Pete Lee takes real life for a ride, one laugh at a time



Pete Lee is the kind of performer who prefers to keep his Midwestern accent front and center in his performances instead of trying to hide it.

Lee will perform at the IMU at 10 p.m. today. It will be his fourth time at the University of Iowa, and he said the crowds at his previous shows were “so intelligent and fun.”

In May 2017, Lee became the first comedian to receive a standing ovation on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Lee made another successful appearance on the show in January, ad libbing four different one-liners over the course of his set. After his performance, Fallon invited Lee to sit down next to his desk, which is a coveted tradition that dates back to the Johnny Carson years.

“Instead of feeling nervous behind the curtain, this time I felt excited. From the second I got out there this last time, I felt the happiest that I have ever felt in my life,” Lee said. “It is interesting being on that stage, because you stand on the gold four leaf clover that Jimmy has on the floor that Jimmy stands on every night.”

Raised in Janesville, Wisconsin, Lee incorporates his Midwestern accent into his act. His upbringing in rural Wisconsin was influential in shaping his persona.

“You adopt the personalities of people around you,” Lee said. “I had this fun, jovial Oktoberfest type of personality that was instilled in me from growing up in Wisconsin.”

As a freshman at the University of Minnesota, his roommate kept telling him that he was funny and needed to pursue standup. His roommate wrote down all of the one-liners Lee conjured up at dinner in the cafeteria. At the end of the year, his roommate gave Lee the notebook full of jokes.

It took Lee two years to find the courage to make his standup up début at the historic Acme Comedy venue. Lee said Acme was influential in his early comedy career because it fostered a, “supportive yet competitive comedy community.”

At Acme, Lee socialized regularly with comedy great Mitch Hedberg before the comedian’s death. Nick Swardson saw Lee perform at Acme and afforded him the opportunity to make guest appearances on his live shows.

“There is no school for comedy … you just learn from each other, so the coolest thing was to be in that scene and learn from some of the greats,” Lee said.

Shortly after making his television début on Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend” in 2005, Lee moved to Manhattan to pursue comedy full-time. He was able to keep his Midwestern values while building the resilience needed to thrive in the cutthroat entertainment business.

“In New York, it is the survival of the fittest, whereas in the Midwest its health by neighbor,” Lee said. “It took a while to get used to that. I felt like it was personality boot camp for me. I to New York instead of LA because I knew I needed to get a little bit tougher.”

After performing numerous shows a night in various venues around New York City, Lee became a regular at the historic Comedy Cellar. The club holds a brunch every Sunday for comedians in the New York circuit, he said. He calls this weekly event “Easter for comedians.”

Lee recalled one Sunday, David Chappelle leaned across the table and asked him to pass the orange juice — a moment he cherishes. Apart from Sunday brunches, Comedy Cellar also holds new joke night on Mondays and Thursdays every week. Comedians perform six minutes of new material. Lee said this challenged him to write efficiently and take risks.

Early in his career, he spent more than three hours a day writing down new content. That rigorous process was necessary in helping him break down his personal comedic process. He is now able to observe something in his daily life and explore its comedic value on stage — a form of improvisation that produces laughs.

“[Writing] that way makes touring more fun because I always have fresh material that I am mixing in,” Lee said. “When people come see me, they can sense that energy that I want to be there.”

He referenced Ellen DeGeneres and Garry Shandling as two of his early influences.

At the peak of their standup careers, DeGeneres and Shandling were masters at delivering “kind, joyful comedy that was self-depreciating,” Lee said. ““Most of my humor is self-deprecating — I’m going over my follies from the previous day.”

Recently, the comedy mainstream has promoted edgy and provocative humor, which is the exact opposite of his act. Lee studied the joke techniques and patterns of delivery of these comedians and does the inverse.

Real-life experience is at the essence of his comedy. Lee does not shy away from incorporating controversial topics into his routine, saying he is constantly rooting for the “underdog.”

“Humor needs to have the freedom to be able to look at everything,” Lee said. “If you are approaching a subject with a kind-hearted point of view, and you are discussing it intelligently through humor, you are actually helping people who do not agree with you understand it.”

After finishing as a semifinalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” Lee began to pursue an acting career culminating with appearances on CBS’s “As The World Turns” and VH1’s “Best Week Ever,” among others. Lee continues to study acting — a craft crucial to honing his skills as a live performer.

“In standup, you are using your own words, so it comes out of your own heart,” Lee said. “When you are reading from a script, you do not necessary internalize it the same way. It really is a trick of taking someone else’s words and making them seen like your own feelings.”

He prides himself on his live performances, saying as a comedian “the real drug that drives me to get up on stage is the new comedy I want to try out — I want to see if my new thing gets a laugh,” he said. “I am always giving the audience energy and receiving it.”

When: 10p.m. tonight

Where: IMU

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