Interview with Pete Holmes
What was it like being groomed by Conan for the slot after his show?
I can only really tell this story from my perspective, I'm sure there was a lot more debating and big meetings behind the scenes. But I was a standup on Conan twice, and that's where our relationship began, we would talk after the shows. I know now that he saw something in my sense of humor that he related to and responded to, which is that we both do comedy that's not really against people, but rather with people. It's sort of an inclusive experience. So, I didn't know when I was doing standup on Conan that they were kinda looking for someone to fill in the midnight slot. If I had known that, I probably would have been terrified. So in hindsight, it's probably better that I didn't know they were grooming people. Cut to a year later, I met Nick Bernstein, who would become my executive producer, he told me that Conan was looking for people and that I was at the top of the list. After that, it seems like such a whirlwind, I got a call saying Jeff Ross--Conan's executive producer--wanted to meet with me.
Something that people in LA will tell you is that you'll have 400 meetings, and one will actually lead to something. It's not that I had low expectations, but I was just assuming that my meeting with Jeff Ross would be like the other 399 meetings that year that don't really go anywhere concrete, they're just sort of building connections, or whatever you wanna say. So I meet with Jeff and we respond to each other really well, and then a week later I met with Conan, which is a huge acting exercise for me because the whole time I was just pretending I was comfortable. I've been watching him since college and he's a personal hero of mine. And here I am meeting him in his office... Seeing him in jeans and t-shirt was bizarre, I've never seen him not wearing a suit.
And we sat down and we talked, and to be honest it was basically like a miniature episode of my podcast, in that we talked about our families, our backgrounds, our philosophies on comedy, our attitudes towards work, and then we talked about a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with show-business whatsoever, just whatever was on our minds that week. So we had a really nice meeting. And at the end, I would have been a lunatic if I was like, "I'm getting a TV show out of that!" I just left thinking, "What a thrill, Conan and I now know each other, we've sat down personally, I know Jeff, this is a thrill whatever happens."
And then the next meeting we had was me, my manager, Nick Bernstein, Jeff Ross and Conan. And I'm sitting right next to Conan on this big couch, he says, "The plan is that we're gonna go to TBS, tell them we've been looking for the guy to host the show after me, and that we've found the guy." I was sitting there acting completely normal. There was no champagne shaking, Gatorade dumping Superbowl moment. It was very matter of fact, and I'm acting like I was completely comfortable and normal, but inside it was like the Fourth of July, I'm busting up just as thrilled as you would imagine. And then it happened just that quickly. We decided our sensibilities were similar, they liked the sketch work I had done, they enjoyed the podcast and they likeed my standup. And those were the three elements that the show is gonna be made up of. When we pitched it to TBS, we told them that the show already existed, it's just been broken it up into pieces. And when we air on TBS, it will be just giving this broken up thing a home.
They loved it, they were on-board--I have to imagine completely because Conan was on board. They were like, "Okay we trust you, we like Pete, if you wanna give this a go, give it a go." And then in 6 months we shot three pilots, and that was one of the best experiences of my life. I'm supposed to tell you I was stressed out and panicky, but I wasn't. It was so fun, it was exactly where I wanted to be. It felt like coming home. I got to work with a wonderful staff and film on Conan's stage while they were on hiatus. Then we wrapped and waited six months later, we got the call that the show was getting picked up, and here we are.
How thrilled are you that "Pierce, get beers!" is something people really respond to?
The philosophy of something as stupid as "Pierce" is an exercise in presence and a green-lighting of silliness. It's like dancing, people are looking for permission to flail around and stomp their feet. And suddenly you're at wedding and there's a DJ, but actually, you can do the chicken dance when you're stuck in traffic. We need some sort of social setting to say it's okay to be silly right now. So, for all of the hard-crafted, cerebral bits I've been sweating over, I'm sorta glad that "Pierce" is the feather in the cap that people always want me to do.
What's your favorite fan-generated Pierce line?
I get "Pete, get meat!" a lot. I did a show in Cleveland the other night, a fan came up to me, he offered an addition to Pierce, which was, "Let's play street-fighter, Pierce! Down, right, fierce, Pierce!"--which is how you throw a fireball in Street Fighter!
What's your favorite piece of comedy insider wisdom or lore legend?
I have so many favorites, just one off the top off my head... Bill Burr told me, about getting into the comedy scene... When you're just two or three years in, and you're sorta frustrated, he told me, "Just keep your head down, don't be a dick, and you'll get in." It's the best piece of advice I've ever gotten. I've also had Dane say tell me, "If you're likable, you can get away with anything," which is completely true. Another favorite is Bill Cosby has said, "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is to trying to please everyone." And the more I get my stuff out there, the more I realize it's a very healthy perspective to have. If someone wants to be like, "Pierce is a genius bit," you say thank you but don't let it affect you that much. And if someone says, "Pierce is garbage, you're a talentless hack," it's basically the same thing.
