Along with the absence of a desk, the fact that guests aren’t coming on in order to plug their latest whatever sets “The Pete Holmes Shows” apart from typical late-night fare.
By Betsy Sherman
Amidst the excitement over Jimmy Fallon’s takeover of The Tonight Show and Seth Meyers’ move into the Late Night hosting seat, don’t forget to give some love to Pete Holmes, whose talk show started its second block of episodes the same night as Meyers’ debut. The Pete Holmes Show is on at midnight on TBS, following Conan. As it proved during its fledgling seven-week run during the fall, it can take a Conanesque, irreverent sense of humor to a warmer, friendlier place—a place in which a host without a sardonic bone in his body will greet his guests with a big hug.
With Conan O’Brien having passed the 20-year mark as a talk-show host, it’s not hard to imagine Lexington, MA native Holmes, who will soon turn 35, as an adolescent blown away by the silly-smart antics of O’Brien and his gang during the ‘90s (just as young O’Brien, in Brookline, was surely blown away by Letterman during the ’80s). Holmes embarked on a career in comedy, at first dabbling in Boston clubs, then relocating to Chicago, where he learned his stand-up chops, moving on to the New York and Los Angeles comedy scenes.
I discovered Holmes because I like podcasts in which comedians talk to other comedians. Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird isn’t the first of these (Greg Fitzsimmons’ Fitzdog Radio and Marc Maron’s WTF are the grandaddies), but it may be the best. Holmes is a great talker and a great listener. Conversations of two hours fly by because of Holmes’ confidence that laughs will come, even out of “heavy” subjects, as long as both participants are funny and they’re being completely honest. Holmes takes his guest through discussions on three main topics — comedy, sex, and God — while letting digressions go where they may. This isn’t the Charlie Rose/Terry Gross model of interviewing, where you don’t learn anything about the questioner’s personal life. As the title suggests, Holmes savors awkward moments; he’s as willing (eager, really) to be as revealing as he wants his guests to be. You do feel like you get to know him — his religious Christian upbringing, the marriage that began and ended in his twenties, his current questioning attitude toward religion and interest in Eastern philosophies — more than you know some of your own friends.
Only in an ideal world could this format be transposed intact to television. Which is why it’s been interesting to track how much authentic Pete-ness is allowed to shine through in The Pete Holmes Show (my conceit here is that the podcast equals 100 percent Pete-ness, although it’s arguably a performance as well, to some degree). As a regular listener to the podcast — or “Weirdo” — I feel invested in this transition, and almost as protective of the host as the uber-attentive mother Holmes mentions in those podcast conversations.
The show’s elements are familiar from Conan, Kimmel, and so on — monologue, field pieces, recurring bits, filmed sketches, and on-set interviews — in this case compressed into thirty minutes minus commercials. The persona Holmes presents when he strides in front of the camera has been honed during years of stand-up: a clean-cut look he likens to a youth pastor, with a doughy softness that makes you nod yes when he calls himself “the lesbian Val Kilmer.” He’s preemptively self-deprecating about his six-foot-six frame (“I’m so oblong”).
Apparently, an image has been agreed upon as to what a midnight-show-after-Conan host should wear, and it’s definitely not a suit. During the first season, Holmes most often wore a dark-colored shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a colored tie, nice jeans, and sneakers (Pete’s a rubber sole kinda guy). The low-rent set has a simplified-cityscape backdrop, and there are quirky wall-hangings and knick-knacks on the sides. Holmes’ monologues, during which he bonds with the studio audience, aren’t topical or political. They’re anecdotal or based on random thoughts which may or may not involve a Seinfeldian search for logic (for example, why do we get excited about food trucks?). And, oh yeah, Pete will crack up at his own jokes, sometimes quite loudly (as guest Nick Kroll dryly commented, “That’s the laugh that America will grow to love and hate”).
The occasional field pieces exploit contrasts: whitebread Pete interviews rappers outside an awards show, unathletic Pete tries playing a sport, huge Pete works out in a gym with little kids. These are fun because of how deeply Holmes embraces his own dorkiness. The recurring bits, similar to the ones O’Brien does at his desk before the guests come on, are punchline-dependent; so far, this has been the weakest facet of the show. Much stronger are the filmed sketches in which Holmes, working with actor Matt McCarthy, takes the part of an incompetent and/or douchebag-ish version of, so far, a doctor, a bartender, and St. Peter at the gate of heaven. Other sketches put a spin on archetypal heroes. The hilarious “Ex-Men” may have grown out of a pun, but it’s an inspired premise. Holmes, as Patrick Stewart’s Prof. Xavier, mocks the superpower of, then fires, successive members of his band of mutants. A James Bond spoof questions the inevitability of a Skyfall scene in which 007 joins a woman in the shower and they have sex. The most beloved of these short films were made in collaboration with College Humor and had a life on the Internet before the debut of the TBS show: they parody Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight features. Holmes’ “Badman” is a big baby who has the gall to tell rival Superman “Get over your dead parents!”
The line-up of guests during the fall consisted mostly of Holmes’ comedian pals. Along with the absence of a desk, the fact that guests aren’t coming on in order to plug their latest whatever sets the show apart from typical late-night fare. The exchanges with funny people such as Kumail Nanjiani and Moshe Kasher were a delight (motivated fans can catch up with the same names’ long-form, uncensored visits to You Made It Weird). A definite thread throughout the season was busting the host’s chops for, variously, his upbeatness, his chattiness and his looks. Holmes reveled in the put-downs by, to name a few, John Mullaney (“Pete Holmes is a big fan of Pete Holmes”), Marc Maron (“You’re so open-hearted, you exhaust other people”), Bill Burr (“You’re so happy, sometimes it bothers me”) and Chelsea Peretti (in a field piece during which she took Pete out for a wardrobe makeover, she called him “brash,” “exhausting” and “visually harsh”).
It’s a promising sign that Holmes was able to infuse some of his spiritual curiosity into the proceedings. With his comic guests he’d half-jokingly slip a question like “When you die, is it just lights out?” into an interview (Bill Burr’s immediate response: “I hope so”). More pointedly, he welcomed Deepak Chopra as an in-studio guest, and talked about faith with Pastor Rob Bell who, in a field piece, attempted to teach Holmes to surf. Both men participated in a nice bit called “Profound-Profane,” in which the guest offers a deep thought and Holmes a wildly inappropriate one.
A week into the second season, which will run for 13 weeks, The Pete Holmes Show’s comic footing is sure, even as there have been some tweaks. Holmes’ wardrobe has blanded out to blues and grays — hopefully this is a brief winter palette phase, because it makes him look as if he’s just ducked in from an office job. Interview segments have been pre-taped rather than held in front of the studio audience. It’s hard to tell whether this will be a permanent thing.
During one of the most self-revelatory monologues in the fall season, Holmes talked about his short-lived marriage, ruefully making fun of the way he had put his wife on a pedestal and demanded that the relationship be perfect. He wrapped up with the genre’s knee-jerk “We have a great show!” then quickly pivoted: “We have a flawed, human show!” If The Pete Holmes Show succeeds, it will be because its host is not deluded into thinking there’s a path to comedy perfection. In those nimble rubber soles and with a light touch, he’ll be open to the weirdness in each moment.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.