Long before he was a successful standup comic and TV personality, Pete Lee was a skateboarding prodigy, a really good one. "I was sponsored by [skateboard maker] Alva and then Vision Street Wear was my clothing sponsor," he says.
That was at age 13. "I grew up really poor," he explains. "Ridiculously poor. Like, below the poverty line. I got good at skateboarding, and realized it could lead to a better life."
His interest in skateboarding developed serendipitously. "My dad had to move to California when I was a little kid," he says. "He was a successful interior designer." His father sent presents to make up for his absence. "He sent us a skateboard signed by Tony Alva -- he was one of the founding fathers of skateboarding. My dad went to an event, got it signed, and sent it to us."
With not much else to do in suburban Madison, Wisconsin, Lee took to skateboarding, and gradually became adept at doing various tricks. "I was doing a bunch of competitions, and people took notice because I was competing against adult men and I was 12."
It was a serious accident though, that propelled him into the upper echelons of the sport. "I fell when I was nine or ten, and got a real bad concussion," he recalls. "I almost died, and I was blind for a week." His mother decided he could skate again, but only if he wore every available piece of padding as well as a helmet -- things the other competitors were too cool to wear.
The padding gave him a decided edge. "I didn't care if I fell because I was wearing a Nerf suit. When I did fall, I couldn't feel it because I was so bubble wrapped."
After being noticed at competitions, he borrowed his grandmother's video camera and filmed some of his tricks. "I would make copies and send them to Alva Skateboards."
Every week he would send a tape, but he never heard back. Finally, his mother called the company and asked if they would just look at one of the tapes and answer him. "I think they felt sorry for me. But they looked at the tape and went, 'Wow, this kid is great.'"
His life changed almost immediately, as not only Alva sponsored him, but Vison Street Wear picked him up as well. "We were so poor, I only had three outfits to wear to school," he says. "So I'd have to recycle Monday's outfit on Thursday, and Tuesday's on Friday. Vision found out about this, and not only did they send me clothes for competitions, they sent my whole family clothes."
To this day, his mother still wears her Vision Street Wear sweatshirt. "It was a real cool moment in my life. I went from being this kid who was picked on for not having any clothes, to being sponsored by a company. It was a real weird judo flip in my life."
In high school, he began to grow tired of the grind. "When I was 16, I'd go to the skateboard park and it just seemed like more of a job. They'd send me a list of tricks to learn, where before it was just things my friends and I dared each other."
One day he called his sponsors and said he wanted to take a break, and that skateboarding wasn't fun anymore. "I kind of wish I would have battled through it, because my peers went on to become famous, and helped start the X Games and all that."
Two years later though, he discovered comedy. Pointing to his skateboarding career, his mother told him to battle through any obstacles he encountered as a standup. "She told me, 'When the chips got down in skateboarding, you quit even though you really loved it, and you could have been great at it. You love comedy more than skating, so no matter how down you get you can't quit. The high point will come back.'"
Comedy turned out to be a better career path, even though he still sometimes gets the itch to skate. "I still watch the X Games, and I want to go out there," he says. "But I'm 37. You know how bad those falls hurt?"
Watching the X Games with a documentary filmmaker friend, Lee stated he could do every trick the finalists had done. "That wasn't me being cocky, but it's plateaued as far as the tricks people do."
His friend suggested making a documentary about an old skateboarding pro who makes a comeback in his late 30s. Lee entertained the notion, but realized he'd have to take too much time off from standup to do it. "I think about skateboarding every day, but it's not like golf, which you can do until you're 80."IF YOU GO:
Pete Lee Acme Comedy Co. 708 N. First St., Minneapolis; 612-338-6393 18+. $15; $18 Friday and Saturday. 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.