Original interview found here.
Catch the very funny Pete Holmes at Just For Laughs this week! He’ll be taping a live episode of his wonderful Nerdist network podcast, You Made It Weird (July 26th, 10:30pm @ Gesù), and performing his standup at various venues, including Club Soda for the Talk of the Fest show hosted by Jason Jones (July 26th, 7pm). Recently, he graciously talked with Midnight Poutine for much longer than he had to about a veritable smorgasbord of topics: Comedy! Podcasts! Mad Men! Enjoy!
Midnight Poutine: You’ve been involved in a number of forms of comedy including improv, standup, sitcom writing, and cartooning. Does the material pour out of you as easily as it seems, or do you ever hit a wall and need to step away for a while to recharge?
Pete Holmes: I like to rip off Seinfeld here… he has this great quote about ideas. He said it always sounds pretentious when artists or creative people talk about where they get their ideas, as if they have any say in it, and I think that’s kind of true. I really respect the subconscious, in the sense that I don’t demand things of it, but I try to remain receptive when it wants to lob me an idea. The feeling is the ideas just show up and when you’ve been doing any sort of creative endeavor long enough, you learn that you can’t force it, necessarily, there are things you can just do to encourage it.
There’s a great line Don Draper says on Mad Men. They’re trying to think of some line for copy and somebody asks, “how do you come up with a great idea?” and he says, “think about it really, really hard and then put it out of your mind for two days, and then the idea will just pop into your brain.” I think that’s completely accurate and I think the principle they’re employing there is the idea there is that it’s your subconscious that has the jokes, that has the script ideas, that has the songs, that has the cartoons, that has everything… and I think it’s kind of everybody’s job to figure out the formula for harvesting those ideas, whether it’s how much time you spend alone allowing your brain to rest, how much sleep you get, or how much you go out. Are you reading things? Are you listening to interesting podcasts? Are you watching interesting documentaries? That stuff fosters a good environment for creativity, I think… but, and I can’t stress this enough, I really don’t know what I’m talking about (laughs).
MP: There’s this Bob Dylan anecdote, I think it’s in his autobiography, where he talks about writing one of his hits, and he just wakes up in the middle of the night and it falls out of him and all he has to be is a vessel for it and document it.
PH: Yeah, it’s your job to put yourself in the zone where you can be an antenna. We’re failing if we’re not picking up the messages. Cormac McCarthy said that when he was writing The Road he had no idea where it was going. He would write it from the feeling of “I wonder what happens to these guys today?”.
Often when I improvise, people give me shit for laughing at myself and at my own jokes. Why, if it really was in the moment and if I really do enjoy it, wouldn’t I laugh at my own joke if I just thought of it? Am I so outside the joke that I’m not affected by it? If it was funny, it makes me laugh. It came from this place that I have so little control over.
You know, you can perform a magic trick for yourself… I’ve done it. If you read a card manipulation book and just follow the steps, at the end of the trick you’ll be like, “I can’t believe that worked.” Similarly, if I’m on stage and I’m riffing and my brain gives me this “Ta-Daah!” moment where there’s this punch line that I didn’t expect, of course I’m going to laugh at it because I feel like I had nothing to do with it.
MP: Right, and I think, deep down, everybody’s creating for himself or herself. Sure you want the audience to laugh at your jokes or the patrons at a gallery to appreciate your painting, but really, you’re trying to please yourself first, so it seems like it’s totally natural to react that way.
PH: I think you’ve just stumbled upon something really close to me… it’s the idea that hopefully the artist, or performer, if we want to sound less lofty, is trying to do the performance that he or she would like to see. Certainly I’m not there all the time, but I catch little glimpses when I’m like, “oh, I just created a moment where, if I were in the crowd, I would enjoy it.” I’m not going to rob myself of that moment and not enjoy it just because some people think it’s weird to laugh at your own jokes. I’ve never heard anyone laugh harder at his own jokes than my dad; it’s just in his genes. Just enjoy your own life! I’m tired of people marshalling what we can and can’t do and what we can and can’t enjoy. It’s like… this is what’s happening and I’m enjoying it.
MP: I sometimes crack jokes to myself on the subway and catch myself laughing out loud. At some point, you have to just let go of any anxiety that people might find you weird and just embrace it.
