Pete Holmes is not just a stand-up comic, but an all-encompassing comedian. Not only have you seen him perform stand-up on Comedy Central and Conan, but you’ve likely seen his digital shorts like Kid Farm or his Batman sketches (see below). Or you’ve seen shows he’s written for like the short-lived Outsourced. You could have seen his cartoon drawings in The New Yorker. And many have listened to his hit podcast, You Made It Weird, on the Nerdist network. Now he’ll add a new talent to his resume: late-night talk show host. The Pete Holmes Show — produced by Conan O’Brien — premieres Monday, Oct. 28 at midnight ET on TBS.
Holmes joins a crowded and competitive late-night ratings battlefield with the already-established Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC (from 11:35-12:35), Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, and the new Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, who takes the reigns from Jay Leno in February. Not to mention Chris Hardwick’s new nightly Comedy Central show, @midnight, at the same time and MTV being rumored to develop their own entrant– in addition to the weekly Nikki & Sara Live. But Pete Holmes is a guy who only cares about the ratings enough so that he can do his show every night. For him, the comedy comes first.
I recently sat down with Holmes to talk about his new talk show, where he also taught us how to do a Hannibal Burress impression. We ended up in a long discussion about the comedy cancer called “jealousy,” what it’s like telling other people’s jokes, and the ever-elusive 10-ish-year long journey of finding one’s voice in stand-up. Never short of passed-down advice and words of wisdom curated over his career, Holmes assures the hard-working young comics that it’s okay to relax, live life and focus on the funny.
Hi! How are you?
We just had a $100 breakfast.
Really? What did a $100 breakfast taste like?
Like a normal breakfast. They have $1,000 caviar here, but they know what they’re doing. Underneath it on the menu it says, ‘We dare you to expense this.’ Do you know what that means? I just learned what ‘expense’ is.
Yeah, when you make your company pay for it.
Yeah, well, not everybody watches Entourage.
By the way, I’ve blocked out 17 hours for this interview, just in case. I like to have the option.
So your show premieres soon on Oct. 28. How’s it feel to go up against your fellow Nerdist podcaster, Chris Hardwick? [Chris Hardwick's @midnight will compete for ratings at the same time on Comedy Central.]
Fuck Hardwick. He can eat a dick. Next question. I’m joking. I love Chris very much. Initially, I was looking forward to having a fake rivalry with Chris because we are friends and he would understand if I said something like, ‘Fuck Hardwick,’ he would know I was joking. But it turns out that his show isn’t a talk show, it’s like a game show. It is on at the same time, but you know, to that point, I expect people and want people to watch our show when it’s on but I really don’t expect too many people to do that, necessarily. I mean, I don’t want to be disparaging. What I mean is that I don’t watch TV when it’s on. In the ’60s, Chris and I would really be back-to-back really going at it. But now with iTunes and everything: who cares?
The Pete Holmes Show was originally going to be called The Midnight Show. Why’d it change?
That was a deliberate change. One, to feed my grotesque and inflating ego, just to make sure everyone knew it was all me and all my idea (unless it failed, then it was someone else’s horrible idea). But to that point, I think time slots are becoming more and more irrelevant. We even made a joke on the pilot episode of The Midnight Show that if you’re in Chicago, it’s the 11:00 show. I want the show to be on for 10 years, 20 years. So it’s already kind of irrelevant what time a show is on, so why stick yourself to that?
Did you pitch it as a half-hour show?
Yea. You know, my attention span is pretty short. I’d like it to have a fast-paced feel—what?
Just funny that the guy who does three-hour podcasts has a short attention span.
Yeah, right? If it’s one person and I talking, I can go. I think our record is three hours and 40 minutes. But when it comes to a TV show, I do want it to have a fast-paced feel, not so much that ‘we’re-filling-time-ness’ you run into when you’re doing a show every day. So, in the spirit of Colbert and The Daily Show, I think a half-hour is the perfect slot for us. I wouldn’t want it any other way. If they said, ‘We want it to be an hour,’ that would be bad news for me. I’d rather do a lean 22.
