L.A. comedian Nick Thune might have taken his time releasing his debut album Thick Noon, but that shouldn’t suggest he’s lazy. Shortly after relocating from Seattle in 2004 to pursue a career in comedy, Thune first attracted attention on the strength of his viral video “Phone Tag,” a five-minute peek into the laughably pathetic delusions that typically ensue after a sudden and painful break-up. Thune’s acting chops are also showcased on web series Nick’s Big Show (a parody of artistic vision and the types of performers who use such words) and on bigger screens with appearances in movies like Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up and Mike Judge’s Extract. The more deadpan and self-deprecating end of the 30-year-old’s range reached a wider audience thanks to a stint as a correspondent on the short-lived The Jay Leno Show. Now, Thune and his verbal roller-coaster jokes are hitting the road for a handful of dates in support of Thick Noon around the country, including four shows at the Lakeshore on March 19 and 20. Just after his album hit shelves, Thune talked to The A.V. Club about Internet comments, breaking the rules on Leno, and the kinds of jokes his parents don't like.
The A.V. Club: How have things been going since the album came out this week?
Nick Thune: It feels good. I feel like a huge weight has been taken off my shoulders, like I just paid taxes or something, which I also did just do. I guess that’s the thing, right? There’s only two things in life that are for sure: Your CD’s gonna come out and you’re gonna pay taxes.
AVC: Ben Franklin knew what he was talking about.
NT: It feels good. I think I drew the process out a little longer than necessary, just 'cause I’ve been so anal and picky. I had to listen to it over and over and then write notes back saying, “Take this joke out.” I think the CD was about six minutes longer but I just had to take jokes out 'cause I was afraid my mom wouldn’t like them. [Comedy Central] was actually mad that I was taking them out. They said, “This is a good joke, you gotta leave it.” And I just said, “No, my mom won’t want to hear ‘faggot.’” But like I said, it’s a huge weight off my shoulders. I feel like I just totally got rid of a whole bunch of material, and now I can move onto the material that I like doing now.
AVC: Is there material you’re particularly glad to have burned through finally?
NT: You know, there’s like a couple bits on the CD that I like doing still, but all in all, I have about a half-hour of new stuff that’s not on the CD.
AVC: They’re all jokes about faggots?
NT: Yeah, they are. All the jokes that I can save off the CD. The fag jokes, the jokes about me masturbating and crying, all that stuff will be on the next CD. Darker. I’m gonna wait for my mom to die to put that one out.
NT: Well, I went on an audition for a show they did, a pilot they made for HBO like three years ago, maybe.
AVC: David’s Situation?
NT: Yeah, I went in the audition and just went all out. Auditioning is already the most embarrassing process, so to know your heroes are going to be in the room while you’re doing it is just mind-blowing. So I knew I had to go all out for this audition. I wrote a song that wasn’t even in the script, and did all this stuff, 'cause it was just this white-trash—almost like the lead singer of Creed or Nickelback—sort of a character. Bob and David really liked my audition. Bob one day sent me a text. I didn’t even have his number, he just got mine somehow and said, “Let’s get coffee sometime.” And I said, “Well, I’m in an audition right now but I’d like to get coffee later today.” He goes, “Okay, where will you be in a half hour?” I said, “Sunset and Vine.” He said, “Okay, I’ll meet you at Barnes & Noble.” I was just blown away. So I walked out of this audition that I totally ruined because I was just sweating, thinking about meeting with Bob. And he sat down with me for like two hours, and it was the equivalent of going to graduate school in comedy. When they had that opportunity for the show they really wanted to give me and John Mulaney a chance to get in front of their audience. It was an honor. It was definitely an honor.
So yeah, they’ve just been really great supporters of me. It was surprising at first. It’s just validating. It’s the acceptance you look for when you’re young in a business like this is your peers. Especially your idols. I wouldn’t even call them my peers. Not at all.
AVC: Is there talk about doing other stuff with them in the future?
NT: Bob and I have actually written a couple shorts together and we’ve talked about a couple scripts. He’s so busy, always working on so much stuff. That’s actually one thing he told me. If he’s not working on a movie script and a TV script, then he doesn’t feel whole. He doesn’t feel like he’s doing anything with his life.
But him and I get together once every couple of months and we talk, and think about a project. We were going to do something for Funny Or Die once but it was a little too over-the-top for them. It was a short film that we wrote about when No. 2 pencils got into business with Scantron. Bob was going to play my dad and he was going to be the guy that ran No. 3 pencils, the company that lost out to No. 2 pencils. Funny Or Die read it and said, “We’re looking for more topical stuff right now.”
AVC: That segues into something else facing all on-the-rise comedians: the Internet. You’re actually pretty involved and active on it in terms of interacting with your fans.
NT: You need to update your blog a couple of times a week. You need to post a Twitter here and there. It feels so dumb to say that stuff, but at my age in this business it’s important for me to keep that presence going. It’s also ridiculous, and you have to recognize how stupid it is that you’re doing it I think.
AVC: It seeps into your material, too. You have a sketch and a bit about IMing on there.
