In the next couple of weeks, Gary Petersen will perform his last shows as a Boston comic. He’ll do a set at the Midway Cafe’s open mike Sunday, and then a farewell show Nov. 25 at Great Scott before moving to Los Angeles. “I feel like I’ve done a great deal, as much as I feel like I can, in Boston,” he says.
It’s a rite of passage in Boston comedy. Comedians reach their peak locally, and they start looking to New York or Los Angeles. Petersen has been a standup comedian for 11 years, and he developed a strong voice early on. Even before it started to pay off for him this year — he had a killer set opening for Louis C.K. at a pop-up show in Somerville, and he was named Boston Magazine’s “Best Comedian” — Petersen had his sights set on something bigger.
“I kind of thought about a year back, what do I want to do this year?” he says. One goal was to to record his first album before he left, which he did in February, though he is still looking for a distributor. He has been living with his father to save money for the big jump, which makes one of his jokes even funnier. “I talked to this one girl, she’s like, ‘I don’t date guys with kids,’ ” he says. “I was like, ‘Good, I live with my dad. Do you date kids with guys?’ ”
He’s looking forward to being around big-name comedians, figuring it will sharpen his focus and material. “I want to be in the lion’s den and be alongside the people that’ll kick my ass and are doing things with the craft that are just incredible,” he says. “If you’re next to, on a nightly basis, like a Marc Maron or a Joe Rogan or a Maria Bamford or those caliber people, and you have to step up and perform on their level, then you’re only gonna get better.”
Los Angeles has chewed up and spit out many a comic, and there are a lot on the scene now who took their shot, only to come back to Boston to reassess their careers. Petersen knows it’s going to be tough. “I think I’m going to struggle,” he says. “It’s going to be hard. At least I can be warm most of the year while doing it.”
His other goal is to pay the bills doing stand-up. “I’ve got to make sure my finances are monitored, and I’ve got to make sure, creatively, things are good,” he says, and laughs. “This sounds so boring!”
Most of Petersen’s material comes from spotting the extreme silliness in his personal experiences. How he overdrafted his bank account on purpose to buy a Wendy’s hamburger, or how he once had a job interview at Whole Foods. “They asked me if I could make a grocery experience legendary,” he says. “That’s gonna stick out. That’s weird. Why are you asking that?” After that, he started going to Whole Foods not to shop, but to study, “like a scientist observing gorillas.” He noticed enough there to build a routine around it, including an observation about a DVD that the store was selling in the checkout line, a documentary about the poor treatment of killer whales at Sea World. “I think people should see that, but maybe not the family at a grocery store looking at an impulse buy,” he says.
He’ll take chances in his act, as well. He opened one set at the Comedy Studio by vocalizing a bunch of strange, static-like sounds for nearly 30 seconds, which can be an eternity on a standup stage. Then he paused before the punch line. “If you ever get a chance to change your friend’s voice message. . .” He let the words sink in. “Don’t do that . . . because they will be fired from Build-A-Bear Workshop.” Besides enjoying the absurdity of a routine like that, it lets Petersen get a better sense of the audience. “It can identify a lot of people in the room that weren’t going to like me no matter what I say,” he says. “It’s a nice litmus test. If they don’t like this, that’s OK. This is the amount of laughter I’m going to get the rest of the night.”
That willingness to test both the audience and himself should serve him well in Los Angeles. “Every major step I’ve done in my own personal life as an adult, I’ve jumped in feeling not ready and then it’s worked out and it’s been fine,” he says. “And it’s because I figured it out.”
At Great Scott, Allston, Nov. 25. Tickets: $5, 617-566-9014, www.greatscottboston.com
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.