I mean, if it was a Charlie Rose show with a black backdrop and me having conversations, then it would be a waste of time. In fact, one of my favorite shows, Iconoclasts, which is just an interview show, went from an hour to half-hour and now it’s just unwatchable. So if it’s going to be people getting into religion and relationships, it’s not going to be enough time. But if it’s going to be me dressed as Batman, then 22 minutes is perfect. That suit is very uncomfortable.
So you’ve shot a few pilot episodes for it. How’s it feel doing other people’s jokes?
Well, they’re all mine, at the end of it. I’m actually having a hard time letting go of the control. The name of the game right now is ‘teaching my writers to write for me.’ For the pilot especially, I had a hard time letting go of that control. So I’d get a joke and I’d reword it or rephrase it or change it. But now I’m telling other people’s jokes in the writers’ room. Sometimes I’ll try them out in my stand-up. It’s actually funny, one of the hardest-hitting lines in this routine I’m doing was written by one of my writers. When the laugh comes in, I do consider that. I go [in my head], ‘I didn’t write that. That was somebody else’s.’ I almost want to tell them. I think I’ll grow to enjoy it. We’re figuring out what the voice is, what my character is.
We’re going to be doing a show every day so I’m just going to have to get comfortable with telling other people’s jokes, which is something I would have never done. I’m sure you’re the same way. You take such pride as a stand-up in writing your own stuff. The monologues are going to be more like my stand-up, more about general topics rather than pulled from the headlines, unless something huge happens then I guess we’ll have to address it. But to me, the heavy lifting is I say, ‘I’d like to do a monologue about this, and this is the angle, and this is my feeling on it.’ And the jokes are kind of just the fun part. As long as we’re doing that, I’ll feel deeply involved in it. If you write me a joke, but it was my idea and my premise, I feel like the premise can often be the harder thing to come up with. Right? A unique premise?
It’s not uncommon to accept tags from people. You may tell someone at a show, ‘Hey, I thought of a tag for that bit you did.’
Yeah. The premises are the things. It’s weird doing a show, man. You’re teaching people to think and write like you. I’m saying things like, ‘I would never say that. I would never think that.’ The writers are doing a great job — it’s only been a couple weeks — but they’re figuring out that style and energy. I’m hearing them say things like, ‘I don’t think Pete would ever say that,’ even if I’m not in the room. ‘Stand-up Pete wouldn’t say that.’
You have a lot of friends on your writing staff: Nate Fernald, Jamie Lee.
Yup. Nate, Jamie, and Oren [Brimer] I knew beforehand.
So is it weird teaching them how to write for you? Or do they already have an idea and are ahead of the game?
They are ahead of the game. Oren and Jamie, especially. Jamie and I are very, very close. We have been for years. And Oren and I have been just as close for about the same amount of time, which is about six years. Those guys get it and when I’m not in the room, they can kind of marshal that as well as I can, which is awesome. Jamie used to — because she’s a stand-up as well — give me so many tags, give me so many thoughts. Her wonderful skill is I’d say something funny that I didn’t even think was funny and she’s the one who has that radar and goes, ‘Oh, that’s something. That’s a premise.’ That’s invaluable, because I thought I was just complaining or something.
She’s great like that. I remember when I first started out, she would be at the same ‘feedback open mics’ and she’d be the only one I was listening to for feedback because she’s so great at coming up with tags and such.
Yeah! She’s that way in life. So now to be doing that professionally, to be paying her and doing a show together, is literally a dream come true. It’s fantastic.
It does feel like a dream come true?
It does. It’s cliche, but it feels surreal. It feels exactly like a dream and that can be a little unsettling, waiting for someone to come tell you that it’s not real. It’s like being in a dream and it’s a dream that I don’t want to wake up from.
