Nick Thune walks into Cafe Altro Paradiso in NYC’s Soho looking flustered. He’s just off a run-through of his set at The Stand, a tuneup for his appearance the next night on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He’s also extremely conspicuous: a bearded 6’4″ guy toting around a guitar case tends to stand out at a restaurant’s compact host stand. Still, the 37-year-old actor and comedian manages to quickly compose himself, check his belongings and get ready to chow down while talking comedy, acting, food and who knows what else.
Soon, a waiter appears, offering the usual pre-meal questionnaire about water preference, cocktails and the menu — along with the increasingly ubiquitous inquiry about “any allergies the chef should know about.”
“As long as there’s no bees back there, I’m good,” Thune deadpans. And we’re off.
Thune, whose Tonight Show appearance is timed with the release late last year of his comedy special for NBC’s SeeSo platform, “Good Guy,” pretty much lives up to that title. He’s a husband and recently became a father; he speaks of his own dad as his greatest mentor; and while he’s ascendant in Hollywood, the Pacific Northwest native talks about Los Angeles more as his adopted hometown than as a land of opportunity. This despite a recent surge in activity, including a production deal with Mila Kunis’s company (they’re producing a sitcom for ABC with the working title Holy Sh*t — “They’re making us change the name,” he says). He’s also starring in a couple of buzz-generating indie films on the festival circuit, and has a recurring role in TV commercials as a spokesman for Dell. And of course, he’s a regular on the standup circuit and late-night shows. The one thing he’s not is an overnight success.
“I made some mistakes. I was maybe a dick in some moments.”
Twelve years ago, he moved to LA. “Got big agents, big managers,” he says, signs of rising stardom. “And then it wasn’t really quick. I made some mistakes. I was maybe a dick in some moments. I kind of got ahead of myself. And then I learned what I was really trying to be and made the right relationships.”
Life seems to be one long learning process for Thune. One of the standup sketches that kickstarted his recent successes started out tragically — and almost went downhill from there.
“The dog weed story?” he says, repeating my question about the bit in which his French bulldog “Mikey” finds and eats his pot brownie, with hilarious results. “That dog died tragically. Heartbreakingly. I found him dead, suffocated. He’d gotten a bag caught on his head while I was having brunch with my wife. I gave him mouth to mouth as my neighbor drove me to the vet. He was my best friend.” While recovering from his dog’s death, Thune sent his wife and son away to stay with family in Seattle. He checked himself into Chateau Marmont — “like a douchebag,” he notes wryly. “Because I couldn’t be in the house that my dog had died in.” Still reeling, he phoned Jonah Ray and asked for a slot at the famed comedy L.A. show Meltdown. He then phoned a friend and discussed his plan to grieve onstage.
“He said, ‘That’s not your job!” Thune says of his friend. “‘Your job is to do literally the opposite of that. People who want to cry are coming for relief.’ So I got there and decided I’m gonna tell a story about Mikey, and I told the weed brownie story, and then a month later, I did it on The Tonight Show. That was the first time I’d ever told it. It was a real story that had happened a year before. That’s when I realized that my job is to take people away from their dog dying.”
Another lesson involved patience. Thune’s early success came from telling quick, humorous stories while strumming a guitar, but his SeeSo special is built around longer-form storytelling. When I ask him if it was a hard transition, he replies earnestly, “It took three years of trying every night.” He traveled the country honing the stories, but during multiple-night stands the comedy club bookers would send a not-so-subtle message to him. “I would show up at venues and they would notice that I didn’t have a guitar,” he says. “The next night — ‘Oh, there’s a guitar in the green room!'”
Perhaps all this patience and learning was leading up to Thune’s first true effort to write and produce his own TV series. He and writing partner Kevin Parker Flynn conceived the show in a storefront office in the Glassell Park neighborhood of LA., building out characters and plot lines on a whiteboard over a nine-month period. The show is set in a church, but Thune, who was raised as a religious Christian, insists it’s more of a workplace comedy than a religious satire. He would play a hip pastor who swoops in and tries to save a struggling church. They titled it Holy Sh*t. “We started pitching it, and everyone said no,” Thune recalls. “Fox, NBC, probably 30 people said no. And I get it. Religion is different to everybody. But just like The Office isn’t about paper, our show isn’t about religion. It’s about the people and the workplace.” Still, the explanation didn’t sway TV execs, who argued that it wasn’t worth the risk of alienating advertisers.
Then, Kunis and her production company Orchard Farms took a meeting with Thune. “Usually [the meetings] took about 45 minutes. An hour and a half go by and then Mila just said, ‘We’re three women, and you’re two men, and we want to do this — we know it’s a weird fit.'”
ABC bought the pilot in December, though it’s too soon to say if the show will ever get made.
When he was just 5, his parents made him see a food psychologist — who knew that was even a thing?
So Thune has to continue to be patient and hope that once again, it pays off. Now, it should be noted that in addition to conducting the interview in a trendy restaurant, I also set out to press Thune about his eating habits, his thoughts on food and anything else that might be of note from a culinary perspective. I start to regret trying to make a connection between Thune and food; he tells me of the ill-fated dog death while he was at brunch, and about his parents basically force feeding him because he would only eat yogurt, peanut butter and pizza. When he was just 5, they ended up taking him to a food psychologist — who knew that was even a thing?
The psychologist, he recalls, suggested a ploy: If he eats his dinner, he gets a toy; if he doesn’t, that’s his breakfast. Encouraged with his progress at one point, his mother, pregnant with his twin brothers, took him for a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, which held the promise of a toy watch if he ate sufficiently. (“To think you’d have to beg a kid to each chicken McNuggets,” he says.) “I got a Happy Meal and it took me an hour to eat four chicken McNuggets. I finished them and my mom gave me the watch, and I immediately vomited all of the food onto her pregnant stomach. And then she took the watch away from me.”
He’s still overcoming food phobias, but as with his career, for Nick Thune, all’s well that ends well. When I ask about his favorite food, he starts to rhapsodize about mustard — which he literally never ate until a year ago. Looking proud, like a man who has learned a thing or two along the way, he declares, “Now I’m a mustard aficionado!”