Pete Holmes isn’t just living the dream right now. As he puts it, he’s in the midst of a “1-for-1, 100 percent … grotesque overshot of a dream coming true.”
The 34-year-old comic always harbored fantasies of becoming a late-night talk-show host, but didn’t tell too many people “because it was so specific a dream that I didn’t want it to get crushed or have everyone know that I went out for my driver’s license and failed.” But the seemingly impossible has come true, as Holmes — under the auspices of Conan O’Brien — is about to start hosting The Pete Holmes Show on TBS, a half-hour showcase of his off-kilter but always good-natured brand of humor.
Channel Guide Magazine: The premiere is just around the corner, so how’s the preparation going?
Pete Holmes: We have a nice little head start here. I talk to Conan from time to time about how when he was starting. I think he had a much stronger sensation of being thrown into the pot, whereas we’ve had the luxury of having a little bit of time to get ahead of ourselves. So we’re shooting a lot of sketches, we’ve been writing a lot of monologues that aren’t necessarily timely or news-related. We’ve been shooting a lot of remotes and bits. Just this morning, we were going over what we’re going to do at Comic-Con, who we’re going to interview while we’re in New York. So we’re just trying to get as much content filmed and written as we can before we start, so that when we start we have the luxury of calling an audible or changing it up or just rolling what we know and what we believe in.
CGM: Is there any danger, with all this lead time, of overthinking things too much?
PH: Yeah, that’s interesting. I know everybody is very much looking forward to getting this on its feet. Because right now we’re speculating on what’s going to work. I have some sense as a standup what’s going to work in terms of a monologue, but still it’s a guess. And we have some sense because of what we did on the pilot. It’s funny that you ask that, because that is something that Conan said. He said that it almost can be a detriment that we’re not just going, because he thinks once we get going, that’s when a lot of the fat will fall off and when that adrenaline will kick in and help us get into that rarified air of just being in the zone. But for me, to be honest, I’m just enjoying it. One of the hopes of the show is to have it be a little less contingent on day and date, and have the shows stand alone and be something you can watch anytime and watch over and over. The sketches won’t necessarily be timely, the monologue itself could be more evergreen. We do have this time, I foresee if we got picked up for 40 weeks a year, that we would need to work on our weeks off just to get ahead of ourselves like we are now.
CGM: So take me back to before all this prep. Conan O’Brien picked you to have this show. Describe that whole process.
PH: It’s been unbelievably surreal, and just a literal 1-for-1, 100 percent dream come true. Just too preposterous to even have dared to dream so specifically. I knew I loved late night, I knew I wanted to be a late-night host, but it’s not something that I told too many people. There’s a couple of college professors who knew that was my dream of dreams, and I gotta tell you, it was incredible to go to dinner with them when this news became public and kind of look back and be like, “What are the chances?” But I kind of kept it a little bit to myself because it was so specific a dream that I didn’t want it to get crushed or have everyone know that I went out for my driver’s license and failed. But Conan’s specifically was the show that I was obsessed with, and he was the personality that I was obsessed with. When I first started doing standup when I was about 21, my goal was to do Conan. I wanted to be on Conan by the time I was 30. So to, when I was 33, have done the show twice and then have him say that they wanted to do a show with me was just a grotesque overshot of a dream coming true, and just something I walk around perpetually grateful for.
CGM: What was it about Conan that stood out to you?
PH: One of the things I find compelling about Conan is hopefully one of the things people will find compelling about our show. He didn’t really know what he was doing. It was fun to have that transparency, and that’s something I’m really trying to emulate and have the show be authentic and transparent. So when he was figuring it out — as a very funny guy, and one of the smartest people ever, for sure — but he was coming from the writing world and less from the performance world, and to see him figuring it out was interesting, and hopefully it will be interesting for us. So I think I related to that, and to how honest he was. Then something Conan and I have bonded over in our talks about comedy philosophy is that we like doing comedy that’s not really against anybody, that’s a little more positive. Not boring or neutered, nothing dull, just not mean-spirited, and I think that’s something that he recognized when I did his show. In fact, I know it is because that’s what started this conversation thinking I could be a good counterpart to his program.
CGM: The marketing push for your show has been picking up lately, with all the “Meet Pete” stuff, and the “Ex Men” viral videos. What’s it like all of a sudden being the center of attention like this?
PH: It is very surreal. I can feel a little bit like a dictator seeing my photograph everywhere, and all these people pushing my propaganda out there. But I will say that comedy can benefit from celebrity, whereas a lot of other types of things it can take away. When you really feel like you know Conan and you know Letterman, they have a real advantage over what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years which is doing standup in relative obscurity. You’re greeting each crowd cold and you have to tell them, “Hi I’m Pete, and I look like a youth pastor. I lost my virginity when I was 21. I grew up religious.” All these different things you have to get out of the way because they don’t know you is a little bit of a time-waste in comedy. So I’m looking forward to that special place where the audience and the performer have a relationship where it almost feels like a real friendship. It’s called parasocial, it’s all one-way, but I benefit from it as well. The audience knows you, you kind of know them because you can assume you have some things in common, and then going from there you can get to higher heights, because you don’t have to waste all that time with, “My name is Conan O’Brien, and I am a pale man, and I have tall hair.” Everybody knows that.
CGM: What interested you about becoming a talk-show host as opposed to going into sitcoms or movies?
PH: I really like being myself. One of my favorite quotes of all time, and I always implied it in terms of standup, was from Bill Hicks. He said, “Be yourself. If you’re yourself, no one can be you as well as you can be you. And then you’ll have supply and demand covered.” That’s something I’m certainly taking to heart on this show. I didn’t really aspire — certainly I’ve been on my fair share of auditions in Los Angeles trying to get work and stuff — but I never really saw that for myself. I never wanted to be Earl the Wacky Neighbor. I’m kind of the guy who would always want to look directly into the camera lens and be like, “I know. It’s really me, Pete.” I couldn’t really act too well, because to be honest I just wanted to make the people I was auditioning for laugh rather than do the scene perfectly. So a world where it’s literally called The Pete Holmes Show, and where I’m rewarded and expected to be myself is certainly 100 percent the perfect fit. I don’t lie onstage, I never wanted to lie onstage, it’s always something that turned me off, telling a fake story or an anecdote. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorites do that very well. Woody Allen used to tell nonsense stories, Dave Chappelle still tells nonsense stories, and those are two of my favorite standups. But for me, it always felt better to just be like, “This is really what happened to me today. I really want to communicate and connect with you in a genuine way.” So having a daily show that’s going to force us to generate new material and keep that honesty is a perfect fit for me.
The Pete Holmes Show premieres at midnight, Monday, Oct. 28, on TBS.
Photo: Credit: Jimmy Freeman