Pirates, Hooraytheists, and Comedy Hitmen with Pete Holmes

Big time journalists probably don’t get super excited and tell all their friends who they’re going to interview, but I sure do. Responses usually come in a mixed bag of people who are impressed, and people who have no idea who I’m talking about, but are happy I’m happy.

When I faux casually told everyone I know that I’d be speaking with Pete Holmes, I discovered how universally appreciated he is. Everyone cited a different project they liked, from College Humor’s Badman, to his most recent foray into network TV, How We Roll.

The more people I spoke to and research I did, the more I realized what an extensive catalogue Pete has; you can be a fan of some of his work, and never even realize all the other projects he’s got going on. Did you know he did a stint as a New Yorker cartoonist? I didn’t.

His 2017 semi-autobiographical HBO show Crashing (which he executive produced with Judd Apatow), put him on the map for a lot of people. It ran for three seasons, and still has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 90%.

His book, Comedy Sex God, came out the next year. Billed as “part autobiography, part philosophical inquiry, and part spiritual quest”, he can now add successful author to his ever growing repertoire.

I first saw him as a podcast guest, which led me to his stand-up, and his own popular pod You Made It Weird where he talks to a wide range of people from actor Ben Stiller to author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, often co-hosted by his wife Val.

He seems to have some unassuming magick that allows him to meet people where they are in a really authentic way, and I ask him if that took practice:

“Well, I think that’s actually the whole thing, isn’t it? Not just for comedians, but just for human beings. The people in my life that I find the most frustrating are the people that don’t seem to be doing the work to, just for its own sake, become more authentic; for its own pleasure, get in touch with how they really feel, with what they’re actually afraid of, with what actually makes them happy — and to stop doing an impression of what they think their parents wanted them to be, or their city wants them to be, or their culture wants them to be, and do the work to figure out who they actually are, and then share of themselves with the people that support that and encourage that.”

While it’s all relative, it’s fair to say that growing and aging are very different things, and without intention, time has a nasty habit of just passing.

“A lot of times I get on the phone with like, old friends that I haven’t talked to in 20 years, and I’m like, oh right, not everybody’s doing this; not everyone’s putting in the effort, And I’m just talking to their dads right now…It sounds pessimistic. I just mean, I think the job of a comedian and the job of a happy person are pretty much the same thing, which is to dig deep, figure out who you are, figure out what actually does it for you, and then present that to people, and find like minded people.”

I tell him that he comes across as a well adjusted adult, especially for a comedian. I wonder if this creates a divide in his comedy life: does he find himself gravitating to those who are doing the work, sometimes quite publicly? Do the spirit nerds, therapy lovers, 12 steppers, et al find themselves on one side of the room?

“You know, it’s funny, I love them all. You know, in fact, when I do Montreal, and I get to hang out with — maybe they are adjusted, but let’s just say they’re more like what I call the pirate comedian, you know, traveling around, swashbuckling, swabbing the deck, killing crowds, destroying, murdering and drinking rum — I love them too…It’s not even ‘too’, like I love them just as much.

“…There’s different aspects to my personality as well. Meaning it’s not just the chipper guy, or the the spiritual guy, or the philosophical guy, or whatever. There’s also, you know, Montreal is home to Mean Pete; Mean Pete does the roasts, Mean Pete will jump on Jim Norton’s show. I love roasting, I love being an asshole for fun, and getting rough and tumble if that’s the game we’re playing. Because, yeah, I mean, it’s beautiful. It’s fun. I love comedians.”

Considering the pandemic forced hiatus that performing in general and the Just For Laughs Festival in particular is returning from, I ask if being back on the road with everyone is akin to a class reunion.

“I think of it more as like a summer camp reunion, because class reunions are tricky. It was always better for me. I was always more of a camp kid than a school kid. You know, I did a festival not that long ago…in Austin, it was the Moontower Fest — and there’s just something very special about…taking the elevator down to the lobby, thinking you’re gonna go eat alone, which is often what you’ll do when you’re traveling, and you run into one person in the lobby, and as you walk to lunch, you run into another person, and by the time you get there, there’s as a party of five, and that’s uniquely a comedy fest experience.”

A spirit nerd myself, one of my favorite definitions of God is a Pete Holmes quote where he said something to the effect of: God is the name we give to the blanket we throw over the mystery in the dark to give it form. His Wikipedia page is more concise, if perhaps less accurate about his spiritual leanings, saying “he now refers to himself as ‘Christ-leaning’ or jokingly a ‘Hooraytheist'”. He’s a bit too busy to be reading his own Wiki though, so he had no idea (when I asked him about it, I misquoted it as Christian-leaning).

“Yeah…interesting. I’m gonna have to edit that.”

But it was Hooraytheism that really piqued my interest.

“It’s like trying to talk about Christian or Jewish people. There’s no way to categorize all of them. But some atheists can be bitter, right? They’re a little upset that this is all a cosmic mistake, and it’s bullshit — this isn’t all of them, but a ton of them. And that’s why when I started to meet more delightful, optimistic, joyful atheists– to sort of have the perspective of like, more, I don’t know what’s going on; I don’t think there’s a God on the evidence, but I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t understand what’s going on, but it’s precious and it’s fleeting, so let’s watch a sunset, let’s have an ice cream, let’s fall in love. Penn Gillette is always my go to example of a truly beautiful atheist. I was like we need a new term, and we should call them Hooraytheists.”

“When you grow up thinking that you are going to be sentenced to conscious, eternal torment for believing the wrong things or not believing correctly enough or hard enough, or for whatever sin you think you’re guilty as you think you’re going to be going to hell, it’s actually quite a relief to think that when you die you go into a void or into nothingness. I mean, don’t get me started with the Buddhists. The reincarnation people, which are Hindus, and Buddhists, would say it’s wishful thinking to be a modern Western atheist that we’re gonna die and just go into the void. The Hindus are actually working really hard to clean up their game so they can earn the right to merge into the nothingness…We’re the new generation and we want the void now.”

Pete got his start as one of JFL’s New Faces in 2009, and now he’s back to host. I asked if he gets a sneak peek of the lineup.

“…It’s supposed to be super hush hush and this year, I don’t know who the people are. And it’s exciting to find out… I guess I could say the same reason fans are going to the new faces show is the same reason I’m going, it’s because I want to be introduced to the new talent…Honestly, the more successful you get, the more isolated you can become…you just aren’t out there as much. It doesn’t matter what profession you’re in, this is true.”

“But Montreal has always been a great opportunity to like, get back together. Like, that’s really the paradox is when you start comedy, it’s a group activity. It’s you and 15 other people that you’re starting with, and you all go to the same open mics together, so you’re like a platoon. But then when you get success, you become like a hitman that travels alone, and does the job alone, and comes back alone. And that’s not as lonely as it sounds, but it’s not as fun as what it feels like when you’re all together. Which is what Montreal feels like.”

Catch Pete Holmes & Friends this Friday. Also this Friday, he’s part of the Patton Oswalt Gala. He’s hosting New Faces 1&2, and New Faces Unrepped. He’s also doing a live You Made It Weird podcast on July 30

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