A comedic legend coming to Bonners Ferry

By Mike Weland

Nick Theisen

Way back in the mid-80s, living in Spokane, I came to the conclusion, ultimately proven false, that I was going to be a stand-up comic when I grew up. In the few years it took to disabuse myself of the notion, I had a few successes and made a number of dear friends. One of them, it gives me great pleasure to say, will perform in Bonners Ferry this month. If you like comedy and a good laugh, you will love Nick Theisen.

I was working as an editorial assistant at the Spokesman Review when I was bitten by the comedy bug. In the newsroom, editorial assistant is one of the lowliest of positions, but out in the community, it was a position of prestige, as I wrote for the paper and even got a byline for the Sunday Arts & Ends column I compiled.

Somehow, I was honored with the opportunity to serve as a judge for the Spokane leg of a national amateur comedy competition, a gala event that took place at the Bing Crosby Theater.

As I recall, the late, great Louie Anderson hosted the show, which featured some talented up and coming comedians, and several not so talented. I walked away thinking how easy that looked, how fun. It wasn’t long before I was in Eddie Murphy’s Tavern in the heart of Hilliard, long since burned down. (By quirk of fate, the establishment was built decades before the comic icon came along and named after baseball great Eddie Murphy.)

Eddie Murphy’s had just welcomed comedy to the club, and with it a fledgling weekly standup competition. I just watched the first week. I went home and wrote a few jokes and entered the following, and somehow won the prize … $10 I think. It was all I thought it would be. Easy, even though I was so nervous in the hours ahead of the show I asked my wife to drive. She asked on the way if I needed to go to the emergency room.

But afterwards, I’d done it. I’d faced the deer-in-the-headlights terror that comes the first time you step in the spotlight and realize you’re flying blind, unable to see much of your audience at all. But I got a couple of laughs, a bit of scattered applause and a couple of high fives on the way back to my table. And best of all, I got called back to the stage to be crowned the winner and to get paid. Get paid … my first foray and I was already a professional! Mattered not that only three of us entered, the last contestant half crocked having been at the bar since it opened that day, in poor shape but insisting that a comedy competition was nothing without competition.

Comedy caught on at Eddie Murphy’s. I did several more comedy shows there and even got a few minutes on the “real” stage between sets by the real talent. I performed in other venues, won a few competitions. Even got hired to emcee or warm the stage with a 15-minute set of my own … said so right there on the billing.

But one thing was slowly becoming clear … this was by no means showing any sign of becoming easy, no matter how many times I went on stage.

One thing I did learn about comedy was that its practitioners, the successful ones, were always interested in seeing who was coming down the pike, and I came to know a good many of the local stars. Without exception, as long as you weren’t a jerk, they were friendly, helpful. Jay Wendell Walker, a true gentleman who’d been doing standup since the Golden Age and Vaudeville, commiserated with a lot of young hopefuls, including me, after we came off a dismal set, shared advice and stories freely. Took pride that so many of us looked up to him, watched his every move in hopes of learning how he made it seem so easy. So effortless.

And Nick Theisen. Eternally nice, willing to help open doors for youngsters in whom he saw a spark of talent, not hesitant to gently let those lacking know to hold on to their day job. And Nick had a style, a panache, an energy that I tried my best to emulate. I could and still do admire George Carlin, George Gobel, Red Skelton, Robin Williams, the great Richard Pryor … But after watching Nick command a stage, that big, goofy grin beaming right back at the spotlight and just as bright … making it look, here, right in front of me, not just easy, but as if what he was doing was the most natural thing in the world.

And to see how he was accepted and savored by the audience; love reflected right back at him … it was magical to behold. It wasn’t the jokes, it wasn’t a schtick … it was undefinable. It was beautiful and so damned funny! I wanted to be Nick Theisen.

And another thing about Nick. When he came off stage, stepped down and joined the audience … he joined the audience! Witty, funny, great company, but part of the audience. He did not bring the stand-up comic off the stage with him, did not come down and compete from the back table with whomever was now on stage, or worse yet, continue his show at the table. He took in the show, laughed and carried on when a punchline worked, groaned when one didn’t, always generous, always respectful. He made that look easy, too. Natural. As it should be.

I haven’t seen Nick for more than 30 years, but I’ve never forgotten how he made feel. As a young and uncertain comic, as a member of his audience reveling in his true wit and amazing wisdom. As a friend. He must have seen a spark of something back when I was fumbling to find my place on stage, as he never tried to dissuade me, never discouraged, never came out and said, “Mike, you don’t quite have it.” I figured that out on my own, eventually, and had fun along the way.

We somehow forged a friendship that far outlasted the few years I dabbled in the craft. Nick, now 68 years old, is still at it, a world class comic content to be a world class Spokane comic.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for him. Three years ago, a doctor told him he had no more than 18 months to live, four different types of cancer; lung, prostate, kidney and gallbladder, gnawing at his vitals. Anyone else would have succumbed to despair, tried to deny it, given up hope.

Not Nick. He laughed at it, brought elements of it into his shows and invited his audience join him in laughing at the scourge trying to drain his life away. He started a podcast, “Finding Chemo,” defiantly fighting through, refusing to stop laughing, inviting audiences to laugh along with him and showing them that there was humor in even the darkest of places.

In September, terribly sick and deeply in debt, Theisen was astonished to hear that a couple of the comics he’d known through the years were putting a little fundraiser together for him. The Knitting Factory was theirs, he learned, donated for the event by general manager Kent Skelton, who said he had to help.

“Nick cast such a big shadow around here,” he told Spokesman Review reporter Ed Condran. “Nick is so beloved by the comedy community … we had to help.”

On October 1, Nick stepped into the spotlight on “A Night of Hope and Laughter,” joining fellow headliners Dan Cummings, who came in from a national tour in honor of his mentor, Rod Long, Susan Rice, Art Krug, Vince Valenzuela and Don Parkins, each with a story to tell of how their and Nick’s paths had converged at different moments in time during Nick’s 45-year career. And while they were in Spokane, even more northwest comedians were giving their time and talent on Nick’s behalf at “A Night of Hope and Laughter” fundraisers taking place simultaneously in Seattle and Portland, both places that know and appreciate the comic genius who is Nick Theisen.

Few comedians have garnered such laurels of respect and admiration as Nick Theisen, and few small audiences in such out of the way places will ever have the privilege of an evening with so esteemed a performer, but the Pearl Theater, 7160 Ash Street, has made the impossible possible as Speed Entertainment and host Brian Rasor bring an unparalleled night of comedy to Bonners Ferry at 7 p.m. Friday, January 26.

Josh Teaford, a “noise tinkerer and semi-pro comedian” also from Spokane, is the featured performer and Nick Theisen the headliner for one show only. Tickets are $16 advance, available here, or $18 at the door, which opens, along with the Pearl Café, at 6:30 p.m.