PH: That’s where you want to be! That’s a type of zen or presence. For example, if you can make yourself laugh as you’re falling asleep from just remembering something, that’s a true gift that you should enjoy. You know, in doing my podcast and my comedy, I think there’s a little bit of a message of “hey… whatever works.” The world has enough sourpusses, it has enough tragedy, and it has enough difficulty that if there’s something making you laugh on the subway, follow that impulse because the other direction just looks like a Tim Burton movie (laughs).
MP: One thing that you often hear comedians say is that it will take most people years and years to get good at standup and that they, themselves, still haven’t reached a level that they’re satisfied with. Have you felt similarly of your own work at any point? Also, have you now arrived at a level of performance that you always aspired to, or has that bar changed throughout your career?
PH: Yeah, it sucks starting a thing, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to get better. When I started the podcast I remember getting a very familiar feeling of like, “oh no, I don’t know if I’m good at this yet,” but I had this idea of what a good podcast host was and, similarly, when I started standup, I had an idea of what a good comedian was. When you start standup it sucks because you don’t like your act either, so, you’re looking out at a crowd that isn’t laughing and you agree with them. You’re just like, “yeah, I’m not good yet… I’m so sorry.” One of the most tragic overlaps there is that that early stage is typically when people invite their friends and family to see them, so they get to see you at your absolute worst.
Again quoting Seinfeld… he says in the movie Comedian that there’s this idea of what a comedian is supposed to be and it’s this level that he’s always striving for, but that he’s also always falling short of. I feel similarly – it’s a lifelong pursuit and I’ll never go “got it!”. In fact, comedy likes to kick you right in the crotch every time you do say that. It’ll just humble you right away.
I remember fantasizing about what it would be like to destroy on stage, to really just level a room and just be in that zone where everything you say is unbelievable. I used to envision that from stage all the time; I had this bit that didn’t work and would think, “I know the cadence of a killer comedian, I just don’t know what the words are.” Actually, there was this recurring dream where I’m killing on stage, but I’m speaking in gibberish. I know how to do it, I know how to pace it, I know what my body would look like – how I would move and contort, what my face looks like – I just don’t know what I’m saying yet. That was about four years in and the next six years was just looking for the words that the gibberish was.
There’s a lot of fantasy and delusion involved, there’s a lot of closing your eyes and picturing things, and I’m not talking about The Secret here, I’m just talking about having a goal and knowing what you’re aiming for.
Kanye West talks about “it” a lot. There’s a lot of stuff in his songs about not having “it,” but knowing you’re going to have “it” one day despite not knowing what you’re going to do to get “it”… just having this weird blind confidence that you’re going to have “it” and the delusion enabling you to get there. I think that’s something that is easy to relate to.
MP: Do you think he does really does achieve whatever that “it” is for him? Bringing it back to Mad Men, one of the themes of the show that they really hit on this past season is the desire to fill voids in our lives by striving for whatever goals we have and, in the end, no matter how much we accomplish, never reaching those goals to our satisfaction and thus, never filling those voids.
PH: Yeah, like Don with his wife. I love the way that the last season ends with just the look on his face when the girls approach him. Through the season, we saw this fulfilled Don and then by the end you think, “is he fulfilled?” followed by, “will he ever be fulfilled?”
I think that’s one of the mixed blessings of being a performer or someone in any type of creative endeavor – even if you don’t do it professionally. In fact, even if it’s just a good conversation I think we have this opportunity to explore a golf-like quality to life. I don’t even play golf, but people say it’s one of those things that you can never master, something that you always have to work on… and I think that the fact there are always voids in our life, that there’s always longing, that there’s something that could feel empty or could feel better is part of what makes life difficult, but also part of what makes life interesting and worth living.
So… I forget what the question was, but yeah… I pretty much agree with what you’re saying.
MP: Well, I think your response shines a light on your own character and comedy. There’s a real positivity to your standup that seems entirely natural. How much of that is just your nature and how much of that is stage performance?
PH: Probably 80%/20% on a bad night and 100% nature on a good night. There are nights where, like anybody, your flight was delayed and everything sucks and you have to go up and you just don’t feel it. A fan once wrote me something very sweet that said, “you have a passion for living as if you have a terminal disease” and I understood what they meant. Sometimes I don’t feel anywhere near that – I just feel grumpy and normal – but if I’m in a good zone then it’s not an act at all. Other times it starts and I kind of have to fake it a little bit or encourage it a bit and then I’ll merge into a genuine positive place. And then, you know, there are some nights where I think people have seen me and they were a little surprised that I wasn’t just as fluffy and light as I normally am. Same jokes, but maybe I was just more tired or something.
