Over the past few years, Pete Holmes has established himself as one of the biggest unknown comedians by maintaining two very different personas. Onstage, he’s a big, boisterous, goofball, willing and able to sell punch lines that are as silly as they are smart; offstage — primarily on “You Made It Weird,” his top fifteen ranked most popular comedy podcast, in which he talks honestly with comedians about comedy, sex, and religion — he’s inquisitive and confessional. Tonight on TBS, following Conan, he’ll merge the two together in his very own late-night talk show, The Pete Holmes Show. On the eve of his big break, we spoke to Holmes about the artistic value of the late night talk show, how weird it is working with one of his idols Conan O’Brien, and if he’d ask Kate Upton if she believes in God.
So, are you ready?
Yeah, I mean, it’s weird, man. I’m trying to walk that line between overly confident and really shitting my pants. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have blind hubris, but we have a very good idea of how the show’s going to be. We have a very good idea of how the first week is going to be, at least. I remember Conan told me when he did his show, after the first week they all celebrated. He said to me, [as Conan] “We were fools.” But I know after our first week we’ll celebrate.
What would be the five things you’d want to tell a person who has no idea who you are?
I think it would go something like this: silly, positive … but still somewhat edgy. I think that would be No. 3: “still somewhat edgy.” Because it’s really important to me that people don’t think that positive means boring. I tend to lean towards comedy that’s not against anybody or kicking people while they’re down, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not doing stuff that’s interesting. If you watch the new Batman video, there’s dirty jokes and there’s swearing — whatever it is that people associate with edgy. Yet, at the heart of it, it’s still a positive and silly sketch. So, silly, positive, but still somewhat edgy. I think a big one is curious. And then the fifth one I think would be really horny. [Laughs.]
Is there one stand-up bit that you think best echoes the tone of the show?
Yeah, I think my second Conan. I did a bit about how I love magic and how people who hate magic and love pointing out that magic is fake need to just shut their mouths. So there you go, it’s a positive bit, but at the same time, I’m still taking a stance. It’s that mentality that put me in this position.
I think “everything sucks” is too often leaned upon as a comedic stance. It’s a really easy and pretty weak perspective. Don’t get me wrong, we’re going to do jokes about things that I don’t like, but people who don’t really have personalities will often manufacture the illusion of a personality by just saying “no” to everything and just telling you why everything sucks.
You’ve said that you’ve always wanted to do a talk show. What makes the format still worthwhile, especially now, when there are so many on the air and there are shows like Comedy Bang! Bang! that satirize it?
I like the philosophy of the talk show. It’s like a river. A stand-up act is almost like a pool. You know what I mean? It’s like a pool and you’re always skimming little leaves out of it, messing with the chlorine level, putting up umbrellas. You’re trying to make one little stagnant body of water perfect. Whereas a late-night show is like a river, always moving forward. It’s going to force you into places where you’re going to take chances that you might not take normally. I like to point out that Triumph the Insult Comic Dog was a last-minute decision. They didn’t know what they were going to do, so they did some stupid bit and out of it they got Triumph.
That’s appealing to me. It reflects my own philosophy of life: It’s all about the moment. It’s about putting it out, putting it on its feet when you have it, pencils down, go out, connect, be present, do it for that audience, and then let it exist forever. There’s a surrendering to the way life is that’s similar to the way you surrender to the way a late-night show is. I find it kind of fitting. Also, there’s something about that river mentality where we let somebody really be himself. Conan said to me, “They’re going to see when you’re tired. They’re going to see when you’re happy. They’re going to see you with a guest that you’re genuinely excited about. They’re going to see you with a guest that you’re not genuinely excited about.” It’s a level of intimacy that you don’t really get anywhere else.
Chelsea Peretti and Kumail Nanjiani are booked for the first week of shows. These are comedians who are friends of yours, but also they’re having their big breaks themselves. Have you thought about how the surge in the popularity of comedy itself has allowed for you to have a show where instead of interviewing celebrities, you hang out with comedians?
Absolutely. That’s one of the bigger chances we’re taking, I suppose. The interviews aren’t celebrity-driven. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve gone out to Rachel Maddow, we sat down with Jon Stewart, we’ve gone out for more recognizable names, but in studio I don’t think there’s anything better than two very funny people who are actually familiar with each other, who are actually friends being funny together. That has been ushered in by the podcast movement, for lack of a better term. We’ve seen what happens when we let people in on our actual lives, instead of me talking to Miley Cyrus or somebody promoting a film.
