Pete Holmes: The Interview
The comedian on the role SXSW played in boosting his career
By Russ Espinoza, 2:00PM, Mon. Mar. 10, 2014
According to social lore, rare is the occasion when a nice guy doesn’t finish last. But good things can happen to good people, and sometimes we get to follow along. In the story of comedian Pete Holmes — the big, bubbly, boisterous new name in the late-night Rolodex – good things haven’t just “happened,” they’ve snowballed into a dream career.
Holmes’ whopping personality transcends both mainstream and alternative comedy and drives the hit podcast You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes and the new TBS after-hours vehicle The Pete Holmes Show, which began its second season on Feb. 24.
The Chronicle caught-up with the soon-to-be four-time SXSW veteran to discuss his unique relationship with the city of Austin, his new show, and more in advance of his assorted appearances at SXSW Comedy 2014.
Austin Chronicle: They say success comes when talent meets opportunity. With that in mind: To what extent has SXSW, as a platform, helped earn you the recognition you’re enjoying today?
Pete Holmes: South by Southwest is where we did our first live podcast, which was a real jump from doing a private one-on-one conversation with one comedian; and, of course, that was in the back of my mind a little bit, where I was like, "Will we be able to do this? Is this going to work as a live show? And then if it does work as a live show, is that the sort of thing we could potentially turn into something else?" I’m not a huge schemer – like I’m not like, "If this goes well, then they’ll have to make it a TV show." But that is directly one way that South By helped me, in getting my sea legs in a live interview format, and that’s why I’m here on the show – at least in part.AC: You’re one of the marquee names at SXSW Comedy this year, but what was it like for you in 2010 when you made your first festival appearance as a lesser-known comic?
PH: I remember that year very, very well. I was shown around by Eugene Mirman, who was at that point already a veteran of the scene. He took me around to all the food places, and we saw a lot of bands, but I remember being pretty overwhelmed – as I was any time I did a festival, but SXSW was certainly one of the first I ever did. And it’s such a cool thing. I remember it being intimidating, because you kind of 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. It’s such a mecca and a destination show for so many people that you don’t wanna mess around when you’re a ticket that they could be seeing some other incredible show – whether it be comedy or music or whatever. I really still have that feeling of like, "Oh, you gotta take it seriously.”
Back then in 2010, it was worse: I remember going around – you do have a little bit of a feeling of "I’m so lucky to be here, and what am I doing here?"
AC: With the second season of The Pete Holmes Show underway, it seems like an inopportune time to head off for a festival. So are you striking while the iron’s hot promotion-wise, or is SXSW just too big to miss?
PH: I think the idea is, The Pete Holmes Show is so much of what I’m into anyway, and SXSW is something I’ve done the past four years, so we’re just trying to capture the stuff that I enjoy doing and we’re gonna be filming a lot of stuff for the TV show. We can’t afford to take a trip somewhere and not be filming stuff for the show – it just wouldn’t make any sense, even if it is a really good promotional 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 your Robert Rodriguezes and some of the musical acts to sit down with us and do an interview or do something fun together. So we’re really using it as an opportunity – just like the fans do – to go and see a lot of great things. We’re hoping to go and see a lot of great things and also film a lot of great things with those people.
AC: This is only the seventh year for SXSW Comedy; young as it is, how do you think it stacks up against other major comedy festivals you’ve performed at?
PH: You know, it’s interesting. When you think about a festival from a comedian's perspective, it has to do with who else does it – that’s number one. The second consideration – and this is kind of crazy – is: "What’s the food like? What is the town like? Is it walkable? Is it easy to get around?" And then, of course, "What other things can I see? Am I gonna be seeing other shows I wanna see? Am I gonna be seeing other bands or films and stuff?"
So, of course, SXSW crushes it, in all of those regards. You’ve got amazing food. You can walk around the city – I always walk from my hotel, even if it’s across the river. That sort of accessibility where you don’t have to rely on cabs or feel like you’re missing out, you can just walk around and stumble upon great things. And then, of course, who’s doing it is always been the best thing about it. The lineups are always my favorite comedians and also my favorite people – who happen to be the same people.
AC: How much fun or competition is in the air when comedians get together for an event like this?
PH: I would say there’s no competition, at all – at least in the people that I am lucky enough to hang out with. In fact, it’s mostly more of a collaborative spirit, which is great.
