Comedian Pete Lee Is A Nice Guy

The Tonight Show regular discusses the perils of niceness and his grandma’s bong business.
Comedian Pete Lee Is A Nice Guy
Courtesy of Elizabeth Viggiano

Pete Lee is switching to his earbuds when we connect by phone. He’s Ubering from LAX to his apartment in Los Angeles after a stint in his “second home” of New York. Despite the airport traffic, Pete is incredibly happy. And not just because he’s opening for Zooey Deschanel’s band She and Him in two weeks on the east coast. Rather, Pete’s happy demeanor is a virtue of who he is as a person and it’s the driving force behind his very successful stand-up comedy act. Between regular appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, writing and performing on the hit Comedy Central show “This Week at The Comedy Cellar,” and touring nationwide as a stand-up, Pete has a lot to be happy about.

What was it about the programming you watched as a kid that inspired you to get into comedy?

I was a latchkey kid. After my parents divorced, I lived with my mom. While she worked double shifts at Red Lobster, I would watch comedy on tv from like 5pm until bedtime. Even late at night I’d be watching all the old comedies like “I Love Lucy” and “Dick Van Dyke” and I feel like I just picked up an innate sense of comedic timing. I’d then go to school and would know how to time a joke out properly. Like, when I’d raise my hand in class, I wasn’t being disrespectful to the teacher or degrading anyone or even being a class clown. I just knew how to say “it” funny.

My grandma told jokes while lounge singing in Vegas and Los Angeles in the early part of her life. They say all of your parents’ and grandparents’ experiences are encoded into your DNA, so you get all of their information passed down to you. I think my innate sense of [comedy] came from that. When I was 14 years old, I was on vacation with my grandma. She asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I threw out, “I want to be a comedian.” She was a brassy lady smoking a cigarette and was like, “Oh, I’ve dated those.”

She goes, “How about you write me a joke?” But I didn’t know what that meant. I was every person you see at the comedy club who annoys you. I was like, “Man, I’m gonna do standup, but I’m just gonna wing it.” And she was like, “No, you can’t wing it. You have to write material. Comedians work really hard at crafting their jokes.” And so she wouldn’t let me eat dinner until I wrote her a joke. She taught me what set-up-and-punch joke structure was. I’m 14 and I’m sitting there in my swim trunks writing jokes.

The first joke I ever did I was: “Do you guys ever drive with no pants on? I do. I love to drive with no pants on. I can never tell if people are staring at me because they know, or because I’m driving my moped.” I wrote that as a kid who couldn’t even drive. And then my grandma let me eat dinner.

No meal was free growing up.

Yeah, and then I got to college. I always dreamed about doing stand-up but never did it. My roommate was like, “Dude, you gotta try stand-up.”

When I was in college in 1995, nobody had a beard and smoking weed was really taboo, especially in repressed Minnesota where I was from. My roommate Tim always had the best weed and would come down to the cafeteria after smoking so the food became edible. He would always be drawing in a notebook and I realized later he was writing down all the funny things that I said. At the end of the year, he gave me that notebook. It was the best gift I’ve ever gotten in my life because I thought, “If he spent all this time writing that stuff, I better try stand-up.” It took me another two years after that just to get the guts to try it.

Was college also your foray into cannabis?

When I was a kid, my brother was really into [weed]. We would actually sell it. And this was before I knew my grandma was in the paraphernalia business. Maybe [cannabis] was another thing that was encoded into my DNA, which made me really interested in it. At one point, my brother made a bong in art class and the teacher had no idea that it was a bong. The piece had a hole to put a quart in for the weed, a port for the thing to breath and another port. My brother had made a Jesus head and it was the first thing I ever smoked out of. He thought nobody would suspect anything from a giant figure of Jesus. My mom’s an atheist and she was like, “Man, I guess your brother’s getting really into Jesus.” Ironically, my brother’s really into Jesus now.

That’s amazing.

We always had financial troubles, so around 5th grade, my brother and I started selling weed. I was this cute little kid on a dirt bike and I would run stuff around. When we first started, I thought we’d be selling it to “rough” people. But like, my orthodontist was one of the guys I’d deliver weed to. When I went in to get my retainer and stuff, my mom would have no idea why he gave me such a deep discount. My brother was like, “Pretend you don’t know him,” and then I got almost half-off my retainer, which was really expensive.

My mom never really had to give us money for stuff, but we would kick her money every once in a while. It was one of those, “Where did you get this from? / Don’t ask” situations.

Back then, if you were to have asked anyone in my town about marijuana, they would have told you it was very bad. I never in my life felt like it was bad. It didn’t make me feel angrier, violent, or out of control. If anything, it made me feel closer to the love force in the world.

The attitudes toward cannabis are finally shifting, and its proponents are like, “this is what we’ve been saying all along.”

Weed is the opposite of a gateway. Look at what’s happened Washington. Their deaths from opiates have decreased rapidly. I don’t have the exact statistics, but people having greater access to weed, edibles and CBD just decreased opioid use dramatically. I know adult women who’ve told me they were prescribed opiates for their menstrual cramps when they were little girls. Think about how dangerous that is compared to if you gave someone a CBD softgel. [A softgel] has been proven to help with cramps. But if you were in Oklahoma, where my grandma had her shop, that would be frowned upon.

Let’s talk more about your grandma and her story.

There were always rumblings in my family that my grandmother worked in the weed business. My brother and I at a young age obviously knew what marijuana was. My grandma always smelt like it. When she passed away, my brothers went down to her store – Lady Ann’s Oddities – and my brother Rob called me and said, “Dude, all of our suspicions are correct. Grandma owned a huge bong shop.” He bubble-wrapped a bunch, put them in a box and brought them back to Wisconsin. We basically inherited a few of those [bongs] from her. 

