Stand-up comedian Pete Lee describes his style as clean comedy with an edge, or “cleaner comedy that’s very true.”
Take, for instance, a joke he performed during his Tonight Show debut in 2017: “I never want to offend anyone, especially nowadays, Like, the other day this guy sneezed and I wanted to say, ‘Bless you,’ but instead I said, ‘Happy holidays.’”
He performed the same joke at the Comedy Cellar in New York City the night that Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon popped in to catch his set.
“Jimmy was there and he stood up and clapped and said, ‘I love this guy,’” Lee recalled.
Immediately after, Lee was invited on The Tonight Show and his set could not have gone any better—he was the first stand-up comic during Fallon’s time as host to receive a standing ovation. Lee said he couldn’t comprehend it in the moment.
“I thought that there was a sign above me that said ‘stand up,’” he said.
Now, he appears on The Tonight Show almost quarterly. He can also be seen regularly on Comedy Central, TruTV, the NFL Network and even the Nicktoons channel.
He can be seen locally on Thursday, February 7, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center when he becomes the first comic to appear in the venue’s new Toasted Thursdays series.
He explained his sensibilities when it comes to preparing a stand-up set.
“A lot of comics open up with really edgy material that is sort of off-putting to people,” he said. “And they forget that it is somewhat of a date activity. And if your date’s into really edgy stuff, that’s cool. But I think most, probably 80 percent, of the people aren’t into that. And so, I’m real cognizant of that and I like to do humor that’s very joyful. … I like to give wisdom to people and I like my comedy to have deep meaning, but you don’t have to be super vulgar within that to accomplish those ends.”
Speaking from Los Angeles, where the Wisconsin native moved last year after 12 years in New York, Lee discussed the triumphs and tribulations of his career, including when he called himself “the grim reaper of television.”
It was a successful appearance on Comedy Central’s stand-up showcase Premium Blend that motivated him to relocate to New York in 2005. But that same year, Premium Blend was canceled. He later had his own half-hour on Comedy Central Presents, a program that was canceled soon after. He competed in the sixth season of Last Comic Standing in 2008, and the show was off the air in 2009.
Then he was cast as a doctor in the long-running CBS soap opera As the World Turns.
“So I was having a complete Joey Tribbiani from Friends experience,” Lee said.
The show had been on television since 1956. The crew was looking forward to the 90th season, Lee said.
“When I walked in, they had a giant gold 89 in the lobby, and then underneath a terrycloth they had a giant gold 90,” he recalled. “I joked, well you can put that gold 90 in storage because you’re never going to get to it—because the show’s going to get canceled.”
He was on a total of seven episodes—and the show got canceled.
“I literally got blamed for it,” Lee said. “Since then I’ve been on shows that have gone three or four seasons, so clearly I’m not the grim reaper of television.”
He was selected to be on VH1’s Best Week Ever.
“I got to write jokes for the show, and then I got to perform those jokes, and then we also got to do sketches,” he said. “We were on the air for three seasons and that was really neat.”
He worked behind the scenes on Duck Dynasty, the A&E reality television series about the Robertson family, ostensibly as a producer.
“If you break it down, Duck Dynasty and those guys, they were basically doing a family comedy,” Mr. Lee said. “And you had almost all the character tropes you would have or characters types that you would have on most sitcoms. And I’m not the manliest guy in real life but I’ve performed in the Midwest enough and I have enough family members that I felt like I could write from that point of view.
“I took a job where I was technically a producer because none of the stuff is supposed to be written,” he continued. “It’s all supposed to be stuff that came off the cuff from those guys. But now that the show’s off the air, I can tell the secret: A lot of the lines from those people on those shows were stuff that they came up with, but then there were also producer-writers that were feeding them jokes in their ears. But it was crazy because there are sitcom actors in Hollywood that can’t deliver a joke that’s given to them as well as the Duck Dynasty guys did. It was incredible how funny they really were for literally being average people that just decided to do a TV show.”
He’s also a cast member of TruTV’s Greatest Ever, or at least he was.
“I think that our TruTV show got canceled without them telling us—which happens a lot in television,” he said. “When did you find out you were canceled? When the phone didn’t ring for a year.”
He also does Top 10s for the NFL Network. For Nicktoons, he riffs on football bloopers as if he were a SportsCenter personality for four-minute segments geared at children.
This past June, he moved to the West Coast. The timing worked out funny.
“As soon as I moved to Los Angeles, I got booked on a TV show out in New York,” he said.
It’s the topical comedy show This Week at the Comedy Cellar on Comedy Central.
The show is currently on hiatus, but when it’s filming, he commutes.
“I would get on a plane every Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., try to sleep while flying across the country,” he said. “I’d wake up, I’d write jokes, then go for a run and sweat out my Ambien. And then I would basically go film a TV show for two days and then I would fly back to L.A. I guess New York is like working for the government. You try to get out, then it pulls you back in.”
He doesn’t regret the move.
“There are no seasons here,” he said. “It’s 70 degrees out right now almost and the sun is starting to come out.”
Meanwhile, he checks Instagram and he sees his friends posting photos of themselves freezing on subway platforms.
“You know what? I made a good choice.”
So what brings him to Westhampton Beach in February? It’s his connection to Gram Slaton, the new Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center executive director. He said Slaton is a really good friend who he knows from Slaton’s days running the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
“He does great shows in the most remote places on earth, I believe,” Lee said.
Lee said he is using this upcoming show as an excuse to come back to New York for a few days. He has a few meetings planned, including one with Kelly Ripa to pitch a show. Then he looks forward to riding the Long Island Rail Road to Westhampton with a “tall boy” in hand.
“Flying back to New York is actually a real treat,” he said. “I’ll bring my puffer coat, and I’ll get my good New York scowl going on my face when it’s cold. And I’ll feel like a New Yorker again.”
Pete Lee will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Thursday, February 7, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.
The article first appeared in The Southampton Press.