Interview with CMT’s Next Big Comic: Pete Lee
Many comics try to be something they’re not; they search for what they think is needed on stage, an “edge” to them, something that makes them “cool.” Pete Lee is entirely unlike this sort of person. Pete is uncool, and unashamed of the fact. Where some comics try to stand apart from the audience, a little above them, Pete is to be all-inclusive; he’s there for the audience to like him, and laugh at him.
Such an attitude most likely stems from his upbringing in Janesville, Wisconsin. A wholesome midwestern boy at heart, even moving to New York couldn’t tarnish his healthy outlook on life.
The approach to comedy is working well; last year Pete came in 12th out of a field of hundreds in a Comedy Central competition, and this year is the winner of CMT’s “Next Big Comic” contest. Rooftop put fellow Midwesterner Nathan Timmel to the task of talking with Pete about his life, career, and big win.
NT: Where did you start your comedy career?
PL: Well, I grew up in Wisconsin, and then when I was seventeen moved to Minnesota to go to college. [Quickly explaining, using the ever-present Midwest humility] I wasn’t smart or gifted anything, I just got enrolled early.
NT: Who influenced you when you were just starting out, and do they still influence you, or are you more aware of your contemporaries?
PL: I was a huge fan of comedy when I was a little kid; I liked Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Carlin, Seinfeld… all the prototypical comedians. But immediately when I started performing in Minneapolis, I was surrounded by Chad Daniels, Nick Swardson, Dave Mordal, and Mitch Hedberg was always coming through town, because he was from there, and Maria Bamford… So very early on I idolized my peers, because they were amazing, and I wanted to perform like they were. Like, the style of comedy has changed a lot since my early idols pioneered the art form. Living in New York now, I get to see Chris Rock work out his stuff a lot, and the writing is amazing, but it’s really performed in that classical style of analysis. His bits are brilliant, but I wouldn’t switch my style to be like him.
NT: You just won CMT’s Next Big Comic comedy competition; what doors do you hope to have opened for you by this win?
PL: Well, what I’m looking for the contest to do for me is get exposure to as many groups as possible. I mean, I’m not a country comedian, but it is a great honor that people in that demographic like my comedy. I think it’s terrific that I can go into a hipster room in downtown New York City and do really well, and then go to the middle of Iowa and make people laugh like crazy. What I want is to build a fan base, so that I can do things that I want, and have bigger aspirations. What I’m starting to learn is this business has nothing to do with how funny you are, it has to do with how many fans you have. So I really just want to grow my fan base, and the Country Music Contest win is terrific. I mean, my mailing list has gone through the roof. And it’s also something that I can use as an introduction with a lot of pride when performing in Omaha or Georgia, and people will start to dig me, it’ll give me a step up right off the bat, where I wouldn’t have had that otherwise. I mean, I had a bunch of friends saying, “Oh, Country Music Comedy, that’s a stretch,” but I say that’s been my core demographic for a long time. Look at Brian Reagan; he has a bunch of country fans that like him, and one of the more mainstream comics to ever exist. I just think it’s an honor to win, really. Look at the Blue Collar Tour; it’s the biggest comedy tour to ever exist, and I’d love to have some of those people buying my tickets.
NT: Your act is very universal; it doesn’t cater to one demographic or another. Do you ever still run into problems?
PL: [Laughs] I was performing outside of Atlanta, and the emcees that were introducing me, there was a cavalcade of emcee’s all week, and they were all messing with me, all week. They would introduce me as being “from New York City,” and it would just start me ten feet in the hole, right off the bat; “Come on city boy, make me laugh.” I pulled it off, but it could start rough. What’s odd is, I started off my career in pretty country rooms, and I was always trying to do a brand of comedy that was hip enough that Comedy Central would dig it, but that would also be universal enough that crowds would like it in all markets.
NT: Where do perform the most these days—colleges, clubs—and where do you prefer to perform?
PL: If the clubs paid as much as the colleges, I’d love to play the clubs. But at a college in one night, you can pay the rent for two months. And don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying myself a lot. I’m doing a seventy-city college tour right now, and it’s been incredible, but it’s town to town to town, night after night after night. I’ve been in a different state every day for the past two weeks. I love the clubs dates because you can get there, and you’re there for four or five days, and you’re really working on your material with a consistent crowd, and it’s a controlled environment. But at the colleges, one night you’re in a theater with a thousand people, and the next day you’re in a cafeteria sharing an intercom with the lunch lady, who’s barking out updates over your jokes. You’re literally starting your joke, “So my grandma…” and suddenly the lunch lady pops in over you, “Fries! Order number twenty-one, your fries are up!”
NT: I just read an interview with Paul McCartney regarding The Beatles arrival in America, and the legendary show at Shea Stadium, which was iconic along the likes of Woodstock. What people don’t realize about that event is, as it was the first concert of that magnitude in America, there was no stadium-size amplification system in existence, so they literally played through the house PA system, the same mono, torn-apart speakers that were so shot you couldn’t understand the commentator saying, “Now stepping up to bat, Babe Ruth!” through. So, legendary concert, awful, awful sound.
PL: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s what it feels like some nights at these colleges, but then other nights, as said, you’re in the most beautiful theater, and they’re handing out programs, and there’s a line of students afterwards that can’t wait to meet you. But the cafeteria gigs are the worst, where there are thirteen students trying to study, and they don’t want you there, and you just have to plow through it. Like, tomorrow I’m auditioning for Last Comic Standing, and that’s a rough environment, with only playing for three people, but all I think about is, “At least I’m not playing in a cafeteria.” So it helps, because it definitely thickens your skin.
NT: You have some acting on your resume; is that something you’re looking to do more of?
PL: I definitely see more acting in my career path, because I love it! I have a lot of fun doing it. I have some New York friends who say, “Oh, to be a true stand up comic, you can only do stand up comedy.” Well, I like to skateboard; just because I like stand up comedy doesn’t mean I can’t have other things I enjoy doing. You get to let out a whole set of other emotions when acting, as opposed to performing your own comedy. And I have to admit, it’s nice saying lines someone else wrote, as opposed to constantly working hard to write yourself constantly, but what’s funny is most of the acting work I’ve done recently has been a scene that I’ve written, that then we’ve shot. Ultimately I’d like to have my own sitcom, or be in a movie, but where this business seems to be going is that you’re not going to land an audition and be in someone else’s pilot, you’re going to end up writing your own, and selling it and being in it. So it’s definitely a dream, but realistically the only reason I’d want to be on TV in an acting role is so that when I’m fifty years old, people will still remember me and want to buy a ticket for my stand up show. Really, the only reason I’d want to do anything beyond touring and stand up is to simply have some longevity in stand up. I guess my biggest fear is that I’d be really old some day, and still touring, and that no one would come to see me. That’s why I have aspirations, and write pilots and the like, to extend my comedy career.