If you don’t know Pete Holmes, start now. At 34 years old, the rising New England comic has worked the scene for a little over eight years, having appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, VH1’s Best Week Ever, and VH1’s All Access. He hosts one of the best weekly podcasts online — You Made It Weird on the Nerdist network — and every so often makes erratic guest appearances on Doug Loves Movies. (So erratic that he’ll spend the majority of the time doing impersonations of other regular guest T.J. Miller, or There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, or Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, or whatever character comes to mind.) He’s loud, he’s animated, and yet he’s oddly compassionate with his discussions, all key qualities that make him the likely choice to complement Conan O’Brien, which he’ll do this fall with his currently unnamed late night show for TBS.
Right now, he’s out supporting his latest comedy album, Nice Try, The Devil, the followup to his critically-acclaimed 2011 debut, Impregnated with Wonder. In our review, published this past week, Dan Pfleegor called his new effort “a haphazard rodeo molded in the mind of a charismatic optimist.” It’s a succinct description of Holmes, who spends the majority of his performances oscillating between ideas and thoughts, usually resulting in a smile, a squeal, or a cackle that recalls Mark Hamill’s Joker. Behind this addicting chaos, though, is a sense of humanity and humility that can take years for comics to possess. It’s a rare form of self-deprecation that’s similar but far more tongue-in-cheek than the brilliance of Louis C.K.’s personal anecdotes. Where does it come from? His ability to poke fun at the dirt we scrub off.
“I think one of my pursuits, as an adult, is to figure out how much of [life] is psychological,” Holmes tells me over the phone, “like how much is from my past and how much of it’s earnest and naturally growing currently.”
It’s early in the afternoon for Holmes, who lives in Los Angeles and is currently on his way to record another episode of You Made It Weird. The podcast revolves around three “weird” things he shares with each week’s guest, usually evolving into discussions about the industry, relationships, and religion. Today he’ll interview Curtis Gwinn, last week he interviewed Jay Mohr. I discuss his recent episode with Mohr, in which the two discussed, at great lengths, faith and God without the conversation ever getting icy.
“He said some things that I could have disagreed with,” Holmes acknowledges. “He was saying that we don’t know what feeling is, like when you hear a song or hold your baby. I’m not a dummy; I enjoy recreational psychology. I know the word ‘neuroscience.'”
However, he’s not there to disagree, he’s there to learn.
“What would happen if we assumed that everyone was smart and had something worth saying,” Holmes suggests. “The roadmap to observation is paved with all of these stupid things, as some may say. I prefer to meet someone where they are, which is what I want them to do when they meet me, because there’s so much that I don’t know. There are many blindspots in my worldview and perspective of reality.”
This is the quiet, more cerebral Holmes. The persona that wins over guests for up to three hours (!), easing them to share intimate details, like their first sexual encounters, near death experiences, and behind-the-scenes spats that have aged like coarse whiskey. Said charm has worked with the likes of Jon Hamm, Dane Cook, Chelsea Peretti, Sarah Silverman, Rob Delaney, John Mulaney, and many more in its near-two year existence. Though, they also love a Joker.
“One of my big theories on life is that there’s just different sides of everybody,” Holmes says. “I catch myself contradicting myself constantly on the podcast, and people point it out within a minute. But, I’m okay with with being inconsistent. Being a performer on the show, you’re kind of meeting Podcast Pete, who I think is the truest Pete because I’m not always on or consistent.”
He’s a conversationalist, similar to WTF host Marc Maron (who he’s also had on his program), only without the antagonism. He’s not always gunning to get his two cents in, he’s waiting to hear his guests’. That’s a far cry from his adrenalized guest spots on Doug Loves Movies, which once spawned a walk-off by Jeff Garlin.
“Jeff couldn’t believe that the guy back stage who he was just having regular conversation with was the jackass that came out onto the stage,” Holmes says. “I can’t maintain that level of energy that I have on Doug Loves Movies for much more than the episode.” Garlin has since appeared on You Made It Weird; they spoke for over two hours.
“In school, I was always the kid who didn’t know when to stop, even though I may not have been particularly funny,” Holmes explains. “I’ve grown up and matured since then, but that character is still inside of me.”
He suggests that the podcast offers a variety of personalities — though, it’s all on the guest.
“If someone like Bert Kreischer wants to come on the show and be silly, we can be silly for two-and-a-half hours,” he adds. “If someone like Rob Dell comes on to talk about theology, I don’t think there any jokes on the episode. I think everybody is complex and would enjoy and benefit from different havens and safe spaces in their lives and talk to different people who allow them to do different things. It’s like hanging out with different friends.”
Holmes does a lot of hanging out. Whether it’s from touring, or festivals, or guest appearances on podcasts, he’s always surrounded by his peers, which means he’s well aware of comedy’s swift evolution. He points to truth as an anchor and how it creates a bond with the audience. So far it’s worked: When he tours his podcast around the country, it’s not the guests that draw crowds (sometimes they’re not even announced), it’s him.
“They feel they actually know and connect with me,” Holmes says. “People ask me if they think that’s weird, but I think it’s weird that I don’t think that it’s weird. When they come to the show, it feels like they know what I’m about. From there, we can engage in a type of dialogue, even though the crowd’s participation is mostly clapping and laughing. That’s something that I’ve learned about hosting.”
That’s also something TBS picked up on. After filming a few test episodes last year, Holmes convinced the Ted Turner-owned company to commission a late night series that will follow O’Brien’s Conan. (In other words, he’d be the Jimmy Fallon to his Jay Leno — a metaphor that could get this writer stabbed from Team Coco.) There’s no title yet but episodes will roll out this fall and he’s already received help from O’Brien, who serves as the series’ producer.
“Conan told me there are going to be shows when you’re in a bad mood, or you didn’t get enough sleep last night, or when your blood sugar is low,” Holmes says, “and the idea is to let the audience see that. I don’t want to be this bullet proof performer who always has ‘the goods’ and feels like it’s home run derby every time you see me. I like to see what it looks like when I tell a joke that doesn’t work, which what was so endearing about [Johnny] Carson.”
“The key is we want to be familiar, but we want to innovate,” he says. “It’s our job to shake things up a bit. We want to have guests on the show, but what is our interpretation of that? We want to have a monologue type thing, but how are we going to do it differently? What icons are we going to smash, and which are we going to keep with us?” He pauses. “I think we’re going to do whatever feels right.”
Until then, he’ll continue to tour behind his latest album, which includes a stop at Chicago’s long-running Just for Laughs Festival in June. Right now, however, he’s focusing on his upcoming podcast, which he suggests might be the best one yet.
“As philosophical as it sounds, my favorite episode is most often the newest one,” Holmes concludes. “People make fun of me for that because in the intro I often say it’s my favorite episode, but that’s really how I feel. There’s a little bit of a lesson there, which says you’re only as good as your last show.”
By that measure, we can only applaud.