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Monday, October 28th, 2013

Talking to Pete Holmes About 'The Pete Holmes Show' and Making a More Personal Late Night Show

Pete Holmes is the perfect person to host a late night talk show. The standup and host of popular over-sharing podcast You Made It Weird has everything it takes to be a great late night host; he's charming and silly, he's great at bringing out the best in his guests, and he wanted to be David Letterman as a child. And of course, he's very funny.

Lucky for us, then, that The Pete Holmes Show debuts tonight at midnight on TBS, after Conan. The first few weeks of guests have been already been announced; unlike most late night shows, his show will tape a week in advance. I caught up with him the day before he shot his first test episode to talk about having his friends as guests, appealing to real comedy fans, and monologue jokes about his ex-wife.

First, how are you feeling? There's been a lot of hype about this new show.

Yeah, there is a lot of hype. I like to say I'm feeling everything. [Laughs.] You name it, I'm feeling it. I'm feeling very excited, I'm feeling very supported; we have a wonderful staff. Conan's been very very hands-on and wonderful, and TBS has been very very wonderful in promoting the show and supporting the show, so for the most part, all of the feelings are great. People always want to know if you're nervous or if you're freaking out. Everybody has little flashes of that. I wake up in the morning and I realize that I've been having just the most insane Michel Gondry-style dreams of, like, panic and concern. But for the most part, it's just a dream come true and a pleasure.

When we talked in March, you talked about how you expected your monologue to be a bit more like your standup. Is that still the plan?

I'm happy to report, that is still the plan, very much so. The name of the game so far with the writers has been trying – it's been very interesting, trying to teach a room of people how to write standup for you. But also, standup that's stand-alone. When you write standup by itself, you can write a bit and then you can sandwich it with other bits. This has to be standup in the sense that it has a beginning, it has a middle, and then there's some sort of conclusion. That's the only way that it's different from my standup, is that it needs to be these little bite size, three- to four-minute chunks. But it's not pulled from the headlines. We're writing stuff that's evergreen. Some of the monologues are just gonna be my standup that we've changed and enhanced or expounded upon.

It's gonna be a big difference from the other late night shows. There are so many shows that do that sort of set-up, punch, pulled from the headlines stuff. We're gonna let them do that because they do it so well, and we're gonna do something different. And it is gonna be more transparent, it's gonna be more authentic, it's gonna be more personal. Instead of just jokes, it's gonna be informative about who I am, because so much of what makes a show different who is the host is. We're gonna try and give the audience as much of a sense of me as we can through the monologue.

Are you worried about burning through material? Normally if you get a bit that works, you can do it for months. With this, you write it, you do it once, and then it's done.

Yeah, that's true, but at the same time, I'll still be doing it probably as standup. A lot of the stuff that people see on the show might be the beginning of a bit that will be on my next hour. Because the show is just such an uploading of whatever it is I'm working on currently, in the state that it's in currently. And there is a little bit of abandonment, like, "Oh I did it on the show and it's done." But to be honest, I'm gonna probably keep working on it, keep growing it as a separate thing for my act. But pretty much whatever I've got going is going on the show, because there's just so much time.

I heard Marc Maron say on Doug Loves Movies that he was already booked on your show…

I know, and Doug [Benson] was hurt by that. We also booked Doug. [Laughs.] It was after that, but we have also booked Doug. It's not celebrity driven, as you can kind of tell. It is the comedy community and the people that I know and love. I'm very happy that some of my best friends are some of the funniest people in the country, and they're gonna be coming on. No one that we've booked is promoting anything. It's not booked by publicists. It's me going, wouldn't it be fun? I text my EP all the time, I'm like, "What about Tig? What about Kumail?" The other shows can have the guys on that are promoting their movies. We're gonna be the show that'll have a friend on just because they're funny, just because something happened to us recently, just because we wanted to talk about something, and just because I wanted to see them. And you can't fake that rapport. When [Johnny] Carson would have [Don] Rickles on, it was such a different vibe. You can tell he was enjoying it more. I think that just kind of lends itself to a different style of interview.

I saw you at Big Terrific in Brooklyn last week, and it dawned on me that I'm used to seeing you in small rooms like that, where it's a lot of comedy kids and comedy nerds. Have you felt any pressure to make what you do more mainstream or what people are used to seeing on television?

Not yet. And I've got be honest – it's so boring in an interview when an actress just talks about how much she liked working with a director – but the truth is, Turner and TBS and Conan and Conaco and everybody have just been very very supportive. I keep waiting for a hand on my shoulder to tell me to make it more accessible, or to swear less, or talk about sex less, or to not ask Rachel Maddow if she's ever done mushrooms, but nobody's said stop yet. [Laughs.] In fact, anytime I've dealt with any of these powers that be on my end, they're all supportive. They all just want the show to be as authentically me as possible.

So the plan is to never do that. I'd really like to see what kind of audience we can grab. You're talking about Big Terrific, you're talking about a show in Williamsburg. I'd like to see if we can appeal to Williamsburgy part of every area. Not just like a hipster part, but people that really enjoy comedy, people that enjoy authentic, transparent comedy. People that want to see something different, and if we can appeal to each of those pockets in every state, then we'll really have something. As opposed to that Leno model of poring over the ratings and seeing what played and when are people changing the channel and how can we appeal to the biggest – I don't want to be McDonalds. I'd rather just be a cool restaurant that some people know about, that they enjoy. Not an elite or snobby place, but just like a cool place that if you like, hopefully you love it.

I got to see some of the sketches from the original pilot. They did feel very authentic, more personality driven than you normally see on a late night show.

