Stand-up comedians require a certain kind of demon to do the work—or at least that’s been the generalizing trait associated with the form and its players for many a year. Think of Richard Lewis’s brooding neuroses or Chris Rock’s simmering indignation. Nick Thune doesn’t have as much to go on in that department, so he impertinently blamed his father in his 2014 special Folk Hero. “Give me something to build off,” Thune joked at the time, “give me a reason to drink.” No such luck.
If the stable, well-rounded and supportive existence Thune’s father provided didn’t prepare his son for comedy, at least his storytelling did. “My dad is such a great storyteller and I wanted to try and do what he can do,” Thune says over the phone, his voice edging past groggy after celebrating his birthday the previous evening. His newest special, Good Guy, which premieres on Seeso on December 22nd, achieves that goal by working with only three stories: the time he accidentally got his dog super high, what he’d do as a backup career, and the long, winding and insulting road to discovering his baby’s sex. If his father failed to ante up with the demons, he at least modeled the best way to keep an audience captivated across such lengthy escapades. “The way that I can best explain it is if you’re at a restaurant with eight people and someone’s in the middle of telling a story, and then a waiter comes to take everybody’s order, it’s kinda hard to come back from that, as far as a story goes,” Thune explains. “If my dad is telling a story, the second the waiter leaves, everybody turns and looks at him, and says, ‘You were saying, Eric?’ He has a way about him that people want to listen.”
Coming at a time when attention spans seem on thin ice and quick, energetic pacing can be the saving grace for many a comedian, Thune wants to push his comedy in a different direction. “I like the idea of making obscenely long stories interesting, and hopefully they came out that way,” he says. Good Guy’s form shifts dramatically from how he used to perform on stage. Back then, he stood in front of the mic while playing guitar and delivering punchline after punchline reliant upon wordplay. The point was never to make musical comedy, but to use the guitar as a prop in order to bolster the astute if borderline smarmy character he portrayed onstage. “It buffered who I was as a performer; I couldn’t be me,” he says. “It was almost bulletproof. Like there’s no problems with him. He’s making funny ideas and good choices where the real person isn’t.”
But it would take a serendipitous, if painful, moment to force him to try something else. He broke his arm. Getting out in front of audiences without his buffer made him rethink his entire act. “I finally realized without the guitar I was so vulnerable and I could be myself, and it was fun and exciting in a way it hadn’t felt,” he says. In the right creative hands, being uncomfortable breeds a refreshing kind of funny. What resulted were a series of humorous anecdotes that he refined in bits and pieces on The Tonight Show, Conan and elsewhere until he shaped them into the three narratives that appear in Good Guy. “There was even a thing, like ‘Should I even do these on the special since I did them on the show?’” he admits. “But they obviously became a lot bigger and different.”
A lot bigger is right. A bit about Thune giving up smoking marijuana—wait for it…illegally—sets the tone for a winding story about accidentally getting his dog high and pissing his wife off in more ways than one. The quippy one-liners that defined his comedy in the first place still exist, but they’re couched within an overarching and prolonged structure. Thune’s dry delivery also remains, but it’s peppered with greater flashes of his personality and works to reveal a grown man still making childish decisions. But he’s never so immature or obtuse that he can’t bring the audience back around again. Bad decisions, it turns out, can create a good guy.
Now that he’s a father, Thune gets to hone his storytelling ability for a nightly audience of one. “Every night when we go to bed, my wife reads [our son] books and I tell him stories, so he decides what he wants every night, one or the other,” Thune explains. The format follows a loose structure wherein his son chooses three elements and he has to improvise the rest. “He’ll say ‘Charlie’ and ‘The Zoo’ and ‘Airplane,’ and I’m like ‘Here’s a 15 minute story that we’re not sure how it’s going to end.’” But storytelling has taken on greater weight since the 2016 election. “It’s weird but Donald Trump being president might have made me a better dad,” he laughs, explaining how sometimes the stories he shares might seem too enticing for his son. “I’ve definitely started adding things, because he’ll come home from school and he’ll go ‘I’m a bad guy!’ And I’ll say, ‘No you’re not. You’re a good guy. What are you talking about?” And he goes, ‘But I want to be a bad guy.’ And I go, ‘Who told you that?’ ‘Charlie.’ And I go ‘You guys were just playing a game, and nobody wants to be a bad guy.’ It’s convincing him that he’s not a bad guy even though Charlie made it sound alluring. And I’m really throwing Charlie under the bus here, it could’ve been Henry, it could’ve been multiple bad friends.” One can hear echoes from how Thune’s father perhaps approached rearing his son, even if Thune’s stories contain a bit more spice.
Next up, the lanky, bearded comedian is set to co-write and star in Holy Sh*t, which he developed with his creative partner Kevin Parker Flynn. Focused as it is on a small church, many companies passed on the series, but after months of hearing “no,” Mila Kunis’ production company saw the light and jumped on board. It’s now in development at ABC. “These big, big churches and these big, big pastors are taking over the whole game, and small churches are being pushed out,” Thune says. “And this show is about a small church that’s not ready to be pushed out. It’s taking place in a pretty unique environment that people haven’t seen.” After all, he explains, The Office was never about selling paper.
Good Guy premieres on Seeso on December 22nd.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.