Nick Thune did not necessarily get into stand-up on purpose. From emceeing bar mitzvahs to covering Enrique Iglesias, his career is one built on unconventional routes and an ever-necessary lack of ambition that led him not by pursuit, but by nature to success in the comedy world. His debut album of music-accompanied absurdity, Thick Noon, will be released Feb. 23 from Comedy Central Records.
Perhaps one of the few gems to come from the now defunct Jay Leno Show, Nick Thune strummed his guitar only four times on the program as a correspondent, before the Conan/Leno feud forcibly brought him to new pastures. But this is no upset to the young comic. Thune has learned the merit of following opportunities wherever they might go, and to not let his own demands get in the way -after all, this is how he got started in comedy to begin with.
Through appearances in films such as Extract, and Knocked Up, a series of short films called iThunes, a Comedy Central Presents episode, numerous music videos and songs, and not to mention a yet undeveloped children’s talk show, it is clear that Thune is a comedian of numerous interests. But this is not the mark of a lack of focus, nor is it the product of excessive ambition, rather it is what results from his simple and seemingly singular goal: he just wants to make people laugh, through whatever avenue will allow it.
Taking the time to chat with Punchline Magazine, Thune discusses the role of music in standup, the pressures of hosting a bar mitzvah, the Late Night controversy, and what it’s like to be a hero.
Before we get started, is there anything you want me to bring up? Anything you’d like to talk about?
You know, I trust you Reid. I can’t think of anything I want to force you to ask me about. You know what? At one point, could you ask me what it’s like to be a hero?
I would be happy to do that.
And just make it feel natural. Make it seem like you thought of asking.
Like it didn’t come out of nowhere, I just really wanted to know what it was like?
Yeah, I can work that in somehow.
Oh yeah, also, I don’t like to answer any questions about my height. I don’t know if my PR people told you that or not.
They did not tell me that. But I should be able to work around that I think.Anyway, you play a lot of guitar in your act, as a complement to the jokes. What role do you think that plays? How do you think it changes the jokes for the audience?
For me it’s always fun, especially in comedy, to underscore something, to make it very dramatic. So I try with my music to add a dramatic element to jokes, to add a kind of seriousness, and I think that adds comedy. The jokes also work without it. I do them a lot around town without the guitar, and when I’m performing around I go without the guitar, too. So it just adds a different thing. And then at some point you have people expect to see it and want to see it, so you have to do it.
|Nick Thune – Missed Connections|
But you also do a lot of bits without guitar on the album. What’s the reason that you don’t add this musical element to all your jokes?
Well, I started with the guitar, because I was more comfortable with it in the beginning. But I really wanted to break away from that. So I started working out different pieces without the guitar. And there are those I traditionally do without it, and then there are times when I take pieces I normally do with the guitar and I’ll do them without music.
All the pieces I’ve been doing for The Jay Leno Show -I’ve done four of them since this last fall- all those I worked out without guitar, and then added it in at the end. They wanted me to have guitar; I guess at some point if there’s an expectation for doing it, you’ll just have to do it. I don’t mind using it, but I wanted to make sure that everything was strong enough on its own.
And the guitar has a certain relaxation behind it, where people kind of fall into a trance. But there’s also this element where if I’m on a show where I’m not headlining it, it kind of restarts the room. If the room’s not a good room, it slowly transforms the room into something where people are ready for something different.
You keep mentioning all this expectation to use the guitar, does that ever change your opinion of it? Do you find yourself getting tired of it?
I really like it. I really like it especially when it’s working well. But I think it changes per set per day, depending on how I feel. Sometimes I don’t want to do it, especially if somebody puts the expectation on me for it. Then it kind of doesn’t fit. I don’t feel like I want to do it as much. But when I feel like it’s my choice, it’s a lot more enjoyable. Really for me, it’s just fun to get an audience to laugh. So, if that’s through the guitar and doing it that way, or without it, I just love to hear the audience laugh.
Looking at another aspect of music, the last ten minutes or so of the album are actually these very well produced, synthesizer-heavy, cheesy and ridiculous songs. What was the choice to include these?
There’s forty minutes of stand up on my album, which most albums will have, so already a bulk of it is what is normally on stand-up albums, and the tracks are longer than most track lengths on most stand up albums. So I’m really giving a full stand up album, and then on top of that I added four studio produced songs.