You’re one of those guys—
‘You’re an asshole!’ Haha.
No, no. But speaking of assholes who get stuff: Last night, there was a group of young comics and we’re talking. One guy is complaining about people getting opportunities in showbiz who don’t deserve it, who he doesn’t think are original and creative themselves. He’s the type of guy who will shit on LA comics, but secretly he wants LA to want him. And you’re one of those guys who I feel most people are happy for. I feel like when you got your show, most people were saying, ‘Good for Pete.’ Not too many comics were complaining or wondering why you got a show.
I was waiting for more haters, certainly online. A lot of people want to know why my fat face is on television. I get that from strangers. But the [comedy] community has been really really great. I think that’s a compliment to the people I hang out with. When people talk about the stand-up scene being so back-stabby and being so cutthroat and mean and two-faced, I’m like, ‘We’re in different scenes.’ I know we are. That’s that sort of Last Comic Standing ‘I’ll-step-on-your-neck-to-get-another-rung-up’ sort of stuff that I’ve always tried to distance myself from. My friends are incredibly talented and wonderful people who have their own things going on. And those people who sit around and complain, I call that ‘comedy cancer.’ That kills people. They won’t be doing comedy. Bill Burr said it best, the advice he gave me when I was just starting out. He said, ‘Keep your head down. Don’t be a dick.’
That’s what I tell everybody. ‘Keep your head down.’ That’s key. Keep your head down. Keep your eyes on your own paper. You don’t like that somebody got something, what does that have to do with you? Just make the art that you’d like to see in the world. That’s your goal. That’s still my goal. It’s not about money. On the first day of the show, I gave a little talk about how none of this is about money and if it’s about money we’ll get really bored. It’s about making a show that we want to watch, that we’d like to see. It’s about making a show that we don’t think exists. I feel people like that are not doing comedy for comedy’s sake. They’re probably doing it to get laid or get paid or status or something.
Gaffigan told me, ‘You’re a product of your environment.’ That’s another huge thing. You don’t want to be, necessarily, a guy who can kill at a biker bar. I like that I have some chops that I can deliver in non-ideal circumstances, but I never wanted to grind myself to that point where I’m invulnerable and not really relatable. Just like a perfect comedian that would go up and deliver. I am vulnerable. I can fail. And that’s because I went up at the clubs and the alt rooms, both. Like Gaffigan said, ‘You gotta go to Rafifi. You gotta go to UCB. You gotta go to this place called The Collective Unconscience.’ I’ll never forget: we were on the F train, and I didn’t even need to go on the F train. I was just on it to keep talking to him. He was like, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy but you’ve gotta go up at these weird rooms.’ That’s what he did. That’s what Todd Barry did. That’s what Bill Burr did. Louis C.K. did that. So, both. I don’t know how we got there, but both.
Talking shit is a lot of fun. I get it. It can release some stress. I’ve been there, too. ‘Why did that guy get this?’ I’ve talked to Aziz about this. When I was starting in New York, Aziz was right around the corner. He was blowing up and he was, like, 19. The people that were talking shit about Aziz — this is 100 percent true — aren’t doing it anymore. I’m sure they’re still talking shit. But they’re certainly not doing comedy anymore.
It has a lot to do with the company you keep. I think it’s so stupid. To quote Joel Osteen, that weird super-pastor — when I was religious, I read his book — ‘It’s hard to fly with the eagles when you’re kicking around with the pigeons.’ I really took that to heart. Somebody just Tumbled this, that’s why I’m quoting myself, but it was, ‘If you look to your left and you look to your right and it’s some talentless, complaining douchebag, get new fucking friends.’ It’s hurting you in every way. When I had a conversation with John Mulaney, I talked very openly about how I saw Mulaney perform, he seemed like my kind of guy, and I went after him as a friend. We were both starting out. It’s like dating. I went up to him and was like, ‘Let’s hang out.’ I wanted friends like Kumail [Nanjiani]. I wanted friends like T.J. Miller. I wanted friends like Mulaney because that sort of stuff is inspiring.
