Musical comedy can be a lot of things, and at its best, it can go so much deeper than straight stand up; recent musical comedy specials like Bo Burnham’s what. and Karen Kilgariff’s Live at the Bootleg dive easily and openly into musings on the meaning of life while still being hilarious and captivating. So when Nick Thune picks up a guitar at the beginning of his new special Folk Hero, there’s an air of expectation that the performance unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to.
Thune’s music never feels like it’s meant to tell us much at all; if anything, it almost feels like an afterthought. (At one point, he even cedes musical control to a guitar player in the audience without really acknowledging that it’s happened, which is as confusing as it sounds.) Despite holding a guitar for most of the hour, he uses it mostly as ambient background music. It’s a trick often used by one-liner types like Zach Galifianakis and Demetri Martin, though Thune hasn’t quite committed to their punchy styles either, lacking both the quiet, deranged brilliance of Galifianakis and the memorable incision of Martin.
As with so many specials, it’s not that Thune isn’t funny or fun to watch; he has plenty of charm, and it’s easy to see that an hour in his company could be a pleasant night out. But that feeling doesn’t quite translate to his recording, despite being taped at The Bell House, one of the best spots for live comedy in New York City. In some ways, Folk Hero feels as much like a variety show as a stand-up special—there are a few songs, some cute stories and a silly game with an audience member. It’s delightful, but lacks depth.
Thune’s strongest material comes when he mixes his propensity for absurdity with a personal twist. The special’s highlight is a long, occasionally meandering bit about becoming pen pals with an ex-girlfriend’s little brother. The tale is bizarre, creepy and self-effacing, and also really funny. And Thune enjoys playing with faux pomposity; towards the beginning, he laughs to himself, explaining, “I just told myself a joke. It’s gonna be a good show.” It’s one of several meta-jokes that threaten to tip the show into self-indulgence, though it thankfully never does.
But for the most part, Folk Hero is good but simply unmemorable. In all likelihood, Thune, who is currently starring in yet another pilot, will be known for bigger and better things. His talent is undeniable, but this special doesn’t quite capture it.