I didn’t want to make Adam Sandler comedy -jokes into songs- I really just wanted to play with the character of a guy who takes himself too seriously a little bit and just makes bad music. One of them [the song “Lobster”] is even like a terrible-er, a worse version of a song I already did on a short film, like a guy singing my song at a karaoke place, like he’s drunk.
The way that it really all came together to have it produced the way that it did, is that Richard Swift, who’s a producer and a musician, I heard his stuff and I met his manager and I just said ‘listen, I really like this guy, and I’d really want him to produce these songs for my album, could you get me in touch with him and show him my stuff or whatever?’ And the guy was totally interested in doing that. And I thought it’d be fun to make it a whole experience. He actually lived up in Eugene, Oregon, actually in Cottage Grove which is just off of Eugene, and I went up there and lived at his place for a week. He’s got a family, and he’s an incredible guy, and we just made these songs.
I had no plan when I got there. I had the rough songs kind of written out, and ideas for them. But once we got into the studio, we decided to go in that direction with them. He really is a great musician; everything was engineered really well. So in that aspect it was fun to have high production values for really a stupid song.
|Nick Thune – Stoned|
I was wondering about how you got started in comedy. I had heard you started on a different route, speaking at high schools and emceeing bar mitzvahs -how did that eventually lead you to a career in comedy?
I basically just started with the speaking, which wasn’t really motivational; it was just about life experience. I did it a couple times, and people kept asking me to do it again, to share my story of struggling in high school with alcohol and drugs and stuff, and at the time it was so much fun for me. I really enjoyed people being impacted by what I was saying whether it was laughing, or whatever, and I really just got hungry to get more reaction out of people.
Later, when I was doing bar mitzvahs and weddings and high school dances, I was playing to every group of people. When you’re doing a bar mitzvah your job is to make the kid happy, but really on top of that their parents are paying for it and you have to make them happy -it’s two different demographics, the 13 year old kid, and then his 48 year old parents. And then on top of that you’ve got their grandparents who are probably paying for most of the bar mitzvah, and you have to make them happy, and then all their friends, and all the kids friends, all these people you’ve got to please in the evening.
It’s very stressful, you know, under me I’ve got a DJ deejaying, I’ve got dancers, like 16 year old high school girls that my creepy boss hired, they’re out dancing with the kids to get them motivated, and I’ve got a microphone teaching people the electric slide, and running the stupidest dances that you’ve ever heard. Basically, just humiliating myself in front of people, that’s what it is in the end. You have no pride when you’re doing it, because you’re emceeing a bar mitzvah. You are the lowest of entertainment. And I loved it. I still loved it, I loved people liking me, I loved getting people’s approval, and doing good.
From there I decided to start playing songs, so I started doing this character, his name was Nash Dodge. I would open up for bands, come out as this guy, this singer-songwriter, and really just talk the whole time and never get into songs, which is probably unoriginal, as I’m sure people have done that. This guy was a worn out guy from the 80s who would talk about spring break, give shout outs to local radio stations, and from that bars started asking me to do my own thing at them -I wasn’t playing at comedy clubs.
I started my own band called No Hablos, we’d sing all Spanish artists, sing Enrique Iglesias, his American songs, so we’d cover those songs, take them very seriously, took ourselves very seriously, that’s where the comedy was. Then I did my own stuff during the intermissions, bars asked to come back, do like a Sunday night, whatever you want, you got the stage for the night, whatever you want to do. So I made my own radio station that I made up called 105 The Breeze, set up a table and had a banner I made in front of it, had my own microphone and pretended I was live on the radio, giving out stuff out at the bar, really just bombing a lot.
Some stuff worked, but the hardest part was all my friends were coming to see me -it was making it hard for me to riff on stage, starting to find my own voice, so that’s when I moved more to doing open mic comedy. Then I got sick of doing that in Seattle, because again there were many people who were just friends who had known me forever that wanted to come out and see what I was doing, so I had to get out of town. That’s when I moved to LA, then from there I started doing open mics before moving up to the clubs.
I’ve always heard warnings about stand-ups starting off in LA, that’s it’s very hard to start there. How were you able to get it to work for you?