There is a certain amount of trust we’re giving the audience, being like: If you stick with this, if you invest in this, you’re going to love it. I like to look at it as if Seinfeld were a talk show. The first guests would be George, Kramer, and Elaine. They were nobodies to us. Similarly, at a certain point on my podcast, Kumail became “Kumail,” my friend Kumail, who always comes up, who’s been on the show many times. Chelsea became “Chelsea.” Both of those people are becoming more and more famous in the broad sense, but I would like the show to be a playhouse. Like when Don Rickles used to just stop by the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. You can’t manufacture that. And if we want to go out and talk to a celebrity, we’ll go and shoot it remote.
Do you have certain dream guests?
Yeah, I’d really like to get Christian Bale, just because I’d love to see what he thinks of the Batman videos. Hugh Jackman. He just retweeted our Wolverine video. I’d love to do a Wolverine response video with him actually playing Wolverine. I think that would be incredible. And those people that know me, no surprise that I’d love to have Ryan Gosling on. And also Kate Upton. My publicist is giving me the thumbs-up. Kate Upton for no reason other than she’s just gorgeous.
Now, will you ask Kate Upton if she believes in God?
Yeah, of course. Of course! What would be funnier and more fun and sillier than to ask Kate Upton what happens when you die? She’s like 19. And all she knows is being in a bikini in the snow. I’d love to hear what her perspective on heaven is.
I want to talk a little bit about the whole fame aspect of doing this show. It won’t make you Brad Pitt overnight, but you will be a person on TV. People will either know that you have a TV show before they meet you or at least will after they meet you. Have you thought about how that will affect you, and especially dating?
I sometimes think about why Eminem keeps going back to Kim, or at least he used to. That’s the one girl that he knew before he got famous. I think there’s something to that. I do think about it. I’m not too worried about it. Although, it is interesting to consider the dating thing. It’s a weird double-edged sword, isn’t it? I think a lot of people want to be famous so they can meet girls and stuff, but then you’re like, do they want you for you? I don’t anticipate that being too big of a problem. [Laughs.] You know, it’s going to be interesting. That’ll be something I’ll have to update on the podcast as it’s happening, because right now, life is going to be pretty similar. I’m going to run into just as many people who have absolutely no idea who I am. And that’ll be just fine. If I’m having some weird dating experience, people are going to hear about it. It’s going to have that transparency.
Chris Rock was on Totally Biased in September, and he joked about how networks never give un-famous black people shows, but unknown white people get shows all the time. As a fairly unknown white guy, do you have a feeling about this?
Yeah, it’s weird. I just interviewed W. Kamau Bell for my show and we talked briefly about it. I don’t feel like my comment is even really worth anything. I do know what Chris Rock is talking about. He’s actually been saying that for a very long time. He used to be like, “Do you think if I was as funny as Jay Mohr, I would be on SNL?” I don’t think he was necessarily shitting on Jay Mohr, although it certainly comes off that way. It’s just that an unknown black guy has to be extremely funny to get on SNL. Whereas a white guy who’s good-looking or charming or somewhat interesting might definitely have a better shot. And while that’s certainly unfair, I don’t think anybody cares what I think about that plight. I empathize with that. I sympathize with that. But who cares what I think?
At this point, does it feel at all normal to interact with Conan O’Brien?
It’s gotten more and more comfortable each time. I’m doing his show today, which will be the fifth time. It still gets my blood going. He hasn’t seen the real me just yet because I’m never fully comfortable around him. I’m always trying to be mildly funny, but not try to be funny. He’s been my hero for the entire time that I’ve been doing comedy, so it’s still weird. He does a really good job of making me comfortable. He’s very available. One of the reasons I wouldn’t ask him to do the podcast is because I think he’ll say yes, whether or not he actually wants to, because he’s so nice. I always let him take the lead. But he will take me to dinner or to lunch or something and every time it’s a thrill. And the whole time I’m just doing an impression of a guy who’s comfortable being in front of one of his icons.
So, last question. This is not meant to be a burn. But did you have a long talk with the sound guy about how loud your laugh is or if you’ll need a special microphone?
[Laughs.] Not yet. And that’s not a burn. I’m glad that you’re aware of that. It hasn’t been an issue yet and I have been laughing full volume. It escapes in the set more than it does in a small podcast studio. But Chelsea’s on episode three, so I’m sure I’ll hear about it.