Who are the funniest comedians below Louis-level?
For my money, there's nobody better than Burr. I sorta put him on Louis-level. I try not to watch too many comedians because it can bleed into your work, but I watch Burr and it makes me cry and shake with laughter, it's just so fucking good. He's so fucking funny, and it's one of the privileges of my career to watch him work. You know I love Mulaney, I love Hanibal, I love Kumail [Nanjiani], TJ [Miller]. The people that open for me I think are really going to be great at some point. Chris Thayer is a super super funny guy, and I guarantee however long it takes, he's going to be a really phenomenal comedian. Andy Haines, Hampton Yount, These are younger guys that are tremendously funny.
Do you have a favorite Duncan Trussel story?
I just love Duncan, as an idea of a person... Someone who remains, in my assessment, a very grounded and rational person, who's willing to entertain any philosophy and try anything. I like the one about how he ate pot brownies and went to a gnostic church, which I thought was hilarious. He also told me that the first time he took mushrooms, he was visited by some sort of diety, and that he later looked it up in a book and was like, "Oh this is that thing I saw." If anybody's gonna take a hallucinogenic drug, and then run into something from the ages, I want it to be Duncan. He's so funny and poignant. He's kind of a divisive guest, some people don't like that stuff, but when it comes to requests to have guests back on the podcast, I get Duncan more than anybody. I wait, though, until I've had some sort of experience or meditative breakthrough so that I have something to report to him.
Do you listen to any non-comedy podcasts or have any non-comedy hobbies?
I ONLY listen to non-comedy podcasts, and I ONLY have non-comedy hobbies. I love Stuff to Blow Your Mind and This American Life. I like Here's The Thing, Alec Baldwin gets some really good guests. Some of those can be funny, but they're not really comedy podcasts. My biggest hobby is watching documentaries, that's where I lift a lot of my perceived knowledge, it's just stuff I've seen on Netflix. I like psychology documentaries and I like crime documentaries, health documentaries. At the end of the day, I'm not caught up on 30 Rock or Parks and Rec or any of the hip shows. I just like watching unfunny things.
There's a really great series called This Emotional Life, it's about 6 hours long, I also like Happy, it's a documentary around the psychology of what makes people happy. I watch that every couple months because there's so much information in that, and it's good to remind yourself that at the end of the day, that your brain is a little computer and you can hack into it.
[Is that the one where the moms in Denmark live in that semi-commune, and every day of the week a different family makes dinner for all the families?]
Yea, you'll find that thread throughout happy people's lives, the people that are sorta living on top of other people... forced community. I think that's why people look back on college as such a fun time in their lives. It's because you were in the dorms and your door was open and everyone was coming and going.
Favorite Gladwell book?
Good question... Tipping Point probably wasn't my favorite... I think I liked Outliers the best, then Blink, then Tipping Point. Although, I think I've merged them all into just one called Malcom Gladwell.
Which episodes of You Made It Weird were most personally cathartic, important to your life, or perhaps to be mentioned in your autobiography some day?
The truth is, if I'm anything, I'm impressionable. So I like hearing different peoples' thoughts. I remember reading this email on the Iliza Shlesinger episode, I read this flirty email I had written a girl which received no reply. We discussed the email on the air, and a lot of people enjoyed chiming in about whether or not I over-shot, or came off as creepy or whatever.
In the Emily Gordon episode, you can hear my mind being blown quite a bit. Duncan--and when I did his podcast--hugely life-saving for parts of my brain. I'd like to think I've learned something from everybody. Whenever we have people like Greg Fitzsimmons or Larry Miller on the show that are happily married, you can hear my mind being blown, seeing them ballance that lifestyle and also family.
We've tried in the past to see if we can boil down You Made it Weird into some sort of best-of, or turn it into a book. It's hard because almost every episode has moments like that, and they're almost better un-isolated, as part of the show. It sneaks up on you in a natural way.
Think you'll give marriage another shot? Seeing anyone seriously?
I'm a single man, but I do intend to get married again because I'd like to have a family. I do buy into all that stuff. I think if I keep on this path of just inward gazing, and don't have a wife and children to pour my love outwardly, then ya become a weirdo. My life currently is just writing down my thoughts and expounding and sharing them with strangers, and talking on a podcast. It's all very self-serving--it's fine and that will advance your career--but at a certain point you become a hunched-back psychopath that no one can relate to if you spend your entire life in service of yourself. So I would like to have people to pour that out for and fully intend to do that.