Learning to Kill
Pete Lee is likely unique among local stand-up comedians for his early ambition to be a drummer in the rock band Def Leppard. Either that, or a professional skateboarder.
"I was that little kid who just wanted to rock," Lee says. "I got to be on MTV once, in a video for this band called Sarkoma, which is kind of weird, because that's a form of cancer, right? I guess that really rocks. So they had this thing called a fun box, where the drummer was set up, and my job was to jump over him on my skateboard."
Banging one's head against concrete might not be the worst training for an aspirant comic--particularly when he's faced with an audience that absolutely, steadfastly refuses to laugh. "Nobody does well when they first start," explains Louis Lee (no relation to Pete), Acme's manager and a mentor to dozens of young comics (Pete calls him, reverentially, "comedy Yoda"). "It's taken Pete a long time to have that commanding performance. But he's ready now. In a year or two everyone will know who he is."
Of course, show business--especially a corner of it as crowded and cutthroat as stand-up comedy--has a way of confounding such predictions: Breakouts fail to materialize, and this year's hot act can easily become next year's opener in Toledo. "The biggest problem for younger comics is they go on the road too soon," Louis Lee explains. "Once you start doing a regular stock of material, you build yourself into a dead end. And it's hard to turn around. I've seen a lot of comics go under that way. A lot."
For his part, Pete, an easygoing, clean-cut 26-year-old, takes a fairly nonchalant attitude toward the business's potential pitfalls. "If I end up just driving around doing stand-up shows, I'll thank my lucky stars," he says. "I'm doing what I want to do, you know? I'm the luckiest person alive." Nevertheless, Lee does approach his career with admirable discipline: He writes for at least seven hours a week (which, in a good week, might yield two minutes' worth of usable material); constantly reworks every gesture and expression in his stage performance; exercises regularly while on the road; and keeps his partying, the downfall of many veteran comics, to the essential minimum.
Such nascent professionalism aside, Lee got into comedy more by chance than by design. "You know how they say you hate what you're afraid of?" he says. "Well, that's how I felt about doing stand-up. I was absolutely terrified by the idea of it. I swore I'd never do it."
While attending the University of Minnesota, Lee started writing jokes--most of which, he admits, were terrible. Sick of him testing out his material on them, Lee's friends cajoled him into performing at an Acme open-mic night. The joke he opened with is still in his act: "Do you ever drive with no pants on?" he asks the audience. "I do, but I can never tell if people are staring at me because they know, or because I drive a moped."
That first night, the joke killed, and Lee was hooked. "It was really weird," he says. "Something in the back of my head just went off, and I knew I was going to be a stand-up comedian."
Steak finished, Lee saunters off to perform his pre-show ritual (which, he explains, involves checking his teeth for wayward chunks of food and compulsively inspecting his fly). By the time he arrives onstage, the full house has been primed by a lackluster opening act and more than a few cocktails. Lee ambles out from behind a curtain and immediately sets about stimulating his nipples--a rapport-builder, presumably. His stage persona is aggressive, hyper, a bit redneck. He tells a story about pushing his grandmother down the stairs; then he tells a joke about his girlfriend; then he does a bit about Third World sweatshops that's probably in questionable taste. The audience loves it, though. By the third joke, he has them rolling.
Then things start to go sour. This evening, Lee is filming his performance for a Comedy Central audition, and thus needs to make his 40-minute set appear as though it is actually a 10-minute one. After wishing the audience good night and asking that they tip the waitstaff, he comes back with a grin and a "just kidding."
But he's lost them. There's an excruciating silence in which you can hear ice clinking in glasses and asses shifting in seats. Lee, trying to defuse the situation, gives the audience the finger. Now their discontent turns into something like palpable hatred. All of a sudden, the nomenclature of stand-up ("I killed/died out there") doesn't seem so hyperbolic.
t he green room at Acme is, as advertised, a green room. Specifically: a closet-sized space with exposed piping and a water-stained concrete floor, painted a shade that can only be described as puke-like. After spending the minutes immediately after his set hawking homemade CDs in the club's lobby, Lee now sits on the green room's single metal folding chair, sweat still drying on his forehead. He's dissecting his performance--which, after that touch-and-go moment, went over quite well.
"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.
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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