Learning to Kill

What it takes to make it in funny business

"The most important part of stand-up is your first three jokes," he explains. "It's a lot of trust, you know? An audience, they pay for the show, and they're taking the risk of whether or not you're going to be funny. So if you can go out there and just nail 'em and build that trust and make them like you, it's a downhill jog."

Though Lee has been a professional comic for only a few years--at his father's request, he worked in advertising for three years after college--he's bombed enough times to regard the experience philosophically. "As a comic--and this is really sick and sad--there's nothing I love better than a total train wreck. Having a crowd hate you that much, a crowd that doesn't even necessarily know you, but wants to hate you so much that they won't laugh at your material that everyone else laughs at, it's almost precious. It's like seeing a tornado live--dangerous but also kind of beautiful."

Of course, when an audience goes bad, there's always the remote but terrifying possibility that it can go really, legendarily bad. Once, when Lee was still a neophyte on the comedy circuit, his agent booked him at a show that was supposedly near Moorhead. "I was a senior in college, and I was getting paid $150, so I was like, 'Sure,'" Lee says.

If I have to keep my face like this until you bastards laugh, that's exactly what I plan to do: Funny man Pete Lee
Allen Beaulieu
If I have to keep my face like this until you bastards laugh, that's exactly what I plan to do: Funny man Pete Lee

As it turned out, Lee was actually scheduled to play in Langdon, a tiny North Dakota town 13 miles from the Canadian border, at a high school lock-in. The event, he learned upon arrival, was mandatory for seniors. (The previous year, a graduation celebration had ended in a tragic car accident.) To keep the detained kids entertained, the school had distributed, as party favors, jacks and Superballs.

"I was scheduled to go on at 3:00 a.m.," Lee says. "They didn't have an auditorium, so we were in this gymnasium with those pullout bleachers and all these high school kids jacked up on Pepsi. How could it possibly get better, right? But wait: It gets better.

"So I go on. At first, everything is going fine; they're laughing. Then I say something like, 'You're a bunch of rednecks.' And all of a sudden hundreds of jacks come flying at me. I had to run to the opposite side of the gym. The floor was covered in jacks and all these Superballs were kind of bouncing along after me. This school lady had to come out and lecture them, like: 'You're not going to graduate if you don't laugh at the rest of his jokes.'"

Lee leans back in his chair and smiles thoughtfully. "But you want to know the really crazy thing? Before that 'redneck' line, I had those kids loving me. I was absolutely killing."

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