Pete Holmes on Why Stand-up Comedians Are Like Youth Pastors

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Pete Holmes Photo: Getty Images

Where the first season of HBO’s Crashing was a fish-out-of-water story, with the very religious Pete Holmes finding himself confronted by the gruff, hopeless world of starting out in club comedy, in the second season, which premiered earlier this month, Pete goes down the rabbit hole. Faith is lost and new answers are found.

It’s a story familiar to those who have followed the career of the real-life Pete Holmes, as his stand-up persona evolved from a goofy dad to lapsed youth pastor to essentially a nondenominational youth pastor with great jokes. A good example of this is the bit he considers his definitive one: “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Double Snakes,” from his tremendous 2016 HBO special Faces and Sounds.

This joke is the subject of this week’s season finale of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the transcript of the discussion below. Subscribe to Good One on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

I was watching all of your specials in a row, and I was thinking about how much better you got between your 2010 half hour and your 2013 hour Nice Try, the Devil. If I were to posit a theory, it was the shift of your persona from “fun dad” to the joke that this is the only universe where you’re not a youth pastor. It’s similar, but a bit more specific.
And it’s also flirting with the idea of telling the audience that I was religious.

You’re not religious almost at all earlier in your career. Was it hard for you to overcome that or figure out how to do that part of yourself onstage?
It’s super funny. If you look at Kumail [Nanjiani, with whom Holmes started doing stand-up at the same time in Chicago years ago], for example. I would say this if he was here — this isn’t a bad thing — in fact, I think it’s what he should’ve done. He spends his whole career avoiding talking about being from Pakistan, and then when he gets his big break, it’s talking about being from Pakistan. This is what we do. At a certain point, you reach a level where you’re now good enough to talk about the things you wanted to talk about when you were starting.

From your first special to Faces and Sounds, you made another jump. These jokes are different than how other people would tell them. You can tell a joke about how a person at the airport said a funny thing, but what makes this a Pete Holmes joke is you tell the audience you can take this with you. This is yours now.
It’s proselytizing.

Exactly. So, I am wondering, are you a youth pastor?
Yeah. It’s somewhat similar. I joke that my mom wanted me to be a youth pastor, and when I became a comedian, she said, “Close enough.” That’s kind of it. Ideally, a good pastor wants to empower a congregation to the point where they don’t need him. You want everyone to leave feeling better. A very similar skill set. The spiritual teachers that I relate to are the ones that say, “You don’t need me. You don’t need this. It’s in you.”

We can use the podium of stand-up. I think one of the worst things we can do with stand-up is just reiterate what they already know. I see a lot of stand-up that says, especially guys, “Isn’t sex great?” “Isn’t food great?” “Isn’t sleeping great?” “Isn’t winning great?” “Isn’t it great to be great?” “Isn’t being right great?” That’s very American humor. We have the upper hand. We have the last laugh. They don’t even try — “Me American, me so smart, me no drink the pee-pee part.” I know that’s offensive. For me, I’m all, “Can you do a joke about aren’t we all dumb, aren’t we all weak, don’t we all die, aren’t we all scared, but can you do it in a joyful way?” I understand maybe they’re on their journey and later they’ll get to something more substantial, but a lot of comedy is a waste of opportunity.

I read somewhere that Donald Trump’s most passionate demo is evangelicals who don’t go to church anymore. Considering that this season of Crashing is about your character losing his evangelical faith, do you think there’s something that connects your work to these people?
Really? That’s me! I wonder if that’s like another level of disillusionment. Because Trump, if anything, is like the voice of “Follow me. I’m going to break into this Walmart and we’re going to eat cookies.” So I could see if somebody’s like, “Even church has let me down, I’m going to go with this kind of crazy orangutan.” I suppose we could vilify this group. You might have some hate or you might have some frustration or some pain. We all do. Honestly, it’s my hope that regardless, you could watch a show like this and maybe have some of that pain go away, and maybe even get a little humanity slipped into you while it’s happening.

Insomuch this joke, and the show, is the culmination of a persona you developed for 15 years, how do you take this progression further?
That is what I will be thinking about moving forward because I want to get more and more into the space of thinking about deep things. I wonder what the continuing hybrid of stand-up and being a youth pastor would look like. I don’t have this planned out. There isn’t some set I’m going to do that ends with an altar call, but I am interested in talking about more. I have one of those jobs where people come and they sit down and they listen, and that’s why I get so worked up. Right now, I’m doing more jokes that are literally about consciousness, that are literally about the fundamental workings of our bodies. I have a joke about checking if you have to pee, and I’m like, “Everybody do it. Don’t answer out loud, but answer the question in your mind: Do you have to pee?” And everybody would check and then I just make fun of that device, like, “What just happened?”

Even when we were going to church, my pastor wasn’t talking about the phenomena of awareness. He was giving me a story with answers. He was ticking boxes. He was going, “You’re afraid you’re going to die? Well, we got that covered. Come back next week and we’ll tell you again.” Whereas, I think in comedy, there’s an opportunity to really wrestle and play with these things that should be wrestled and played and danced with. More than they should be explained away.

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