I called my dad and asked him why he never told us the history of what [grandma] did. My dad is one of those guys, who, when your mom is kind of a wild child, you rebel by becoming completely normal. He’s one of those guys who wear slacks with a shirt tucked-in around the house on Saturdays. Basically, Ned Flanders without the mustache. Anyway, he never told us much about grandma or her story.

A few years ago, we were in Vegas for my nephew’s wedding, and my step-mom was like, “Tell them The Rolling Stones story.” I was like, “You’ve been telling us the same 11 boring stories your whole life and there’s a Rolling Stones story?” 

Essentially, my grandmother decided she wanted to sell hand-blown glass and bongs out of her store. My grandfather was ex-military, and he had the foresight to put a sticker that said “the tobacco water bong” on every bong and he would tape a baggy of tobacco to it. Basically, covering their butt. Sure enough, the authorities came and confiscated a lot of their stuff. She wound up in court, and they ended up winning because it’s reasonable the device could be used to burn tobacco, so the prosecution couldn’t say it was only a drug device. That court case, along with many others like it across the country, set the precedent for bongs to be sold legally. So my grandmother was kind of a trailblazer in that movement and really took a huge risk for something she really believed in. She could have gotten in a lot of trouble, especially in the Bible Belt.

Apparently, during the time of my grandmother’s court case, The Rolling Stones came to town. They came into the shop one day, and my dad’s working and my grandma’s there…and they said, “Hey, we heard you have this court case, we love marijuana, we want to help out.” So [the band] brought my dad, my mom, and my grandfather on stage during a Stones concert and had people basically “pass the hat” and donate money for their legal fees. That’s one of the ways they won the court case.

So your grandma is both responsible for your comedy pursuits and your predisposition to cannabis.

I have a lot of wholesome fans because I do The Tonight Show a lot. And some of them would probably be taken aback if they knew I regularly used cannabis. I hate to say it, a good majority of the jokes that they really enjoy, I wrote them at the tail end of a good high. I write so well when I’m stoned. It does make me a little duller, but for some reason, it makes me a lot more creative and funny. I’m just much better when I use it regularly. Every single day I take a 25 milligram of CBD cherry soft chew and I’ve never felt better in my life. So even on the days I don’t smoke, whatever that good feeling is that weed gives you, I have it through the CBD.

Elaborate on how cannabis helps you creatively.

The way that it helps the joke writing process…a joke is basically combining two things people haven’t considered together into a surprise…I think that my brain can definitely combine things easier…when my brain is more relaxed it can float those things together more easily. Comedy is not work, it’s art. It’s playing. I’ve studied improv and sketch and they say the best way to write a good comedy bit is to not try and be brilliant, but to find the fun. Figure out what’s fun about a situation, what’s the most fun thing you can do with it. I definitely think cannabis helps you see what’s fun and ridiculous about things. 

Also, my point of view and my sense of humor is so joyful and  happy and a lot of times it’s kind of like, “How would the most innocent and loving person look at a situation?” It’s ironic that cannabis is the “devil’s salad” because I actually feel it helps me look at things through the most loving point of view. It doesn’t make me create at all through anger. 

I would even say cannabis has greatly shaped my point of view. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an argument with a friend or significant other and then you smoke a little pot and go, “Oh my God, it’s so stupid that I’m mad. This is ridiculous, I love that person, why did I say that? Ugh.” [Pot] strips off those same layers of anger during the joke writing process and exposes the ridiculousness of situations.

Some might say that a “loving lens” is the true reality of any given situation and that when you’re stripping away the “angry” layers, you’re getting closer to the truth.

Oddly enough, that’s been what’s helped me stand apart in comedy. I feel like most comics smoke pot, but I feel a lot of people have a very aggressive stage persona and I’ve taken the exact opposite route after trying the aggressive route and failing horribly. The crowd looked at me and said, “I’m not buying it.”

Is “leaning into the love” what’s helped fuel your success?

It’s definitely the thing that’s helped me get my comedy career attention. Comics like to get real preachy about what other comics should be doing in stand-up. They would always look at my comedy – comedy that’s pretty happy – and be like, “No man, you’re doing it wrong. You gotta speak your truth,” assuming that my truth is inherently super negative. [The negativity] is kind of assumed when comics say “speak your truth.” So I tried to speak through negativity for a couple years right after I moved to New York because I thought the town was so “edgy.” I thought, “Maybe this is my truth.” When the crowd didn’t by it, I started to realize that maybe my truth is simply way more positive. Maybe my truth is a lot more innocent. I think I’d like my truth to be edgy, but it’s not. When I started to find that vein of my sense of humor, that’s when everything took off.

I noticed I’d be on shows in New York at The Stand and at The Comedy Cellar and I’d be on with legends – legendary killers that are the toughest of the tough comedians – and then I’d come [on stage] as sort of a “change of pace” comedian and would light up the room like none of them were. I started looking at that and was like, “Man, I think I’m on to something.” Life is so hard for everyone and sometimes people need a mirror held up to all the things that are hard. But sometimes, people need something that’s a little more joyful that also digs into a deep truth. My whole point of view is basically that it sucks to be nice. So there is a negativity within that. Most of my day is trying and failing because I’m trying to be overly nice to people who just don’t know how to accept that. And it provides a lot of humor.

I recently moved to Los Angeles and I’m trying to make friends, and my brain says the best way to make friends is to be really kind and nice. But a lot of people think, “Okay, this guy’s too nice. He must not be cool or must suck in some way, so I don’t want to be his friend.” Then over time they realize, “Oh no, he’s just nice.”

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