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The Pete Principle

The star of TBS' 'The Pete Holmes Show' is a poster boy for SXSW Comedy's impact on a comic's career

By Russ Espinoza, March 7, 2014, Arts

It wasn't long ago that the local comedy landscape scraped by without the embarrassment of riches it enjoys today. But with the emergence of SXSW Comedy in 2008 and the Moontower Comedy Festival in 2012, not to mention last August's kickoff of Funny or Die's Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival from the Austin360 Amphitheater, the capital city has been a magnet for the hottest names in comedy for seven years strong.

Of all the comics who've made numerous visits in that time frame, few have fooled around with Austin more than Pete Holmes.

If you're counting along at home, the versatile 34-year-old comedian, podcaster, late-night talk-show host, and all-around silly goose returns for his fourth communion with SXSW Comedy when the Festival rolls out on March 8. This outing takes place in the not-too-distant wake of his Moontower appearances last April and the taping of his hourlong Comedy Central special, Nice Try, the Devil, at ACL Live in October 2012.

In the time since the 2011 release of his debut comedy album, Impregnated With Wonder, Holmes' stock in the adversarial worlds of mainstream and alternative comedy has skyrocketed. As a testament to his continuously expanding crossover appeal, Holmes acquired a seat at the late-night table in October 2013 with TBS' The Pete Holmes Show, an offbeat half-hour of stand-up, sketch, interviews, and more co-produced by his predecessor on the network's late-night dial, Conan O'Brien.

Holmes' popular weekly podcast, the light and colloquial You Made It Weird – so named for its host's proclivity for the over-share – keeps thriving in a period of the podcast age where supply runs circles around demand.

With so much on his plate, Holmes aims to cover all his bases on Texas soil during the coming frenzy, including a confirmed stand-up set at the Comedy Gives Back event at Brazos Hall on Sunday, March 9.

"There's the Pete Holmes Show panel – which is gonna be great," Holmes says. "I'm really looking forward to the live podcast as well. I just haven't done a live podcast in so long and it's one of my favorite things to do; and Austin is such a great place to do it. That's why I wanted to do my special there, and it's where we did our first live podcast. So it's been the home of some really great stand-up and podcast memories."

From a fan's perspective, Holmes is the rarest of breeds. Whatever demons he may harbor are kept extremely well-hidden. Perhaps his ability or preference to smother them has something to do with that "weird Christian college" he attended in his native Massachusetts. Fittingly, the smiley, big lug who stands 6-foot-6 gives off the hokey, neon-white look of an undyingly chipper, acoustic guitar-pickin' "youth pastor."

His irreverent, upbeat stand-up and infectiously good-natured temperament put him at odds with the oftentimes arrogant, brooding, and volatile character that drives so much alternative comedy. Weighty personal fiascos like his now 6-year-old divorce from an adulterous ex-wife don't inflame the man who endearingly nicknames himself "Old Petey Pants": Instead "O.P.P." excels at converting seriousness into silliness, as though any overt display of negativity or animus would be a cardinal sin.

So how did Holmes – a friendly, happy-go-lucky goofball with little to no evident fronts – get mixed up with and eventually embraced by alt-comics and fans alike? His three fruitful stints performing in the alternative milieu of SXSW Comedy in 2010, 2011, and 2012 certainly had a hand in it.

This year, he accompanies mega-stars Bill Cosby, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, and others as a marquee name on the 2014 slate; but he was a mere up-and-comer just four years ago at SXSW 2010.

"I remember that year very, very well," Holmes says. "I remember being pretty overwhelmed, as I was any time I did a festival. But South by Southwest was certainly one of the first I ever did. And it's such a cool thing: I remember it being intimidating, because you don't feel like you're a cool person or a hot act or anything; so you really feel like you have to earn it. And, to be honest, as I was just considering which live shows I'll be doing, I still feel that way."

When The Pete Holmes Show debuted from Burbank last October, it became the first of the television season's three new-or-overhauled late-night talk shows to hit the air – getting nearly a four-month head start in building viewership over The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night With Seth Meyers. Its second season debuted on Feb. 24 and is scheduled for a 13-week run into mid-May. With a young show to continuously calibrate and survival at stake in the brave new world of late-night comedy, you'd think now would be an inopportune time to escape from L.A.

But then again, Pete Holmes and Austin have a good thing going together.

"I think the idea is, the TV show is so much of what I'm into anyway, and South by Southwest is something I've done for several years, so we're just trying to capture the stuff that I enjoy and we're gonna be filming a lot for the show," Holmes says.

"We can't afford to take a trip somewhere and not be filming stuff for the show – it just wouldn't make sense even if it is a really good opportunity. So we're gonna be taping a live podcast for purposes of the TV show. We're gonna be trying to do some sit-down interviews with friends. We're trying to get Robert Rodriguez and some of the musical acts to sit down with us and do an interview or do something fun together. When I think of South by, I think of food trucks and shows that are close to each other and great friends having a good time. So we're really using it as an opportunity – just like the fans do – to go and see a lot of great things."

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