Remember that Louie episode with the friend who never made it, who’s played by Doug Stanhope, and they do a flashback? In the flashback it’s very appropriate that his friend is a big hater. He can’t stand how crooked the business is and how unfair the clubs are. People who love using the terms like ‘passed.’ ‘Oh, fucking Phil’s passed at the Cellar.’ Fucking beat it! Get out of my way. I’m trying to get up where I’m getting up, even if it’s at the back of a restaurant. It doesn’t matter. Get all that shit out of your mind. Just go where you feel like you’re growing.
Speaking of Aziz…People hated on Aziz. Easy to do. He did shoot up really really quickly. It was enviable. He was getting a lot of TV and just found his voice really, really quickly. I think that’s what people really hated. You can hate on him or you can learn from them. And Aziz at the time was doing digital shorts, which is something that not many people were doing then. This was when YouTube was just coming into popularity-ish. It had been around but it was getting more popular. I was talking to Aziz and I said, ‘How do you do that?’ and he said, ‘You need a guy.’ ‘Where do you get a guy?’ ‘Well, I found this guy Jason Woliner. Talk to him.’ So I found him and asked, ‘Where do I find one of you?’ And he gave me a list of this, this, and this and for years I looked for my Jason Woliner because I saw that Aziz got a TV show because he made videos of himself.
I was tired of waiting for people to ask me to be in things because nobody was asking me to be in things. Nobody was writing things for me so I thought that I’d write my own things, like Aziz. Not hating on him, but learning from him. Then I found Oren who is now the executive producer on my TV show. Not that it’s that easy, it’s not easy at all, but energy…we could be talking about how we resent Rob Delaney, who shot up from Twitter. I hear people shitting on him from time to time. Or you could learn from him, you coward! What did he do right? What did all of these people that we hate do right? What are they reflecting in us? That’s the only reason you have a strong feeling. It’s either something you’re doing or something that you’re not doing. Deal with that instead of just getting drunk and complaining. I should say, there are some people I know who don’t talk any shit. I will sometimes stoop. I’m not just a two-dimensional person. I’m not just always zippity-doo-da. I love shitting on people sometimes.
I did ask around, in preparing for this interview, if you were really all zippity-doo-da in person. I’ve read in previous interviews that you wanted your shot to have a comedy tree house, a hang-out type of vibe for comics. How long do you think you’re going to get away with that before some guy in a suit tells you to grow up and be Jay Leno?
Well, certainly for the first 28. Everybody that we’ve booked so far isn’t plugging anything. It’s not plug-based. It’s chemistry-based. It’s who’s funny. It’s who do I get along with, that sort of stuff. That’s a luxury that we have because nobody really knows about us yet. So maybe at some point someone will be like, ‘You have to have Zac Efron on.’ Conan keeps telling me that we’re in the volume business, that at a certain point we’re going to run out of people who are chums, and certainly we’ll have them back on. But it’ll be interesting to see. I don’t want to forfeit that playhouse feel for as long as I can. We’ll certainly never get to that point where we’re just churning out typical late night. If people watch our show and think it’s just another late night show, that means we fucked up. We’re really making a run at making the monologues like little pieces of stand-up. We’re making a run out of making the interview with a friend and having it be a little bit more weird-slanting. And we’re making a run at including a lot more digital shorts, like the Batman videos that we’ve done.
What else do I have here? I just have this one note, ‘Don’t be a dick,’ written in big letters.