The comedians are kind of a fun addition to the festival because I feel like we’re just people who would wanna be there anyway – and then we happen to do these shows as well. The spirit is great, that vibe – it’s kind of like summer camp: You’re all in the same hotel; you can’t stand around in the lobby for more than five minutes without seeing another person you’d like to have lunch with or whatever; then you walk to lunch, then you do a show, then you watch a friend’s show, and then you go to another show. Everybody starts drinking after their shows, everybody starts eating after their shows, and it’s just like a wild merging with the vibe that’s already occurring.
AC: You have this really popular podcast, now you have a late-night show, your two comedy albums are very acclaimed. Even though you’ve been doing comedy for over a decade, do you feel like your career has been on the fast track in recent years?
PH: Yeah, absolutely … it does sound kind of breakneck; but the truth is that when you’re in a life, you see just how many days where nothing is happening; which, to be honest, I’m happy that it’s that way. People sometimes say doing the show, "Oh, I must be so busy," and I am – of course I am – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time to have dinner with friends occasionally or watch True Detective or whatever it is that you like doing. But then when you look at the summation of a year, you’re kinds like, "Oh man, we did so much stuff this year, it was really, really crazy." But when you’re inside of it, it feels a little bit more normal.
But now, having the TV show, things are a little bit different: There is a little bit more "Oh, wow, we are on a different set of tracks right now." This feels faster, everything feels a little bit more like the big leagues, I guess; and you do feel a lot of that excitement, and you do feel some of the pressure, of course, as well. But for the most part, I kinda feel like all of that stuff that you just mentioned was leading towards something like this that could take elements from each of those things – elements from my stand-up, elements from the podcast, elements from the sketch I was doing, and interviews – and then put it in one place. I was very, very fortunate and as prepared as I feel like I could have been. That’s something Conan [O'Brien] has said to me before: When he did his show, of course he was coming from being a writer on two very successful shows, but he said before to me (that) he feels glad for me that I had the experience that I had because it did make it a little bit easier for me to merge in and at least not feel so underwater as maybe he did. I’m kinda putting words in his mouth, but that seems to be what he was saying.
AC: You’ve said that having your own late-night talk show is a dream come true. But does it worry you in the slightest that work on the show will come at the expense of what made you famous, doing stand-up?
PH: That’s interesting. I have to be very deliberate about that actually. I give that a lot of thought, because when this show is running on all cylinders – and I just mean we’re in production – it meets almost every need: It meets the social need just being in the writer’s room, and then working with all the guests and all that sort of stuff, so I get to see people. Like, we just had Chris D’Elia on the show, and I hadn’t seen Chris in a while, and we kinda joked, it was like "This is how we hang out now." So, the show can fulfill that need.
And then doing the monologue – especially now that we’re taping multiple episodes in a day – I’ll do three 10-minute monologues a day, and that ends up being 30 minutes of new stand-up. It’ll be edited down to about six minutes, seven minutes each or whatever, but, you know, around there. So, the thing is, when I’m done – and I’m usually done around 7 ‘o’clock on a tape night – it is hard to go, "Now I don’t need to go and do stand-up," which is the thing that is my first love, and it always feels the most liberating. When you’re doing the monologue on my show, you do know that you have to answer to a bigger audience: You need to answer to the writers in the sense that you need to do their jokes justice, you need to answer a little bit to the network even though Turner (Turner Broadcasting System, TBS) has been wonderfully supportive and not too note-y, and, you know, you’re just aware that it’s a different thing.
When you do stand-up it’s so autonomous: I can say anything. I can say “dickbutter” 15 times in a row; and I might do that on the show, but they’ll probably edit it out. (Laughs) But stand-up being live and being engaged with a live audience and that sort of stuff, there’s a reason why you have to keep doing it. I guess this is a long way of saying (that) I have to remain disciplined now, whereas stand-up was something that I just always did; now I have to remain disciplined to keep doing it because the show is such a satisfying thing on its own.
AC: SXSW Comedy largely caters to the alternative comedy scene, which can tilt in a dark, crude, and cynical direction. So how is it that a friendly, positive comedian like you became embraced by that community?