It’s hard to start if you have any idea what you’re doing. I didn’t study stand-up at all, I didn’t know what to do before coming to LA, I wasn’t fully aware of how the system worked. So, I was performing at open mics, mostly musical or poetry open mics probably more often than I did comedy open mics when I came down here. I was very sheltered from comedy. I got advice once before I moved down there that you have to stay under the radar of being seen by any industry for as long as you can, become as good as you can get where you’re seen. Because that’s people’s problem, they’re seen too early, they’re not ready yet, they don’t have their voice yet. And that was probably the one piece of advice I ever took from anybody.
I just did open mics for a year, did like 580 sets in LA, which is hard because you have to drive, and then you’re waiting to go on stage for three hours to do a 5 minute set, and I think that was what made me figure it out, and then the second or first time I played at the Improv they made me a regular and I moved past that. But I wasn’t trying to play at the Improv ever, and that’s the problem with people: they go up on the stage before they’re ready when they come to LA.
Everybody remembers you the first time they see you, that’s how I feel, me and the industry, and I think most comedians want to be accepted by industry, but the most important thing is to be accepted by your peers. If you can try to please your peers you can be successful. It’ll be tough, but in beginning that’s what you’re searching for, your peers to like you and encourage you, you know what I’m getting at? I guess I’m rambling.
|Nick Thune – Two Birds|
No, I can see what you’re saying. Is that still the case with you? That you’re looking more for acceptance from your peers, or is there an aspect of pleasing your audience now that you’ve built one up?
I’ve learned if you’re trying to please any of those things you’ll never be happy. If you’re trying to please the audience you won’t be happy, if you’re trying to please the peers won’t be happy. The only person you can really try to please is yourself, not in a selfish way, but that you’re enjoying what you’re doing. Because the deeper you get in this, you know it’s like the guitar thing, the longer I play it, the more people expect me to use it, if I hated it, then I’d be digging my own grave, just hating what I was doing. But I love playing it on stage. I dreamt about it when I was a kid, I wasn’t planning on singing or knowing what I was going to do; I just wanted to be on stage.
I like how you’re suggesting the only way you made it in LA is by not having any idea or ambition as to what you wanted to do.
Exactly. I mean, if you do, obviously if you know what you’re doing that can help you in some ways, if you’re smart you know not to have all these expectations about things.
When I came down here, I didn’t have any clue, and that ended up helping me because I overanalyze things, then I start looking too hard for it.
Did you at first even have the idea that it was stand-up you were interested in?
It wasn’t. When I first came down, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a stand-up comedian. Kind of the first thing I really did was pitch a show for Nickelodeon that I thought would be really great. I was pitching a kid’s show that I really wanted to do. I wanted to have a talk show like Ellen or Oprah, like at 2:30 when kids came home from school, so when they came home it’d be like their tonight show or something. I thought that would be so funny. Because I worked in boys and girls club for five or six years, so when I first came down, I really wanted to do good, be a role model, that was the first thing. I saw kids and I saw how much they idolize. I wanted them to have a show like that on a kid’s network. And then slowly I was performing more and I got focused on stand-up.
That’s really great how you were looking out for kids like that. Standing up for them. How does it feel to be a hero?
Wow, Reid. That’s a tough question, man. I think you hit it right on the head there. I’m going to have to pass though -on answering that question.
You’ll have to pass?
Yeah, I think that’s the more heroic thing to do in this situation.
I’ll tell you what though, being taller than people, people are going to look up to you. Brad Williams is one comedian that really looks up to me.
I thought we weren’t going to be talking about height.
Well, when you ask hard-hitting questions you’ll get hard-hitting answers.
Google Brad Williams. Put that in there.
I can do that. Anyway, previously you mentioned working as a correspondent on The Jay Leno Show, what was it like being on his side of things during the whole Late Night debacle?
I basically had the same view as everybody else. The day that the news came out that his show was being canceled, I think TMZ broke it or some Hollywood blog, I was in Starbucks on my way to a meeting at the Leno show to pitch my final piece, well, as far as I knew it wasn’t going to be my final piece, I was just going to pitch a piece, and I texted my producers backstage about it coming in, and they said, ‘yeah come in.’ Then that night I had a showcase to get on The Tonight Show, I was performing at the Improv with the guy that was booking The Tonight Show, and then later that day the news came out that they’d be moving the show and there was all this crazy news.