To really answer your question… I am comfortable with the different sides of my persona – the dark and the light. When I’m on stage I like to look at it like a playground and be silly, and, if I can, really connect to the reality of what’s happening – there’s a group of people there who want to see me have a good time while they have a good time watching me play in the sandbox and be present and goofy and fun. If that happens, it will take me to a genuine place that’s interesting and filled with joy.
There’s a platform that you’re standing on… you’re rooted in the idea of who you are and who people expect you to be at a certain point, but those roots are genuine, you just have to remember to soak into them at the top of the set.
MP: When a set is going horribly, is it hard for you to keep going, or do you see it as a challenge to turn it around?
Oh man, I just recently did a Just For Laughs show in Chicago and it was a show that wasn’t necessarily for my fans; it was just a regular show. I went out and it was rough. It was a seven o’clock show and it was all right, but it wasn’t magic. I couldn’t really find my roots and a fan came up to me afterwards and she just put it to me so beautifully and made me feel so understood when she said, “they didn’t let you be yourself.” That was just a gracious way of saying, “you couldn’t be yourself with this group.” I was playing around and trying to be silly and fun, but the audience just wasn’t having it. That discouraged me, but I kept trying and then it started to feel like I was forcing fun, and no one likes forced fun, so I just dropped it and did my act. It was like, “ok, if you don’t want to have magic with me, let’s just have my jokes. Here they are, and they’re fine, but I would just rather have us play around.”
I look at the audience as my fuel, do you know what I mean? I’m not doing a presentation as much as I’m having a hugging match with the crowd. We’re kind of gently wrestling with each other and their enthusiasm directly informs my enthusiasm. In the first half I’ll throw it to them enthusiastically and tell them how it’s going to be and try and show them how it’s going to be. Now sometimes that ball comes back with a little less oomph, so I’ll pass it back even harder and then maybe the ball just rolls back at that point. That’s when I say, “well, this just isn’t going to work.” Other nights it’s amazing… there are five balls including beach balls floating around – it’s wild and insane – and you get off stage and the whole performance wasn’t about what material I did, it was about what we figured out together. It was something that you had to be there for to have it have made any sense, something that’s impossible to recreate. Because that audience has never been assembled in that exact order before and because I have never performed for them before, there’s a wonderful chance to create something novel. Sometimes you make it and sometimes you do your album (laughs).
MP: Has the podcast changed your standup?
PH: Absolutely. My positivity on stage is a genuine extension of who I am; when that becomes really interesting is on the podcast – I talk about everything there. People hear some of my darker thoughts or embarrassing moments or dirtier thoughts, but what doesn’t change is that people still go, “oh, that’s Pete – he’s such a sunshiny guy.” And they say this even though I’ve just told a story about something perverted or depressing or angry. It was then that I started to learn that I don’t have to try to be the guy that I am by what I do or don’t talk about. I can kind of talk about anything and, as long as I’m myself, there will be an audience out there that will be cool with it.
The first album (Impregnated with Wonder) is widely appealing. I don’t think there’s anything on there that anyone could have a problem with and, while the material I’m doing now is similar – none of it is ugly or rude – I do talk about things like how I’m straight, but gay for Ryan Gosling, or masturbation, or doing mushrooms. These are things that I wouldn’t have talked about in my earlier years of standup. They’d be things I would have said off stage to make people laugh, but the podcast has helped me lure those elements of my persona out onto the stage. It’s shown me that a broad audience won’t shun me for being honest… in fact, they’ll reward me for being honest.
So now I have a little more material about what it’s like being single, how to cope with feeling lonely, drinking, sex… and again, none of it is gross. I’m not saying anything I wouldn’t say to, maybe not my mother, but some other standard of decency. If people come out and see me now, it’s a new act. There’s nothing from Impregnated with Wonder and I think fans of the podcast will be familiar with the territory. It’s an interesting mix between talking about personal stuff, like religion and fears, and stuff that’s just plain silly.
MP: Your religion and general interest in all religions is a frequent topic on the podcast. Have there been periods in your life where it was difficult to reconcile your comedy with your religious upbringing, or were you always comfortable cracking jokes during worship?
PH: Comedy really wants your full honesty. It’s hard to put your unfiltered thoughts through the lens of a face; you can lose some of the grit and reality in there. So yeah, I definitely would sensor myself at the beginning. I don’t sensor myself at all anymore, but, going back to what we were saying, I find there’s a way to talk about most anything.
