Comedian Nick Thune is often recognized as the tall, aloof guy who strums a Midsummer Night's Dream-like tune while tossing out whimsical and deranged notions — so fans may be surprised to learn that he's abandoned the guitar altogether. In the two years since his Netflix special Folk Hero, Thune has dropped the sublimation act in favor of a style more representative of who he is. In his own words, he's reintroducing himself: "Hi, I'm Nick." which he accomplishes in his new show 'American Babe' . While irresistibly dry at times, Thune is not the indifferent navel-gazer he portrayed in Folk Hero — and apparently, not everyone is happy about that. Westword recently caught up with Thune, who'll be at the downtown Comedy Works this week performing new work American Babe, to learn more about his decision to lose the guitar, not be a pussy, and progress his style from reticent to a more intimate style of audience bewilderment.
Westword: We're looking forward to having you back in Denver.
Nick Thune: Yeah, I just can't wait. I think it's gonna be my big break.
You were recently in London; how was that experience? Did you find your material was received differently in England than it has been in the U.S.?
It was good. Yeah, I had a good time. You know, what's funny is it was similar, but whoever the gods that think they're the gods of reviewing.... I didn't get reviewed well. But I sold out all my shows, and the audience liked it, so.... What I don't like is somebody who doesn't create anything and who is a fucking piece of shit has the nerve to say something about me going on stage risking everything that I am and what I want. To my core, it just makes me want to murder.
I was going to ask what the hardest part of being a standup comedian is — whether it's going on stage or the writing — but is it the reviews?
Well, recently I did a show in Vancouver, and someone sent me hate mail and said they were going to, like, physically hurt me if I came to do my show, and it was really weird. I could also tell it was someone who thought he was funny or somebody who had made an anonymous e-mail and had zero integrity or balls to say their name. They also used the N-word in the e-mail. So I had my friend Ron record himself reading the e-mail, then I recorded a love song behind it. And the opening to my show in Vancouver was playing that. I walked out and I said, "It's great to hear from my fans, and I appreciate all my fans..." It's like, I am taking a risk going on stage, but anyone's taking a risk to do anything.
I hate that I feel like I just got really angry speaking about the reviewers. It just makes me mad. It makes me mad that someone has the balls to judge — what have they have ever done? You know who Chortle is? He does reviews in London; he does comedy reviews, this guy. And the reviews actually matter, the reviews actually help sell tickets. But the thing is, local comedians told me he actually tried doing standup comedy and failed. To me, the fact that he's reviewing people is just disgusting.
A bit like the high-school bully turned state trooper?
Yeah, that's exactly it! The other thing is, too, in the middle of it, he actually gave me a good review. He said he "came to see Folk Hero" (which is my last comedy Netflix special) "and this was nothing like it." Two things. One: Thanks for the good review on Folk Hero. I'm glad you liked it; it makes me happy. I worked really hard on it. Two: Yeah, it's nothing like it, because I'm not a fucking a pussy who's gonna put the same thing out over and over again. I'm trying to take risks and challenge myself and do something real. I'm not the same person I was when I made that album. I'm not interested in the same things, and I hope that my audience is excited that I'm trying something different.
Relevance without progression is impossible. Losing the guitar is a big change for you; Nick Thune is synonymous with the guitar. Was the decision to eliminate it difficult? Do you feel naked without it?
Yeah, I did it really gradually. I'd bring it out in the middle of the show when I was starting to feel insecure — or "naked," as you said — and eventually I decided I'm never going to be able to do it if I keep bringing it.
Sometimes I'd get to a venue and they'd be like, "Oh, let's get you for sound check" and I'd be like, "I don't need a sound check." "What about the guitar?" "Well, I don't have the guitar." Sometimes they'd seem disappointed, but then I'd get off stage and they'd be like, "Wow, you don't need the guitar!" — and that was definitely reassuring. I totally believe I'm making the best step I ever made in my life right now. I've never been more confident of my material.
Would you say your new material is for you versus for your Folk Hero audience?
I think in some ways I painted myself as perfect, in the way of "confident, never make a mistake and here's these whimsical thoughts and fantasy about me doing something" and never really just said, "Hey, I'm Nick." I feel like being myself without the character or the guitar; it just feels exciting. I feel connected with people.
It sounds like you feel you've changed quite a bit since making that album. How do you feel when you hear Folk Hero now?
I actually sat down and listened to Folk Hero the other day, and I thought, "I wonder what it's like?" It was fun to listen to, and it was kind of like listening to an old version of myself. It was interesting, but I'm just really glad I'm not doing that anymore. [Laughs.] I'm not gonna review myself.
How do you look at yourself now?
I don't think I am the same person. I have a son, my views are different; it's almost like listening to a friend. Sometimes I felt like I was forced-sounding. It's kind of hard to say something and almost act like you're thinking of it as you're saying it, and throw something away so hard that it seems you didn't even know that you said it or that you did it. In hindsight, I was really critical of myself. At the time, I thought it was shit. It felt good to realize all the hard work really did pay off.
I read an interview in which you said that "substance is the kiss of death," and I don't know if that was in relation to comedy or just creativity in general, but do you think in some ways the guitar was like a crutch that enabled confidence, like a beard?
Yeah, yeah it did. I have friends who play music who are amazing, and I wish that I was them. I think it's just so awesome. I think that's what I wanted to do when I first started. I think me bringing a guitar on stage was like me thinking that's what I was. I can never take myself seriously. It was like me doing the joke version of what I wanted to do. I have a friend, and he's the good version and the joke version, and it's like "Stop it." Father John Misty. It is so fucking annoying that he can sing like an angel and be really funny. It's like, "Come on, man, just do one of them and let me do one of them." But he does a lot of gross things, too.
Stand up comedy has become much more popularized and disseminated; do you think that has any effect on new comics' chance of success?
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I think it's harder. Really, it's just about being really funny, and being everywhere at the same time and meeting the right people. It still could happen. But now there's different roots where people aren't funny — like Vine has people doing revamped versions of fucking... any comedian, redoing a Rodney Dangerfield joke in a seven-seconds view, and they don't realize who they stole it off. Then they get a two-million-dollar TV deal just because they have a following. There's a lot more to cut through, because there is a huge boom. Do you know who Bobby Lee is? He's really funny. He's been around a long time, and we just had this discussion last night about career longevity. He was like, "Four years ago I went through a huge depression where I thought I was done, but then I just booked a TV show." Really, it's just about sticking to it. It's a marathon, and everyone goes at their own pace.
How do you achieve your own style, end up being placed in the Deadpan category with peers like Demetri Martin, for example, but also maintain your own identity?
When I started out, I was probably a mix of Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg and Zach Galifianakis. Everyone starts doing a version of the person they look up to or are influenced by, and eventually you find your voice. For me, it was conversationally through friendships and realizing the things about me that were different or that stood out, or that people liked or that were endearing. Or that at times weren't endearing. Then figuring out how to take them on stage or into acting. How do I be the most realistic version of myself? For me, it's like figuring out what is the most natural way to do this, where it feels like I'm just having a conversation — and then hopefully getting laughs every five seconds of the conversation.
Nick Thune will perform five shows at the downtown Comedy Works June 2 through June 4; tickets range from $18 to $23. Get them at comedyworks.com.