NT: [Groans.] That stuff I’m putting to bed. After this CD, that thing is to bed.
AVC: There was a time when a comedian could get a laugh just by going onstage and saying, “So, I was checking my e-mail the other day. You heard of this?”
NT: You could get a laugh for that, but then people wouldn’t even know what it was. In the beginning, with my first Internet joke, I think a quarter of the audience got it. There’s still funny things about the Internet. A joke I have right now about the Internet that does well is: “I BCC Stevie Wonder on all of my e-mails.” And people think about it: Nobody ever really talks about BCC. I think if you surprise people with stuff, especially if you’re delivering to an audience that sits in front of a computer all day—you know you’ve gotta remember how much of peoples’ lives are spent in front of that thing.
Like my dad, every night he gets home, he looks at my Twitter page. He doesn’t have an account though, thank God. He tried. I set him up an account and I told him, “You can post directly from your computer.” And he said “No, I want to be able to post directly from my cell phone because that’s when I think of my best shit.”
AVC: It seems that if it’s going to be so ubiquitous, you might as well make fun of it and use it as fodder for stand-up.
NT: I don’t want to follow comedians either because I don’t want to see what they’re thinking about, ’cause then maybe I won’t stumble across a thought maybe I had about the same subject. People can write jokes five minutes after a major world event happens, and have hundreds of thousands of people read them within 10 minutes. Whereas before you write a joke, you don’t know if anybody is really touching on it or not, and you tell it onstage the next night. For joke writing it has changed things.
AVC: How so?
NT: People are writing shorter jokes. The style I’ve started with was almost trying to keep jokes under 140 characters before Twitter. I had this mentality of really liking Martin Mull, and the way he incorporated music into his comedy. And then really liking Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg. I loved [Rodney] Dangerfield too. I read this book about him and somebody said about him that he could just take a joke that was 10 words long that you thought couldn’t lose one word, and he would lose two words out of it and it would be funnier. I started examining my jokes, I started trying to get less words in them. And now that Twitter’s out, people are all focusing on that.
AVC: Shifting gears, I noticed you had a photo on your blog of yourself hanging out with Jon Lovitz. In doing a piece on him last year, I found he had a philosophy about not posting any of his material online.
NT: You wanna know why? Because he actually doesn’t know how to type. No, I don’t know. [Laughs.] Jay Leno has the same thing. He told me the first time I did The Tonight Show. He came to my room and he said, “Never put your stand-up on TV or the Internet. Don’t do a special. Don’t do a CD. Because you can use that material for the rest of your life. But if you put it on a CD you have to give it up.” And I was just thinking to myself, isn’t that the point? His mentality was to keep it.
AVC: Do you think that’s a generational thing?
NT: I think it is, yeah, because back in the day when stand-up was really hitting, when a road circuit started, people were doing the same hour, same half-hour for 15 years.
AVC: Even back to vaudeville, they would do the same 10 minutes of material their entire career.
NT: And it wasn’t even their jokes.
AVC: Right. At some point you just have to get sick of it.
NT: Yeah. That’s why it feels good to put these things on CD and then walk away from them, to know that they’re going to last, hopefully. Maybe not, but at least you’re done with it, you can move on.
AVC: Speaking of Leno, there was a New York Times article talking about his “youth brigade,” which you were a part of there, and how they all wanted to break a rule. What rule did you want to break?
NT: I think what they think are rules is probably negotiable. In the end, they allowed me to do most of the things I wanted to do, but they’ve got a process of doing things. And the way they like to do it is in a certain tone of the show. In the end, all of my stuff I thought was a different tone than anything on the show, so it was already breaking rules in my mind. But I wanted to do things with Jay. Fred Armisen did that promo with Leno.
So I thought it would be cool to do something like that with him, too. So I would go in and bring some things. They never really liked any of my things like that. I wanted to go out to bridal shows and just really mess with people, and they’d never let me break away from performing live on the show. They didn’t want me to do anything else. And then everybody else, they wanted to do those things. That was how I kept trying to break the rule. I wanted to do pre-taped bits. But in the end I really enjoyed working on that show, no matter what the ratings were, doesn’t matter what the reputation of it was, I really felt like I learned a lot because I got to write 20 minutes of new stuff, basically, in a few months. It made me work and write really fast and take it to stage right away. So that was a good experience.
AVC: As a comedian who had a regular gig on a talk show, was it annoying for you to see other stand-ups come on the show and obviously segue into their material during interviews instead of answering questions?
NT: Yeah. Well it’s annoying if you can tell that they’re doing it. I think every comedian is always segueing into material, onstage and offstage. You can see it on talk shows, especially sometimes with Letterman it feels real forced.
I think there’s this fear, and I have it, that I don’t think people are interested in my actual opinion. I just think people are interested in me being funny. I don’t know if people really care about my opinion on things or how I come up with things, and maybe that’s an insecurity and why we’re comedians in the first place, so I think with that you keep doing the material, you keep trying to be funny cause you think that’s all you’re wanted for.
