Nick Thune interview: American Babe in the UK

He's been on The Tonight Show ten times, but US comedian Nick Thune is new to the UK. As he brings his American Babe show to these shores, he talks to The Skinny about thwarted rockstar dreams, and the perils of making jokes about dogs on drugs

Feature by John Stansfield | 22 Jan 2016

When the late, great comedian Mitch Hedberg was at the top of his game he would often be approached after shows by television and movie producers asking him to make something for them. ‘Can you write, can you write? Write us a script,’ they would say, as if being a standup comedian just wasn’t enough to get you recognised on a global scale any more.

Hedberg turned this bugbear into an inspired piece of material (as he often did), saying, “It's as though, if I were a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, they said, ‘All right, you're a cook – can you farm?’” 

The cynical among us might conclude that Hollywood’s only interest is in marketing their talent to a larger audience. “Now it’s, ‘Oh, you can make a YouTube video, can you make a movie?’” retorts Seattle-born comedian Nick Thune when I mention this quote from Hedberg, a hero of his.

Thune is not new to standup, though he will be new to most in the UK. This is a man who has ten Tonight Show appearances under his belt, two comedy albums in his locker and a very healthy following in his native America – but without a sitcom or movie franchise behind him, it is unlikely he’ll have grown too great a fanbase in the UK. Thune, however, may have ulterior motives, for his first shows in this country come even before a toe-dipping turn at the Edinburgh Fringe – something most US imports are likely to try first. “My sister-in-law and my brother-in-law live [in the UK], but I’ve never performed there,” he explains. “I’ve been over for three days before. We’re making like a two-week trip out of it, so we can stay with family.” 

So if all else fails, at least he’s managed a nice family reunion.

“Yeah, my wife really wanted me to get a show booked there so we could go and see her family. I always try to get paid to visit people.”

American Babe

Of course, this is just a happy coincidence and the tour, American Babe, is not simply an excuse for some overdue sister time. Like many American comedians, Thune is looking to challenge himself with a new audience. “I think my Netflix special [Nick Thune: Folk Hero] is on UK Netflix,” he says, “and as far as comedy goes I’ve met so many UK comedians just by being at Montreal Just For Laughs Festival, so I feel like I know a lot of people [in the UK]. So I’m curious to see, that first night, if people actually know who I am.”

There is of course a wealth of clips of Thune online, from his aforementioned Tonight Show stints to appearances on Conan and The Pete Holmes Show – both high comedy accolades in the States – as well as numerous early sets on Comedy Central.

The unfortunate thing is that a lot of these YouTube videos are of Thune with guitar, strumming along to his own one-liners (he uses the instrument more as a soundtrack to his whimsical musings than as the much-maligned ‘five-string prop’ of some musical comedians). Since Folk Hero he has dropped the guitar and is telling more personal stories – a refreshing change that has invigorated his live shows. It doesn’t, however, help with marketing overseas.

“When I first stopped playing guitar people would come up to me after shows and be like, hey, what happened with the guitar, and I knew it would take a while for people to adjust,” he says. A new audience need not know of his old style, however, and Thune is quick to point out that “the last few weekends that hasn’t happened, so I feel like there’s been some progress.”

(Continues below)

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About that dog...

Forming part of his new material is one of his recent appearances on The Tonight Show, in which he tells the story of getting his weed licence to buy marijuana legally in his native California – and the unfortunate accidental run-in between an inquisitive dog and a backpack concealing what we would know as a space cake, but which Thune refers to as a “weed brownie.” Thune is quick to stress that the dog wasn’t in danger and survived, but a personal story about animals is not without its pitfalls: “This woman was so angry at me because of my dog that she walked out, and if she’d have stayed she would’ve realised that my dog is fine.”

This incident coincided rather neatly with the people from The Tonight Show coming to check out his new direction, and a walkout is not usually the greatest barometer for what might work on network television. When they said they couldn’t broadcast that bit, Thune did not accept the decision: “I thought about it that night, and the next day I sent an email saying I disagree with you in these ways. It’s a 15-minute bit that I condensed to five minutes for them, but I had to pull teeth and fight to tell them that it was something you could have on TV.

“But yeah, I don’t think that woman standing up and screaming at me helped my case at all.”

It's this kind of dogged determinism that has led Thune to succeed on his own terms. “There are a lot of comics in America who will change their act depending on the venue they’re in, whereas I’ve never done that, I wouldn’t know how to do that,” he says. “I just do my thing and it either works or it doesn’t.”

Playing primarily in rock clubs – he also sells his latest album on vinyl – and eschewing the usual comedy club or college tour route of most comedians, Thune has more control over the events he puts on, including the acts and even the music, something that’s very important to him. “I played in some bands when I was younger and also just really wanted to be a rockstar, but y’know, the only way I could’ve done that was if I was a lead singer. But the problem with that is you also have to have a good voice. So that was kind of out the window immediately.”

Turning from the guitar to a more honest, storytelling format has not been without its difficulties. “The timing of it, playing, having the music in the background kind of informed my emotions on stage,” he explains. “I felt like I was building this score and that was fun. I really had to work on the rhythm when I stopped doing it. Pacing my voice rather letting the guitar do that.” 

His change may also have been inspired by another figure on the rock-club circuit with something of a standup-comedian-as-rockstar aesthetic: “Have you ever seen Father John Misty? He loves comedy and he does a character on stage. We’ve been friends for a while. It’s interesting seeing a musician play this persona on stage. Most are just on to the next song, whereas he’s building a whole story with who he is as a person, or who he’s pretending to be. So that’s fun to watch because it’s almost like a standup comedian rock star, which is exactly what I wanted to do.

“Fortunately for him he’s got a really good fucking voice.”

Nick Thune: American Babe is at the Soho Theatre, London, 2-6 Feb, and Tiger Lounge, Manchester, 7 Feb