Pete Holmes and the Weirdness Empire

This review will (eventually) explain why I hate a man I’ve never met before named Rocco. Maybe it’ll also make you want to listen to my favorite podcast.

Pete Holmes is the kind of comedian that you probably don’t know of, but you’ve definitely seen or heard before. He was the voice of the ETRADE baby for a few years, so maybe you know him from that.

Maybe you’ve seen a few videos from the hilarious web series called Badman, which Holmes co-produces and stars in.

It’s possible that you caught him on Conan:

Or maybe you ran into him like I did, while hunting on YouTube for clips of Bo Burnham doing interviews on late night TV:

The Pete Holmes Show was Pete’s big break into TV, which lasted about a year (from fall 2013 to summer 2014). The show aired after Conan on TBS. It was never on Hulu and I’m assuming it’ll never end up on Netflix, but clips from the show have been immortalized on Pete’s YouTube page.

Click around to different clips and you’ll see that it has a fresh, weird yet endearing take on the late-night mold. Guests almost never have anything to plug, and conversations seem much more candid and light than on Fallon or Letterman. Monologues at the top of the show aren’t a boring string of topical two-part jokes — instead they take the form of short, funny pep-talks meant to inspire viewers to improve themselves (for example “Actual Fun” or “Joy Is Hiding in Unexpected Places”).

For the brief period of time that his show was on air, Holmes offered a unique and (I would posit) important alternative to the late-night persona we’ve come to define as “normal.” He describes himself as “TV-fat” and is quick to embrace his bubbly, feminine side — much unlike the trim and masculine figures we see dominating late-night almost everywhere else.

Unfortunately the show had been cancelled last summer, just as I was beginning to get into it. Said Holmes at a the High Plains Festival in Denver this August, “It was math. Honestly, those decisions are made by putting things into a thing that spits back a yes or a no, and they gave us more shots than they ought to. I’m in comedy, not math, and the show was cancelled by math.”

I was relieved when I found out that The Pete Holmes Show was only the beginning of Pete’s work as a host. It turns out that for a little over three years, he’s been hosting a podcast in the Nerdist family called You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes, which I’m willing to argue is the best comedic long-form interview podcast out there right now.

“At its best, the show is about the pursuit of authenticity and all the joyful weirdness it takes to get there.”

Writing a review of a podcast is hard, because most people don’t even have the beginnings of an understanding of what the podcasting world is like. Lots of people have heard of This American Life, Radiolab and recently the blockbuster true-crime podcast Serial. Those podcasts are the ones that hover on top of the iTunes charts indefinitely, and they have million-dollar budgets provided by NPR. Below the mighty NPR begins a total mess of podcasts, most of which you nor I have ever heard of before. Lots are educational. There’s a healthy dose of shows that are comedy/entertainment related. There are a few fictional podcasts, like Welcome to Nightvale.

Comedic long-form interview shows The Nerdist (hosted by Chris Hardwick) and WTF (hosted by old-dog comedian Marc Maron) respectively have the 18th and 19th slots on the iTunes charts, while Pete’s podcast is down at number 111. But, as Holmes himself said, “I’m in comedy, not math.” So let’s get to the comedy.

The defining quality of You Made it Weird (YMIW) is its total disregard for the formalities of interviews, in the interest of creating authentic and personal conversations. While The Pete Holmes Show did its best to appear candid, YMIW is the real-deal. Guests ranging from A-listers like Zach Galifianakas and Joel McHale to up-and-coming, unknown stand-ups like Shelby Fero and Jermaine Fowler come on the show and engage in conversations that usually last over two hours (the longest episode is with former editor at The Onion Megan Ganz, which went for 3 hrs 25 min).

Each show loosely revolves around the topics of comedy, sex and God — three topics that provide plenty of space for Pete and his guest to dive into the way they see the world, the things they grapple with and how they feel about their careers.

Some are absolutely hilarious, (my starter recommendation: the second Moshe Kasher episode) and they become a really interesting window into the way that stand-up jokes are born through friendship and conversation. Some are more sober or insightful (good recent ones: TJ Miller #3 and Cameron Esposito).

Through the podcast’s 240-some episodes, Holmes has divulged what might be a dangerous amount of information about his personal life. Fans of the show know where he grew up (Lexington), the name of his therapist (Dr. Gary Penn), how long he was married to his ex-wife Becca (seven years), and why they got divorced (she was cheating on him with a man named Rocco for three months, who she’s now married to and has multiple kids with).

The show gradually documents Pete’s personal journey through falling out of faith and slowly reconstructing his beliefs in part through his discussions with guests about religion, which is a topic that doesn’t get brought up enough particularly in show-business. Especially as a secular kid who’s still trying to figure religion out, it’s really interesting to hear candid perspectives from adults who have (and in some cases haven’t) given it more thought than I have over the years. On occasion he brings on guests like Rob Bell (a pastor/author), Brian Greene (a theoretical physicist) and Bill Nye (you know who Bill Nye is) to talk in depth about spirituality and the nature of the universe.

When I first started listening to the show, I had the inkling of an idea that maybe I would enjoy doing stand-up. Most of the shows I watch or listen to only make me feel lazier, but YMIW captures so much about the life and joy of a working comedian that at times it’s driven me to literally turn the podcast off early, sit down and write out a few jokes. Since I started listening I’ve done one eight-minute set at an open mic. It felt great, and I’m definitely gonna do it again. When online media has the power to inspire real-life action, I think that’s a clear sign that it’s something special.

The show is also happening in the right place and in the right time for what’s been going on with comedy in the past decade or so. For contemporary stand-up comics, the best asset you can have is your authenticity, which is something that Pete has clearly figured out.

When stand-up started, it was really just vaudeville comedians doing monologues in or out of character in small venues in New York. There was an era in the 1980s and 90s where comedy was about a comedian’s persona, a weird blend of the real person and who they thought was funniest to present.

Now, thanks in part to the rising tide of podcasts that Holmes is leading and a shift in modern, digital tastes, being a stand-up comedian almost necessitates raw honesty and authenticity.

In a society that’s full to the brim with fakeness in politics, religion and the media, people have begun valuing stand-up comics who are able to be themselves — their whole, authentic selves — onstage.

At its best, the show is about the pursuit of authenticity and all the joyful weirdness it takes to get there.

Holmes likes to say on the podcast that “people are starving for community and human connection.” He’d like to think that You Made It Weird does its part to feed that hunger. I don’t think there’s any way to disagree.

If you’ve got some extra time this weekend, check the podcast out. If you’re anything like me, it’ll be very worth your time.


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