AVC: Is there something you’re waiting to be asked, something you want to weigh in on and have your opinion heard?
NT: No. [Laughs.] I guess circumcision right now is a big thing.
AVC: Are you for it?
NT: I was for it until last night I read an article about and they’re going to make it mandatory, and now I’m against it because I want people to be able to decide about their foreskin.
AVC: You mentioned in an e-mail earlier wanting to talk about comments on your videos online, like being called “half a fag.” Have you received a particularly useful comment, or was that one of the useful ones?
NT: The funniest one I ever had was, “Dear Faggot, why are you so gay?” On that one, I took a screenshot, blew it up, framed it, and put it above my desk. I like to look at that all the time because it just proves to me the mentality of people who are willing to post comments on videos. It’s like somebody that needs to get their opinion heard. For instance, on a short film I made called “Phone Tag,” this person wrote, “Like, there was good acting and camera angles, but I just didn’t get the theme.”
AVC: Sounds like fiction-writing class feedback.
NT: I like to leave comments on blogs, but I always leave them under different names, or different comedians. My mentality on YouTube comments that I kind of wrote in that e-mail to you is for us, putting up these videos, to me it’s my artwork. As stupid as that sounds, it’s my piece of art that I made that I really want to put out there, and I guess people do have the chance to weigh in all over the place. But it’s like if you were to go into a museum and be looking at a painting, and there was just a piece of paper with a pencil hanging off of it, and people were writing, “Nice yellow. I’ve seen that yellow before, you piece of shit.”
AVC: On your CD and DVD, you do sketches, stand-up, tell stories and one-liners, and play guitar. Was that an intentional desire to showcase your ability to do multiple things?
NT: I don’t really know what my area is yet, I guess. I like to put on an hourlong show when I go on the road that has different styles through the whole thing, ’cause it really keeps the audience’s attention. And I listen to Mitch Hedberg CDs, and Steven Wright’s old stuff, and I think, “How did he do that? How did he do an hour of just one-liners?” It’s crazy. I’m worried that I’m not interesting enough to do that, though I have an hour of one-liners I don’t know if it would work just to stand there and do that.
AVC: Of these different areas you’re exploring, what feels more comfortable or what do you like to do best?
NT: Storytelling, the way that I’ve been doing things on the Leno show. I’ve been doing a piece about Daylight Savings Time that was called Daylight Spending Time and it was all about how much I hate Daylight Savings Time. I think it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done, because I really believe in it. I hate turning the clock back. I hate losing an hour of daylight every year and it just seems ludicrous to me. It just doesn’t make sense why we do it.
AVC: You mentioned Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg. Do you think being a one-liner comedian is a format that only lends itself to more absurd material?
NT: I think so. I’m trying to find the balance of being able to do that. There’s always gotta be a spin that’s not real. But to have it come from a real place? Like when I go into a five-minute segment that I know is coming from a real place I get very excited doing stand-up. Whereas when I’m doing stand-up it can be very exciting if it’s killing, but I don’t care about DiGiorno pizza as much as I act like I do in the joke I tell. It definitely is a goal of mine just to be able to speak about real things onstage at some point.
I’ve only been doing stand-up for about eight years. People say you don’t really hit your stride until your 10th year. And Louis C.K., I think, started out doing sort of more weird one-liners and that type of bit in the beginning and then he started talking about himself and people were like, “That’s what you gotta do.” And now he turns out an hour a year of incredible material.
AVC: How do you approach writing music with stand-up material, so it doesn’t overshadow or distract from your jokes?
NT: I take it from a scoring mentality. I love movie scores and I love people that really put a lot of thought into it. When I watch movies I like to watch it with the score and without it and see how it effects the scene, and see what overpowers what where. And it doesn’t always work when I’m doing stand-up cause it’s pretty hard to talk and keep your cadence going and play guitar, which seems like a rhythmical pace. I just try to find the right chords to hit within the right moment of the bit to add tension or to take away tension or to add hope, whatever the tone of my voice is, to make a turn with the music and my speech just like in a movie.
Mitch Hedberg’s first CD had bass in the background. And I love Steve Martin and I love Martin Mull, and Martin Mull used to play all these songs, and then in the middle of the songs he would do banter and play a bit over his banter, and I loved his cadence over the playing, so then I kind of mixed it all together, and then obviously the movie scoring thing I just felt okay. I’m scoring my standup. I’m building an emotional background to these jokes. It kind of helps people enjoy it a little bit more sometimes. I hope so at least.
AVC: Why not have someone else play the music live, like in some of the sketches on your CD or on Mitch Hedberg’s CD?
NT: I like counting on myself, I guess. I’m just one of those guys, I like to rely on myself. In my CD I did have my friend Kyle, and I had him come play with me at festivals, play slide guitar behind me while I’m doing my back-flip bit, or a couple pieces just to add more of a cinematic score to it. I guess I just don’t like teaming with anybody. I like to be onstage alone. I like the feeling of that, to only count on myself and the pressure it brings, and also the joy it brings when you do it right.