Yeah, that's what we're going for. It's not like a slick host, there's no sheen to it. I'm not gonna be doing a persona. I really would like to see how much we can get away with being like, this is me. At one point, we were working on a joke that the Borat phrase, "My wife!" is back. We were writing the monologue and when we said, "My wife is back," we were like, "Well, not my wife. She's still with a small Italian man." [Laughs.] You know what I mean, cause my wife left me. So people who know me and people who listen to the podcast know that I was married when I was really young, and I was really religious when I was young, and my wife left me. I'm not making the show to shit on my wife, but if we can inject that sort of sincerity. You should have seen how hard one of the writers – one of the writers laughed in a way that I think something in him was healed when I said, "My wife is still with a small Italian man." He laughed for like 20 minutes, and then was crying, just because you haven't really seen something like that. It's self-deprecating, it's honest, and what the fuck is it doing in the monolgue? [Laughs.] But we're gonna see just how real and how personal we can make the show in general.

There are so many more late night shows now than there were even six months ago. Did that influence the way you guys approached the show at all?

It's interesting. I keep waiting for there to be some sort of rivalry, or even an awarness or a competition between us. But I just sat down with Seth Meyers socially and he referred to it as a fraternity, as a group. A camaraderie where he and I were talking like peers and people who know what the pressure feels like and the challenge of making yourself stand out. And he and I are direct competitiors. [Laughs.] But I was speaking to him completely honestly. I was telling him things about the show that you might consider top secret or, like, "This is how we're gonna stand out." We were just completely being honest and talking about how we felt about things. And always as a joke, I like to say that I'm gonna crush Hardwick and all this sort of stuff. But it's just because there's a complete absence of that mentality in reality. What Chris is doing is his own thing, and I'm my own thing and Seth is his own thing and Kamau [Bell] is his own thing. Kamau just did something with us for the show. So I'm happy to report that that thing that I really take pride in the "room" comedy scene – not the alt scene, but the rooms as opposed to the clubs – that has never been that competitive, has always had a healthy understanding of there being abundance and there being room for you and room for me, that has even carried on into the TV world. We're all doing each other's shows, we're all supporting each other, and I know online there are haters and stuff, but for the most part, I just feel support from the people that matter to me most, which are my peers.

Has anything surprised you in this process? Either the work of doing the show, or just what it's been like to become a television host and be more publicly known? 

The being known thing hasn't really happened much yet. You notice it a little bit; there might be a little bit more excitement when you do a standup show or something. And I got to watch that happen for friends of mine, like Anthony [Jeselnik] and T.J. [Miller] certainly. But that hasn't really changed my life yet. I think the thing that is surprising is, I like to please people and I like to hear people out. And doing this show, it's been surprising how quickly you'll learn how to be like, "No." Because when you're facing three choices in a day, you have the time to kind of negotiate with a person and tell them why it's valid, and why you understand where they were coming from and how you might consider it and all this sort of stuff. But then, when you're doing a show like this and you're now faced with 50 choices in a day, you just get better at saying no to things if they're not right. You can still be kind about it, but you can be like, "That's just not what I'm going for. Let's change that, let's change this." I've always been interested in how the journey of a comedian often reflects the things that he needs to work on his life. Like, being a better comedian often means being a better person, personally. And I've needed to become better about speaking my own truth in real time, and the show is teaching me how to do that. [Laughs.] So, that's been a surprise, I suppose.

And I have to ask you about the podcast. Six months ago, the plan was to keep doing it. Do you think that's still gonna happen?

Yeah. That's the plan. I've got two more in the can, so now that we're doing once a week, I've basically got a month to get ahead of myself. I'm recording some next weekend and the weekend after that. So it's looking very good to be able to record episodes on the weekends. And speaking of it, I was just thinking today, the podcast is not going to become a behind the scenes of what it's like to make a talk show. In fact, it's been a wonderful respite for me to just go back to talking about art, sex, and God when we sit down with somebody. So if there's any concern that the podcast will change, I'm gonna try very hard to have it be the same kind of safe place for me and the guest.

But I have to say, I've liked hearing how the show is affecting how you think about your life and all the things that happen it. It's a really interesting insight.

I'm happy to hear to that. I just need to make sure it doesn't just become the Pete-talks-about-how-tired-he-is show. You know what I mean? If I want to talk about what it's like, if something cool happened, of course that's gonna come up. But in the interest of keeping it relatable, at a certain point – that's why it's fun to talk to Seth, that's why it's fun to talk to Conan, because nobody else really wants to hear about how you're used to sleeping more or how you constantly feel awake and tired at the same time. Like, nobody gives a shit, you have your own show, shut up. [Laughs.] I'm happy you said that, though.

While listening to your show, I was thinking how cool it would have been to have an archive of, like, Conan in the run-up and then during the first few years of his show, just talking about whatever was going through his mind.

I agree, and that's a valid point. And hopefully, this will go well, and I anticipate this show will go well and we'll have a nice little time capsule of what it was like. If I may, I think what made the podcast compelling to begin with was, it was starting with a somewhat recently divorced guy who was also somewhat recently pretty religious, who had only been with like three or four people, who had never really done anything crazy or wild and was going through therapy and trying to figure himself out, and then you get to watch that guy turn into something different. That's why we like Breaking Bad, chemistry teacher to meth guy. My show isn't as extreme, certainly, but it is a journey of self actualiziation and hopefully it'll continue to be. Because here I am here, and then in a year from now, we'll get to see where I am there, and hopefully that will remain compelling. As silly as it sounds, as long we keep growing, I think our lives will always be compelling.

The Pete Holmes Show debuts at tonight at midnight ET/PT on TBS. Pete's podcast You Made It Weird is on the Nerdist network, and he's on Twitter at @PeteHolmes.

Elise Czajkowski is an Associate Editor at Splitsider who hangs out here sometimes. 

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