Profile: Peter Gunn busy beautifying downtown, firing off jokes

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 26, 2013 

While a real Peter Gunn was in elementary school in New York, a fictional Peter Gunn was shooting his way to TV fame as a private eye in the late 1950s and early '60s, along with Henry Mancini's Grammy-winning theme song.

It's not difficult to understand, then, why the real Peter Gunn might develop a sense of humor.

Many Whatcom County residents who have heard Gunn do stand-up comedy - or chatted with him during his three-year stint at the fondly remembered downtown institution The Newsstand - were gifted with bon mots and other assorted lines ranging from the wickedly acerbic to the grossly humorous.

There is, it seems, no prospect for Gunn control.

Today, people often see Gunn doing landscaping and maintenance for Downtown Bellingham Partnership. He usually has time for a friendly hello and, if you're lucky, a quip or a full-fledged joke.

Gunn's avocation when he worked in Los Angeles was stand-up. Several years after he moved to Bellingham 17 years ago - "I wanted to get away from LA." - he realized he seriously missed his satirical humor gigs. So, in typically unorthodox Gunn fashion, he made his local stand-up debut with several appearances at Bellingham City Council meetings.

"I noticed they had this public comment period," Gunn says with a grin. "I realized I could say pretty much anything. ... (Former Mayor) Mark Asmundson liked me, and I think Terry Bornemann and Gene Knutson did, too."

When Gunn talks of his heritage, he provides humor, of course: "I'm half-Mormon and half-Jewish, so that means I could have six wives and still sleep on the couch."

And when he talks of his youthful attempts at sports, he recalls: "I was on the JV football team in high school and coach called on me. 'Gunn, it's third-and-goal at the 1-yard line with 1 minute and 30 seconds left in the first half. What's your call?' I told him, 'Coach, I stand on the bench so I can get a better look at the field.'"

Gunn fondly recalls his 15 or so comedic appearances with local personality Deb Slater when she had her "Experience Northwest" show on Bellingham TV station KVOS.

"I was a very, very, poor man's John Stewart," he says.

Local filmmaker Glen Berry used Gunn for the role of a Shriner circus artist in "Kung Fu Joe" (2009), an 89-minute parody of 1970s exploitation films. Gunn had the immortal line once spoken by Jack Nicholson: "You can't handle the truth."

He also has appeared in several short films.

Gunn and co-worker David Helm are, in Gunn's words, "responsible for anything that's green" - except tree-trimming - along with other duties in the downtown core.

"We even put up the electric snowflakes every year in late November," he says. "And you know what? Each one is different, just like real snowflakes."

Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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