There ya go. You know what I used to write in all of my comedy notebooks? It was something that Gaffigan told me: ‘Be undeniable.’ Which is just another piece of great advice. Again, that’s something he told me on the F train, that same ride. That’s just something I wrote on every notebook. He said, ‘People that complain about not getting things, you gotta get to the point where it just becomes a no brainer.’ Like, ‘Oh they gave this guy a half hour? Of course they did. Why didn’t they give it to him last year?’ Like Hannibal. Is there anything they could give Hannibal or Mulaney that would make you go, ‘What?!’ Because those guys work really really hard and they got to the point where they’re undeniable. That and the whole dues thing. People seem to be losing sight on the idea of 10 years, which I still think is about right– 10 years to really come into yourself. I see a lot of the younger guys wanting to crack sooner.
Because so many younger guys are cracking sooner. So many 25- and 26-year old comics are breaking now, and not that they don’t necessarily have their voice, but it makes everyone else think that they now have to break out before they turn 30.
I’ll tell you this. Here’s a great one. Those guys that pop early — Demetri Martin, who is a good friend of mine, which is absurd — was a big inspiration to me when I started. I ran into him once when I was in New York and he was gracious enough to just talk to me. He said something else that was wonderful. He said, ‘Anonymity is power.’ He’s now the one-liner guy with the guitar. Now people expect a certain thing from him. But if you haven’t pushed through, if you haven’t popped, that’s power. You could change your style if you wanted to. You could morph and grow in any way that you want and nobody would want you to be a certain guy. You have to embrace wherever you’re at because when you’re further ahead, you might wish you were back where you are now, which is a place of complete freedom. Just enjoy it. It’s okay. And when he told me that, it made me feel okay for having done nothing at that point.
You started young at 20 and many others begin in their early-to-mid 20s. Do you think you need to do 10 years partially because you haven’t even lived life yet?
That’s a huge thing, too. That’s why I always tell comedians that it’s great to go up every night but you also have to live a life worth commenting on. Also, do things that have nothing to do with comedy. Like, don’t go camping so you can write a bit about camping. Just go camping. Just relax. Your subconscious is working anyway; it’s writing jokes. It will deliver them to you when you wake up or when you’re in the shower or on a long car ride. Live a normal life. And in the weirdest way, my divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me. Rick Dorfman, who was a manager at the time, signed Mulaney and didn’t sign me. He graciously took the time to explain why he didn’t sign me, which no one does. He was saying, ‘When I watch you, I just don’t know who you are. What are you excited about? What gets you angry? What are you passionate about?’
I knew when he said that that I didn’t know the answers to any of those things. Then I got divorced a little while after that. Once I got a taste of pain, I realized what all this pursuit of pleasure was. It really helped me take an inventory. I was really on my own for the first time. I began to asses what is important to me, what isn’t important to me, what are my values, what are my passions. Suddenly I felt more like a full person. I found in my study of creativity that pain can spur on your growth. I don’t know how to manufacture that as advice. It’s not like I’m saying you should go out and get divorced.
Shit, that was my plan.
Ha! At some point, something will happen and you will feel like more of a grown-up. The more you live the more you will realize what it is that makes you unique. Then that gives you that voice and then that helps give you the answers that Rick was asking me for.
Do you think we’ll see a return of Kid Farm?
I’d like to! I mean, we have like two-thirds of the cast on the staff. We did Kid Farm and we really wanted to make Kid Farm into a TV show. I think we also pitched it as a cartoon. Now, with the show, we can do Kid Farm in little installments as sketches. That’s what makes it such a dream — and I can get all emotional talking about it — is that comedians are just looking for the means to make their ideas real. That started with me finding my Jason Woliner, which is Oren Brimer. The ultimate manifestation of that dream is this show. When I wake up in the morning, and I go, ‘Oh, let’s put Batman in with Good Will Hunting,’ and we did it. I think that’s every comedian’s dream is to get to that place where you can have an idea and have people supporting you and backing you up and helping you make whatever that idea is a reality.
The Pete Holmes Show premieres on TBS on Monday, Oct. 28 at midnight ET and airs every night after Conan, Monday through Thursday.