PH: I think one of the reasons why what I did resonated with the alt scene wasn’t necessarily because I was positive or negative, or talked about these types of things or these types of things, or made these types of references and didn’t make these types of references. I’ve never felt the need to play ball in that way; like I don’t have a lot of Stars Wars jokes or I don’t watch Dr. Who or whatever it is that’s associated with the scene that I love so much. The reason why I think I fit in with it – and happen to be a positive guy that fit in with it – is that I’m looking for that authentic communion with the crowd. When I do a white-hot club show in L.A. – which I do, I like doing some of the clubs from time to time – it’s gonna be a little bit different. There’s this momentum in the air, there’s this swirl in the air, there’s a lot more theatricality to it: You’re seated, there’s a hostess, there’s drinks, there’s food, people go on dates, it’s packed; the emcee has been emceeing every night and does his perfect, tight 10 minutes and gets everybody into a frenzy, and then you go up and you’ll hit the ball and you’ll hit it as hard as you can; and the next guy goes up and hits the ball as hard as he can – it’s like a home run derby.
Whereas an alt-show, I think because we can sometimes have smaller rooms – which isn’t always the case but it can be, and I actually really like a small room – it fosters more of a presence, it’s like, "I’m gonna get onstage and I’m going to see where they’re at and I’m gonna cater the act to them and really try and connect in a genuine way," as opposed to feeling the pressure of "These people paid $75 to be here tonight, and it’s date night and I need to deliver for them, like I need to dance as fast as I can for them."
Whereas when you’re performing in a comic book store, and there’s much less expectation and it’s a Monday night and you go in and you happen to find some magic, you happen to work some alchemy and find something out of that, I think that just fosters a different type of perspective and that’s what I call "alternative comedy." I still think you should be able to deliver when you need to, because that’s what a TV set is, and that’s what it is when you do work a club or a big theatre where you can’t necessarily engage in the exact same way.
But that being said, to answer your question more specifically, it’s not necessarily about being positive or negative. I think what people respond to is someone being who they actually are. If you listen to my jokes sometimes, like my first album – which is the decidedly more positive album – one of my favorite bits on there is how Subway sucks, I don’t like Subway. There’s something about a guy who looks like he’s Mormon, who looks like a youth pastor, and is like a smiley, kind of high-energy, friendly person, when you start railing against Subway it doesn’t come across the same way as a guy who’s smoking in a leather jacket and like brooding features comes across. So whether you’re being embraced for being positive or being embraced for being like a rant-y, Lewis Black type, I think audiences are responding to the same thing: They just want you to be what you actually are, and like a pheromone, people can smell that on you and whether it's legit or not.
AC: In the three previous years you’ve visited for South by Southwest, what have been some of your most memorable moments as a performer or spectator?
PH: I actually have two pretty good South By memories: One is doing Set List, and I think they filmed it and it was so good. I was like drunk, I wasn’t even planning on doing it – I don’t think – or maybe I was and I just got drunk anyway because it was one of the last shows of the thing, and just went up and really had a magical thing. Of course that’s Paul Provenza’s show, where they give you the topic and you have to improvise your set; and it just went really, really well, it just clicked really well, and almost being, kind of in a festival, party mood helped that set.
But the first one that came to mind was coming offstage at Esther’s (Follies), and then someone saying they have a show working at the Velveeta Room, and those are connected and I just went out. And I think in both of these stories I’m drunk. (Laughs) I finished my first set, and it was great, and then I started drinking, and then they’re like, "There’s this other show," and I just went up and I was so lubed – not from the alcohol but from having just performed – that I walked out and had one of the best sets of my life. I love that room. It’s so small, (I) came in through the back and just crushed and riffed so much because we are all just like in the safest place imaginable: so many friends, so many great comedy fans, such a great town, such a great festival, such a great overall vibe. And then I get the privilege of just going from one to the other doing these sets unannounced and basically just having the time of my life. (Laughs)
Pete Holmes will appear at SXSW Comedy in The Pete Holmes Show Makes It Weird panel on Monday, March 10, 3:30pm at the Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez; and at the You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes live podcast taping on Tuesday, March 11, 6pm, at Esther’s Follies, 525 E. Sixth; plus a stand-up set at Comedy Gives Back on Sunday, March 9, 10:30pm, at Brazos Hall, 204 E. Fourth.