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Pete Holmes: The 3 Agonizing Stages Between Talk-Show Pilot and Talk Show

The waiting was the hardest part for Pete Holmes after shooting his TBS pilot Photo: Michael Schwartz/Getty

About six months ago, I met with my hero Conan O’Brien to discuss the idea of hosting my version of a Conan-type talk show after his on TBS. As you might imagine, this opportunity was insanely exciting: It felt like I was 7 years old, eating Cap’n Crunch on a Saturday morning and getting a knock on the door from the real-life Cap’n Crunch, who tells me he wants to help me develop my own breakfast cereal, “Lieut’nant Crunch.” It was just like that — but cooler and more surreal.

What followed were several more meetings where I pretended to be comfortable in front of the Cap’n, and then a pitch in front of the heads of TBS. At the end of the meeting, TBS decided to give us the green light to make three pilot episodes and see where we’d go from there. And in August of 2012, we did. And they were great. But it turns out the “see where we go from there” part was actually the most difficult of the entire experience, far tougher than the pitching or the writing or the shooting. It was six long and agonizing months of waiting before I finally got the call that my passion project is going forward this fall.

Now that I’ve come out the other side, I want to help my comedian peers who might find themselves in the same position. If this post were a pamphlet in a comedian/actor’s doctor’s office, it would be called “So You’re Waiting to Hear About Your Pilot,” or “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Childless Showbiz Jerks Edition).”

Month One: Looks Like We Made It.      
You just shot your pilot. You’re on top of the world. So many handshakes, so many congratulations, and probably some sort of wrap party where you know everyone’s name down to the last intern and you all throw back bubbling wines from fancy French provinces together. If you took an MRI of my brain at this point, it would’ve looked like the Fourth of July: just pure adrenaline, burning white light, and happiness. That first week off after the wrap is entirely spent trying to wind down, as your brain just released enough endorphins to kill a small pony. And you think, They’ll make us wait, but only as a formality. I’m buying a Segway.

Months Two to Three: I’m Sure She’ll Call.
The second and third months feel exactly the way I felt as a junior-high student waiting for my seventh-grade crush Emily Bravo to call: She wasn’t calling, so I kept picking up the phone to make sure it was still working — and for the rest of the night I was convinced that I had missed her because she had called the split-second I had the receiver off the hook. But getting to make my own pilot exactly how I wanted to was way better than a teenage crush: It was the girl of my dreams — let’s call her “Pilota” — and I actually got one night with her. A balmy night — probably in Spain, yeah. Where our eyes locked from across some sort of gazebo where we were both enjoying a wine tasting/Spanish guitar concert out of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and were so overcome with spontaneous passion for one another that we wordlessly wound up making passionate love in a nearby pile of hay. And at the last minute, I gave her my number, but I forget to get hers. And now I’m back in the States waiting for her to call. Why won’t you call, Pilota? We could be so happy spending the rest of our lives together! POR QUE PILOTA???

Needless to say, the rest of your life gets the volume turned down a bit waiting for a call like that. All other gigs felt like dating other women who, sure, may be wonderful, but none compares to that hay-laying temptress of my dreams. But you keep the faith. She’ll call. She probably just has a malfunctioning weird Spanish phone.

Months Four to Five: Waiting Weight. Who am I kidding? She’s not going to call. People even stopped asking about my show, probably thinking it’s been so long it’s impolite. I remember talking to comedian Jimmy Pardo about his experience waiting to hear about his own pilot, and we both agreed on one thing: When you can’t control your showbiz fate, you can at least control the amount of ice cream you’re eating. And if you’re like us, it was a lot. Your body is in some sort of trauma around the five-month waiting mark, and your caveman brain, unable to logically diagnose television-pilot-related stress, becomes convinced that it’s experiencing some sort of plague, possibly with locusts and brush fires, and you are not safe and you must sleep twelve hours a night waiting it out and gaining weight for the coming famine. So you eat. And sleep. And get fat. And tell yourself that you’re fine and that if the show goes you’ll drop the pounds and if the show doesn’t go at least you’ll have a nice starting layer to grow your depressed Norbit-but-real bodysuit upon. Every time the phone rings you think it’s news from the network, but more likely it’s Dominos confirming that your Super Bowl Sunday–size order is actually going to a single man’s apartment and not a bowling alley in Milwaukee. Buying that Segway starts to feel like a mistake.

There were, however, little bursts of clean-burning optimism mixed throughout this entire experience. Some of these giant meals and ice creams weren’t eaten alone but rather with my wonderful executive producer Nick Bernstein, who was also medicating his wait with various cheeses. We’d eat together and get all giddy again, planning bits for the show or hypothesizing how one day we might get written up as having “famously eaten together at the same restaurant” where we dreamt big about “one of the greatest television shows in the history of humankind.” Then we’d part ways and head back to our respective burrito comas.

Month Six. Fuck Everything. Around this time, you just want an answer, whether it’s a yes or a no. You barely remember what it was like to have shot the show, or your head writer’s name, let alone the interns’. You’ve managed your expectations and run fantasy scenarios of what you’d do if it’s a yes and what you’d do if it’s a no, but by this point, you’re so numb you’d really just like the mercy kill either way, thanks. Just anything other than this weird, sexless marriage you’re shuffling through, blind on boxed Merlot.

I found out my pilot was picked up while I was eating alone in a Thai restaurant on Valentine’s Day in Vancouver. By that point, I had stopped turning white every time I got a call with more than three agents on the line. I wish I could tell you a great story about dancing a blissful, spontaneous foxtrot with my waitress or yelling “woo-hoo!” so loud a dog died. But all I remember is feeling relief, catching a glimpse of light that would slowly, over the coming months (and to this day), turn into the starburst of happiness and gratitude it is now, and then flatly asking my agents, “Can I tell my parents?”

And that’s the weirdest part about all of this. By the time you get the word, your brain has released so many self-medicating sedatives to protect you from the endless obsessing over how your life could drastically change the next time the phone rings that when it finally does ring, you’re a little bit robbed of a “SIMPLY THE BEST!” moment. Instead, you’re left with — at least in my case — disbelief. But gradually the numbness fades away and slowly, piece by piece, you get little deliveries of the happiness that you’ve been postponing for months. Not one cannon blast, but rather a little Advent calendar of bliss; some days it’s a small, fillingless chocolate behind an elf, and you eventually work your way up to the big salted-caramel-almond sensation hiding behind Santa.

It’s not that bright of a finish to the story. And this is the story of them saying “yes.” I can’t imagine what a “no” is like. Although, that’s not entirely true. I spent six months imagining what a “no” would feel like.

My “no” fire drill ran a little something like this: Jon Stewart, Zach Galifianakis, and Johnny Carson all had “failed” talk shows before they found their homes. A few years ago, no one wanted to work with Kristin Schaal. HBO passed on Mad Men. At the end of the day, yes or no, we all have the same job to do as artists and as people: Keep. Fucking. Going. If the girl from Spain does call, great. It was meant to be. Let’s make babies, sweet, sweet Pilota. If she doesn’t, what a dummy. She kinda kissed weird anyway.

Pete Holmes, one of Vulture’s 50 Comedians You Should and Will Know, also hosts the “You Made It Weird” podcast. His TBS show will debut this fall.

The 3 Agonizing Stages of Getting a Talk Show