Pete Holmes has, over time, revealed a bit about himself on stage, on the You Made It Weird podcast, and in his HBO show, Crashing. He’s the guy with a big laugh and wide smile. Someone who almost became a youth pastor. Someone who has been married, divorced, re-married, and whose stage persona is a little clean and a little silly. Because of this, it’s easy (too easy) to hang a label on him and make assumptions, but like all good comics, Holmes is ever-changing and ambitious when it comes to where he wants to take his audience next.
That’s evident in a new HBO one-hour special, Dirty Clean (which debuts Saturday at 10pm EST on HBO), where Holmes touches on fatherhood, existence, the afterlife, and poop jokes. And it’s also clear in our conversation with Holmes where we discuss the sometimes passive act of finding material, his weariness about telling too many jokes about being a new father, whether strategy factors into the direction of his act, and finding the right audience for the big things he wants to talk about.
I was listening to the latest episode of You Made It Weird. The one with Fred Armisen and you spoke about taking a break from stand-up for a little bit after recording this special. Do you feel re-energized?
Absolutely. To me, everything you do, on some level, whether direct or indirect, informs what you will end up doing. So sometimes I’ll say to my wife, I might just be watching a movie, or I might be playing a video game or something, and I’m like, “This is writing.” You know, she’s not asking. I made her sound like the wife in the Andy Capp comic strip. I don’t mean like that, I just mean it’s one of the things that living with somebody who never lived with a comedian like this before… I tell her my philosophy, which is everything you do kind of is writing. So even the downtime. Even though I’m not doing anything directly, I sort of liken it to pulling the string on the bow back, you’re moving away from your goal technically, but when you come back at it, you’ll have all that energy behind it, you know?
I can imagine. Speaking of something informing your act, there’s some material in the special that talks about the new experience of being a dad. Have the preconceived notions about fatherhood faded away? I had a lightning round recently with my four-year-old niece at a zoo where the idea that I’d never give a kid a tablet to distract them disappeared.
Well, I think it’s a little bit too early to get into the tablet stuff. I will say that Val and I are still in the phase where we’re optimistic that we’ll be a little bit crunchier, or down to earth, with our daughter. But we’re also, as with everything, aware that we don’t know at all what we’re talking about. That’s why the standup that I did in the special about that, it was just about those first four weeks, basically. It’s just the experience of when you first have kids, people tend to be openly negative about it, which is weird. And then, what it’s like when you have to get up every two hours for, you know, about a month there, almost two months. Right after we had the baby, I went on Conan and talked about it. And I remember feeling the same way. I was like, “This is tricky, because I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Kind of like you with your niece at the zoo. You’re not the authority, no one’s the authority. So, I tried to just keep it as specific as I could, and as general as I said.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that no one really wants to hear about your kid. Even standup audiences, they don’t really care that much. So if you notice, the joke that I do about my baby is really about, well one of them is really about sleep, you know what I mean? And everybody sleeps. And one of them is just about kind of like a strange condition a baby can get. But I was talking to other comedians that have noticed that phenomenon, where like, yeah, people are happy for you, but for the most part they want you to talk about things that they can directly relate to. And that’s something I definitely tried to do in the special. I was really just being kind of honest with the material that was showing up. It’s almost like jokes and premises kind of show up like Amazon packages you don’t remember ordering, you know? You ever get a package, and you’re like, “I don’t even know what this is”? That’s how I am with material. And when we had the baby, not that much seemed that funny about it. And especially not that much seemed funny and original about it. So whenever I had a feeling, and this goes with material about anything, if I had a feeling that really seemed unique, I would pursue that. Judd Apatow obviously produced the special and he produces Crashing. We were talking about how every comedian, when they have a baby, tends to do 40 minutes about the baby, and unfortunately, a lot of those topics are sort of taken. A baby is sort of like airline travel in that way. So I’m really trying to see what ideas feel unique, try them out, and see if the audience seems genuinely surprised. That’s why I like the shake a baby joke.
The shake the baby one is really great, because… I’m sure it’s not a newsflash to you, but you’re not necessarily seen as a dark or edgy comic most of the time, so there was a kind of smiling darkness there.
I had never heard that [joke] before. But I had heard jokes about like, you know, babies not sleeping, or whatever it might be. My feeling is, if you’re gonna do it, it has to be better than… [Mike] Birbiglia’s new show, The New One, that he’s doing on Broadway is so amazing. If I can’t write something that’s either different enough from that, or better than that, I’m probably gonna keep the baby jokes to a minimum.
Watching the special, it felt like there was a progression in the material, like you were taking on some bigger topics at the end compared to the previous special. Is there any kind of overall strategy involved? “I’ll go darker. I’ll go bigger.” I will be honest with you, as someone who watches a lot of comedy, I watch and think that everyone’s working off of when they’re trying to curate a career. Is that bullshit?
