as I got on Fallon, it almost felt like an old school Johnny Carson Tonight Show appearance, because it really moved the needle for me.” For Pete Lee, that feeling is extra special, considering what a great admirer he also is of Carson. “I’m such a Carson fan, I’ve literally gone to his childhood home in Norfolk, Nebraska and had lunch there. That’s how much I loved him.”
With the special, which he filmed in February at the Tempe Improv during the pandemic, he had one goal. He just wanted to give people a break. “I go see live comedy, I go see live music. I’ll listen to an album. We all need escapes from our current reality. Especially after the last year. So I hope this special is a time that people can set all that down, laugh their asses off, and have fun. Just feel good for an hour.”
In the special, there’s a story that is as endearing as it is f*cking awesome concerning his grandmother. While some of us may have cool grandmothers, how many of us can say that our granny helped shape the way that bongs were legalized? But that’s what happened to Pete’s grandmother.
As he explains onstage, she opened up a shop in Oklahoma City, where she sold bongs, and her husband had taped tobacco to it and notes specifying it is a water bong to be used for tobacco only. When the shop ended up being raided and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, Pete’s grandmother wound up winning, and provided precedent for the future of selling bongs in the country. He remembers his grandma as “kind of being like Willie Nelson.” And for those curious, no, she never hotboxed him as a kid, nor did they ever smoke together. And there’s nothing that he would want more today than to “smoke a fattie with my grandmother.”
“My grandmother was a great friend of mine,” he recalls. “She was so cool. She was a lounge singer in Vegas and out in L.A. She told jokes in between songs and stuff. So I’m sure that there’s part of my DNA that is a comedian and has comedic timing because her experiences were encoded in my DNA. I probably wouldn’t be doing comedy without my grandmother.”
“I think talking about it, and talking about it in a real way where there’s sort of a family culture to it, I think it’s relatable to a lot of people. Because a lot of my friends like marijuana and they’re really great parents. They make sure that their children are safe and they take care of their children. But when they go away on a weekend, they’ll get a sitter for the kids and they’ll smoke a little bit. And for that reason, I wanted to talk about that onstage and talk about having a grandma that was a really sweet, lovable person that not only would fight for her family, but fought for what she believed in.”
One thing Pete Lee believes in is finding a voice that is as close to who you truly are as you possibly can.
“This is the advice that I give to a lot of young comedians. Usually the voice that you naively get onstage with at the beginning is going to be pretty close to the point of view that is your true point of view.”
Pete Lee: Tall Dark and Pleasant is available on Showtime on Demand now.