So that day I went into the Leno offices, and I basically had to do an audition for The Tonight Show; it was just a funny place to be in, because both those shows had no clue what was going on. They were getting news just as quick as anybody else that had the internet was getting it, and they didn’t know how much of it they could believe. Nobody really knew until Jay and Conan started making announcements and Conan wrote the letter, that’s when stuff became real.
And obviously I had a job, and I really liked the job that I had. It was really giving me good opportunities to perform on such a huge level, I got to do it four times, write my own pieces, and I was worried about not being able to do that anymore. And also I was worried about not seeing Conan, because I love Conan, I think he’s hilarious, and I really liked The Tonight Show. When the news all came down and what happened happened, nobody was happy with that outcome, because in the end you just really want these guys to have jobs for their employees.
To make it clear, will you still be doing anything with Leno now that he’s back on The Tonight Show?
We’ll see what happens, but they have told me they want me to go with them to The Tonight Show and to continue to do my pieces, but I think they’re going to have less of those pieces and have less correspondents. I think I’ll still have a place to go on TV, and to do my stuff for the time being.
That’s good, I’m sure people would be missing out, what with you being a hero and all.
I think people are counting on me. I know some kids aren’t able to eat enough. I know there are a lot of people going hungry out in the world.
And you can help with that?
No. I just know that.
So is this kind of an awareness thing? Just spreading that fact around?
You just hit it on the head, again.
I must be doing well with this whole interview thing.
Actually, I get to interview the Smothers Brothers pretty soon. I’m pretty excited about that.
Really? What for?
It’s for this website, Brightest Young Things in Washington DC, they did this comedy festival last year that Tig Notaro kind of hosted/put on/came up with. And they just started asking me to interview people; they actually asked me if I wanted to interview Maynard, the lead singer from Tool.
Wow, that’s an … odd pairing.
Yeah, I don’t think I could, I’m not really aware of anything Tool’s ever done.
That might make a good interview actually.
Yeah, ‘I have no idea … what you do.’
‘Tool, are you some kind of construction firm?’
‘Yeah, what are you, a hammer guy or a screw guy? I guess it’s actually nails versus screws, that’s the big issue right now, with your industry, right?’
I feel like you’d probably nail that interview -I’m so sorry I just said that. I’m really sorry.
No. I should be thanking you for doing that.
Are you going to use that?
Yeah, if I nail this interview.
That’s good. Well, before we wrap this up, what new ventures do you have coming up, any new films?
Well, Extract [the latest Mike Judge film] came out on DVD, which has been exciting, so it’s cool to buy a DVD of a movie that you’ve been in. I’m not a lead in that movie; I actually just have this one scene in the beginning that’s less than a minute. And right now, I have nothing that’s even ready to promote that’s coming out yet, mostly just heading out and hitting the road and doing stand-up, and trying to make more movies.
Well, you mentioned you didn’t even start off initially looking into stand up, is that still your main passion? Or is it a means to get you to other aspects of comedy?
I think my main interest, like I said before, is just making a venue to make people laugh, that’s what I love doing. If that means stand up, or whatever that means, I’m willing to do it, if that means that I have to go on a cruise ship I think I would do that. I just haven’t figured out any other business yet.
|Comedy Central Presents||Friday 10pm / 9c|
|Nick Thune – Interview – Back Flip|
Is this your way of leaking that you’ll be working for a cruise ship line?
Yes, actually it is. Have you heard of Princess? I’m not working for them, it’s another cruise ship. I can’t fully say the name of who it is I am working for yet. It’s not Princess.
Anyway, you know typically I think there’s this type of person who does stand-up until they hit it, and they get into movies or do TV, and for every single comedian -I think that’s their goal, whether they say it or not. It would always be nice to have that extra thing. I think I would make way more money doing that, since at this point I’m not selling out stadiums or anything.
Of course I want to be in movies or be on TV. I want to be in that stuff, but I love standup. And I really do want to continue doing it. There’s something about being live, being able to perform in front of people, being in touch, and still get laughter that makes you feel relevant. I guess being relevant is a very important thing in humor. It’s great to be able to perform in front of so many different kinds of audiences, that’s the great thing about LA, you can play in tourist places or play somewhere really hip like the UCB, it’s fun to be able to hit all those different crowds.
For more info, check out nickthune.com. To buy Thune’s new album, click the image below.