Oh, that’s interesting. Like some sort of Machiavellian scheme to move you into this type of market?
Yeah, I assume that’s why you had the baby. “It’s time to start doing more family-oriented comedy, so I’m going to have a child now, and then that will give me the excuse to…” no, no, [obviously] not to that extent. But do you know what I mean?
I know what you mean, and I’ve known people, maybe not with those literal examples, that think about their career abstractly, and are smart business people. So they’re like, “Okay, I’m 39, my audience is getting older, they’re probably having kids, I’ll have a kid, and then I’ll branch into the family market.” Or, in my case it would be like, “I want to talk about kind of far-out ideas like the afterlife, or consciousness.” What it is, again, it’s like what is grabbing my attention. And now, I think because of podcasts, you can really fine-tune your audience in a way that we never could before. Meaning I could draw people that probably want to hear about the afterlife. Not to say that I do those jokes when I just drop in at a club, or if I’m just one out of 15 people on a show. You still do them, and they still work, but what happens, especially as you get older, or at least in my case, you really want to talk about the things that are super interesting to you. As you know from listening to my podcast, sort of toying with dark feelings is all that’s interesting to me. It’s very interesting. Especially from the perspective of a cheery guy admitting he has dark feelings. That is a passion of mine. Our secret thoughts that we’re sort of ashamed of, there’s a real catharsis in joking about them. Especially when you’re not a dark comedian.
When it comes to things like the meaning of life, or the phenomenon of consciousness, I was really eager to try and find a funny way to talk about that onstage. So all of those points came from things that I was speaking about on the podcast, or talking about offstage, and once they started seeming funny enough, I started experimenting with them onstage. But it wasn’t really like a business play, as such. I do dream that the second half of my career would have more and more allowances to get into philosophical territory, just because if you had a 15-minute conversation with me waiting for a plane to take off, it would probably go there. And I think that’s what people want out of comedy, they want the comedian to represent the fullness and the honest expression of themselves. Whether or not that’s deep and philosophical, or filthy, or just like a really good poop joke, which I also have in the special.
When did you realize that you need to focus on the things that are interesting to you, and natural, as opposed to trying to play, necessarily, to the audience?
Well, it’s certainly a luxury of, after you sort of find a fan base, then you can start sort of adjusting the levels of how much you’re gonna… it’s like, in the first 10 years of standup, they might not know you at all, so your act tends to be this first date introduction, of, “This is what I’m about, this is the kind of family I had, these are my neuroses, these are my dreams.” And then by the end of the hour, or half hour, or whatever it is, the audience might go, “Okay, I get it.” But it’s hard to start with that stuff, unless you have the benefit of having already had a couple specials, already have a body of work, whether it be a podcast or TV show, as in my case. Then you kind of have that relationship right from the beginning. Like Dirty Clean and Crashing, neither of them start now with, “Hi, this is who I am.” We sort of know, like you mentioned, “You’re not a very dark guy.” So you know that going in, right? I don’t take that for granted. I love that you go, “It’s probably gonna be like this.” But for the first 10 years of standup, most people don’t have any idea of what it will be like. So the performer doesn’t know to go against that or with that, for whatever effect.
Once I started doing the podcast is the short answer to your question. That’s when I started to realize that there were other people like me that would want to hear jokes like that. Either on Crashing or in the standup, because I’m really just trying to make the stuff that I would want to see if I was in the audience. As obvious as that sounds, I’m like, if I went and saw a standup and he started talking about why you can hear your thoughts but no one else can, I would just be so onboard. But, here’s my point. In the first 10 years, it’s kind of hard to get them to go with you. It’s a long trip around the barn to get to that sort of stuff, unless they kind of already trust you and know you.
Is that a point that you want to hit on Crashing? Where the character gets to that level of freedom, intellectually?
I would like to see that. You know, I’m talking to you from the Apatow offices, where we’re starting to talk about season four. Obviously, it’s not picked up, but you start writing in anticipation that it might be picked up. And that’s one of the things that we’re dealing with. Leif, the hippy character who sort of represents in a lot of ways, the things that I like to talk about now. We’re always toying with that idea that Pete slowly starts understanding Leif, or at least finds his own way of expressing Leif type ideas. Because even though Leif is sort of like the Kramer of our show, he is right a lot of the time. He kind of says it in an idiotic way, but he sometimes has a point when it comes to letting go and not stressing out too much, or whatever it might be. So we’re always kind of like, “How could Pete evolve in one way or another, to a more deep thinking person, a more philosophical person?” So that’s absolutely something that we want to play with.
‘Pete Holmes: Dirty Clean’ premiers on HBO December 15 at 10 pm EST. ‘Crashing,’ season three, returns to HBO on January 20 at 10 pm EST.