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.