Nick Thune’s Focus Pays Off

After sowing his wild oats early, comedian Nick Thune asked himself, “Why am I going to let anything hold me back when I can just focus and drive?” The past decade-plus of focusing and driving is paying off. In addition to getting a new sitcom into development with ABC, Thune also recently released his new hour-long special Nick Thune: Good Guy on Seeso. The special marks a departure for the comic, namely, eliminating his signature guitar-backed one liners in favor of longer, more personal bits. I talked to Thune about the new TV show, how an accident forced him to put his guitar down, and the positive influence of church youth groups.

Holy Sh*t, the show that you co-wrote with (frequent collaborator) Kevin Parker Flynn, was just recently put into development.

We’ve been working on that for a long time. It’s nice that there’s finally some legitimacy to it.

What can you tell me about the show?

The thing about the show that is really exciting for me is, if you look at my track record in the TV business, I’ve got quite a few pilots, not as much as probably most people have, but I’ve had a lot of opportunities. These shows like, “Hey, it’s you and your buddies. You live above your parents’ garage and one of you guys is crazy, one of you is pretty tied down, and the other two are wild cards.” I’ve pitched those shows, written those shows, been in those shows. Every time it’s great and you’re excited, but there’s something slightly hollow about it where it’s like, “I’m not making my show. I’m making this broad idea of what it’s like to be in your mid-twenties living with your buddies.” Some of those shows are great, don’t get me wrong. I’ve written with these amazing writers that I’ve learned so much from. But I was like, “Why don’t I write a pilot with Kevin because he knows me better than anybody. And why don’t we actually make it about my life?” Probably 30 people said no to us and then one person said yes. That’s how it works. Nine months of grinding and pitching. I think my wife was starting to think that I was making up the show because there was never anything to show for it. There’s a guy named Dan Pasternack who used to be in development at IFC. He teaches a class about TV development and writing at NYU and he said to me, “Listen, a lot of people are going to say no, but if one person says yes…”

I read a brief synopsis of the show that said it’s about a struggling church and you play a pastor. You have a bit in your new special where you do a pastor thing. What is your association with the church? Did you used to be a pastor?

The things I say in my special are real. I went to rehab. I was sent to a lockdown rehab when I was 17. I got kicked out of my high school. I had to transfer to a different high school and basically just radically changed my group of friends. I had been taken to church my whole life, going a couple of Sundays a month, to youth group, and every now and again getting sent to a summer camp where there are fun counselors and a church service every night and every morning. During the day you hang out and water ski and meet new people. It was such a fun environment. After I got out of rehab I fully dove into the church because I felt like I was really wanting to focus. I didn’t drink for 12 years through my twenties. It felt right. I was like, “Why am I going to let anything hold me back when I can just focus and drive?” The people I was around were so supportive. I thought it was such a fun community, the church. Then, as I got older, I got more cynical and kind of backed out of it. But I was a counselor for high school camps and junior high camps. I also worked with kids at the Boys & Girls Club for six years. I was a teen director in the Seattle area. I grew up being a counselor and doing all of these things. Ever since I moved to LA it’s always been an idea, that interesting world. The show is not about religion. The show is a workplace comedy. As The Office was about paper, this show is about religion. The show is about the people that work in this interesting environment.

So much of your standup in the past was musically backed. This new special is almost entirely standup. You only have one musical bit. Was this special an experiment to see how you do without a guitar, or is this just the direction in which you are headed now?

The funny thing is that the guitar only came up two weeks before the taping. I wasn’t using it at all. One night the club had one there, like, “We should have a guitar here. He’ll probably want to play it.” I had been thinking about that bit as something that would work with that and kind of add to that character. It was fun. I had been so against using the guitar. It’s not that I don’t ever want to do it again, because I love doing it, but I wanted to challenge myself. I had gotten to the point where I didn’t want to put out another hour of the same thing with different words. I’m probably being hard on myself there, but I wanted to take a risk. “Why don’t I do something that’s out of my comfort zone?” When I broke my arm two years ago in the midst of touring to film my Folk Hero special – which we had to delay six weeks because of the broken arm – I couldn’t play guitar. I broke my arm, but I still had to tour. My next gig was at Princeton. It was just me at a college doing an hour without guitar. It was really fucking hard doing all the material from Folk Hero with no music. When I got onstage I felt exhilarated because I had to find new ways to do things. That was the first moment that I realized that after I filmed this thing I wanted to try that.

Once you could play again did you grab the guitar quickly? Did you find it to be a source of comfort or a crutch?

Friends of mine that do comedy, like Pete Holmes, would say to me after I got off stage, “You know, you don’t even need that thing. That stuff could stand alone without it.” Maybe they were just saying that because it was so annoying that I had a guitar and they wanted me to stop. I don’t know. But once you hear that enough times and then you try it one time…I don’t know if it was a crutch. I think it was easy to stand behind, like the way a band can just start a song and when it’s over it’s over. There’s no cutting a song halfway short because it’s not working.

I watched your episode of Modern Comedian and you said that you were nervous and hesitant to tape Folk Hero. Did you feel the same way heading into this new one?

Not at all. It was so different. I did kind of the hardest tour that I’ve done within two months. It was difficult flying home, then flying out, doing five shows in a city, in a club that I wouldn’t normally play in, but I’m doing the gig because I just want to get onstage. Once I got through half of that tour I could feel it onstage. I was more physical and really confident in allowing it to grow and find new little moments. I would time my set at every show and I would get off stage at 62-and-a-half minutes. That’s how tight I had that set. It was just like pressing play, whereas the Folk Hero stuff wasn’t like that. With the guitar and everything it was always a little different every time. Weirdly, it felt like it was easier to do this one.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Nick Thune’s Focus Pays Off