I remember as a kid having a realization, and I’ve said this on the podcast, that I believe in a God big enough to know that I’m joking. I thought it was weird that I would make a joke about God, or even a joke involving God or Jesus, and then my mother, who’s religious, would laugh, and yet I would worry that in some way I offended God or Jesus. How could it be that my mother gets it and the all-powerful Creator of the universe doesn’t understand that I’m being sarcastic? Who, if not God, can see the quality of my heart and know that I’m joking? It’s just one of those weird moments where you have to pause and ask, “what is this God that I’ve constructed? Is it this angry, easily upset dude that doesn’t get jokes?” I came to the conclusion that He’s much bigger than anything like that, so I stopped worrying. That said, I wouldn’t talk about anything sexual or admit to doing anything wrong. When I was religious I was much more judgmental and would struggle more with “sin” than I do now. I’m doing better now than I did then. I think I’m more loving and, hopefully, Christ-like now that I’m not even in the Church or concerned with it at as much… I don’t know how we got there.
One of my favourite comedians is Ryan Hamilton and he’s a Mormon. I talk to him about how he reconciles that and he has great answers. It just works out that the guy that he is fits pretty nicely into that faith. It turns out the guy that I am doesn’t necessarily write thoughts and jokes that would be appropriate to tell in Church.
MP: What can Montrealers expect from a live taping of You Made it Weird? Is it different from the regular podcast?
PH: Yeah, the live podcasts are different from the regular show. There’s a little bit of the intimacy and some of the same questions, but it’s more of a performance. It’s almost like doing a panel on Conan. People will come out, almost exclusively people I know, with two or three stories that we can all laugh about. It’s less of a natural conversation and more of a presentation… a little more showbiz-y.
I have to tell you, when a live show goes well, it’s a huge thrill. So far they’ve all been really great and people have really enjoyed them. Most of the fun is getting to do the podcast in front of people who like the podcast. Sometimes when I’m doing the regular podcast, I try to think of the fans and the things that they like and don’t like and cater the show to them. When it’s a live show, they laugh at the things they like and they’re quiet during the things they don’t like, so it’s so much more immediate and gratifying to attend one of those than perhaps even to listen to a regular episode.
MP: Having that direct feedback from an audience that knows you so well must create an impressive intimacy.
PH: I actually think that’s why I love doing them so much and honestly, that’s why I tour. It’s partly to do the shows, there’s satisfaction in that, but I think it’s about 70% seeing the fans – looking at them. You can say “hello” to them and, at risk of sounding cheesy, I love giving and getting hugs after the show. I hope it’s obvious that I’m that type of person (laughs). You know, I didn’t do much touring before the podcast, but once fans started popping up in every major city there became this instinct to want to visit them – they become “your friends.” There is an intimacy – especially when they know so much about me. Also, they’re willing to share a lot about themselves. A lot of them open right up and I have yet to be off put by it. People jump right in and I just think, “yep, this is the kind of life I want to live.” It’s one where people come up and they already like you and then they start talking to you in a real way.
MP: Is there anything you look forward to when you come to Montreal?
PH: All the Just For Laughs festivals are heaven. I love going to the shows and doing the shows and being in the hotel with all the comedians… it’s one of the few times that I’m around my peers, who I see all the time, and then also with the people who are just light years ahead of me. I saw Louis CK give a talk last year that I’ve mentioned numerous times on the podcast.
As a town, Montreal is just wonderful. It feels like going to Europe without any of the hassle. We also get these amazing comedy crowds that are informed comedy nerds with positive attitudes. It’s also just a great town to eat in (laughs).
MP: Who are you looking forward to seeing at Just For Laughs?
MP: Which up-and-coming comedians should people watch out for?
PH: Chris Thayer – he’s my incredible find and opens for me on the road. He’s really young and just so, so funny. He’ll be at Montreal soon, I’m sure. Andy Haynes is my other opener and he’s also incredible. Sean O’Connor, Jamie Lee… people know who Tommy Johnagin is, but he’s so good… David Angelo is huge… Robert Buscemi is great… a lot of these are guys I did Chicago with.
MP: What do you love about Poutine and what do you hate about Poutine?
PH: I love that it’s French fries with gravy and cheese curds on it and I hate that I always eat it at four in the morning with TJ Miller.