The first time I saw Pete Holmes live was at the Doug Benson Interruption at the UCB, but most people's first experience with Pete probably comes from Best Week Ever, where he's a frequent panelist, or Comedy Central. Or it might be Cosmo Girl.
What part of the college do you usually perform in?
Most of it hinges on that question. You go through such black and white experiences doing colleges. I did a show earlier this year and it was in a gym. The lights were on, so everybody was lit equally. You're very tiny in a gym, you're voice disappears, and there's very little intimacy. The doors were open to the outside and you could see people having coffee. There' was no ambiance or tension. When you can't create that tension, it's very difficult to make it important for them to laugh.
What do you mean by tension?
You'll notice that when you watch stand up on TV you might not laugh as much because there's no tension, but if someone's right in front of you there are stakes. How are you going to react? How did it make you feel? If a comedian says something awkward or you don't know where he's going, you'll feel the tension in the room. On TV, you might change the channel or you might not be as invested in it. In a live show, if you can create that uncertainty or uncomfortable feeling, the laugh is the relief of that tension. I don't mean awkward like racial or sexual things, I mean, "Oh, I hope this is funny," and you'll feel that more in a live show than on television or a gymnasium.
I read on your site that you've been submitting cartoons to The New Yorker. What other places have you been submitting to or been featured in?
I just sold a couple holiday cartoons to Cosmo Girl, which is such a different audience. I think the average New Yorker is a person with a beyond college education, and now I'm looking at readers that are either not beyond junior high or creepy forty-year-olds reading Cosmo Girl. It gave me confidence in cartooning because that was my first real magazine sale. But, this past Thursday, The New Yorker bought my first cartoon, which is a huge milestone.
You were submitting to the New Yorker in person, but I imagine that most of their submissions are unsolicited.
My friend Matt Diffee, who's a cartoonist over there, told me people send in blind submissions. So there's some guy in Wyoming sending in cartoons. I can't say this with any authority, but I think that that submission has less of a chance of getting in. There's a huge advantage to living in New York and being able to go in face to face with the editor. It allows you to get feedback and, I don't do this, but maybe you could push more for him to reconsider something that he doesn't like. Thirty years ago you couldn't walk into the New Yorker. That's a huge privilege and it's certainly helped me along my way. Every week I got guidance, art lessons, and critiques from some of the best cartoonists in the world.
What sort of feedback would they give?
With me, it was, "We like the jokes, it just looks like you drew it with your foot." They had a hard time with my drawing. It got to the point where, every week, I'd come in with a different style. It's like stand up comedy: they don't want anybody to force anything. They want your voice to be true and they want your drawing style to match your joke style.
How long have you been drawing cartoons in general?
I loved drawing as a kid, but never considered it as a profession until I got into college. In college, it's the most accessible foray into comedy. You can be at home, you draw, it's supposed to be funny, and you give it to the newspaper. It's a safe way to start. When I got into stand up and Improv, I became more interested in the immediate, risky, and exciting world of live comedy. When I met Matt Diffee at a show at UCB, I figured, "Why not try and get back into it." It meshes well with the stand up lifestyle. If you have a show at ten O'clock on a Friday, that's all you have to do. You work from ten to eleven, so why not sit around the rest of the day thinking of something absurd and draw it?
Did you have a particular set of characters that you'd draw when you were younger?
They were very Jim Davis and Calvin and Hobbes influenced. It was more to entertain myself. I went to a small college, 1,600 students, so I started to draw students in the cartoons. There were certain, more iconic people on campus that you could draw and they'd go, "That's me!" There's no better way to build an audience then to appeal to people's narcissism. Amir Blumenfeld is a buddy of mine and his blog, Being Famous , got a huge readership by posting photos of the readers. Its hook was that you could be famous for a day.
Outside of cartoons, what sort of creative outlets did you have growing up?
Improv was the beginning of everything. I got a really early start because I went to a touchy feely, arty Quaker school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I went to a camp in Maine where I started playing Improv games like Freeze, but what I noticed was that that's exactly what my brain wanted to be doing- making things up. I was thrilled with the idea that no preparation was involved and that everyone knew you were making it up. That's when I first started getting those live laughs. The attention was great for a thirteen year old that was always disruptive in class. I did Improv the last three years of high school and started a group in college, which still exists to this day.
Did you incorporate humor into your assignments?
I certainly tried. I remember I had an English teacher that would let me draw the answers instead of writing the answer. This was at a regular public school. If I had to define the word transmogrify, instead of writing, "The process of changing from one thing into another," I could draw a man's head turning into a toilette.
Did you ever get in trouble for being "inappropriate"?
The inappropriate stuff started when I would do school plays. When I was in eighth grade, we did Into the Wood and all I cared about was being funny and the director wanted the character to be how he was written. I used to get into as much trouble as you can get in a touchy feely Quaker school. If there's a room full of people I want to make them laugh.
Where'd you go to college?
I went to Gordon College, which is a small Christian school forty minutes outside of Boston. I was an English Communications major because I knew I would never use my degree. I just picked something that was vaguely interesting and easy. My freshman year I got the cartooning going and thought I'd be a cartoonist and sophomore year I got into Improv. In a small school it's easy to become a celebrity on campus. Once I got a taste for that, I knew I was going into comedy, so I stuck to English because it was writing and communications because it was theater, but I knew the whole time I'd never put it on a resume. And I never have.
Your college experience was useful though.
Absolutely. A college is like a city and mine was small and easy to manage. I wrote a humor column in the newspaper. It wasn't sharp enough to be a stand up routine, but it had a similar feel. You try to open strong, close strong, and have something good in the middle. They'd pay ten to twenty dollars per piece, so you'd get a sense of what it was like to make a living off of your ideas and that's a very addictive thing.
What was the name of your humor column?
Where the Skies Are Blue. It's a play off my name because people used to say, "Pete Holmes, Alabama, where the skies are so blue." It was a Christian school, so it couldn't have been easier to be a rebel. I didn't know much about my school going in, which is so stupid. Please research your schools. I just knew it was close to home. I went and found out after the fact that there's something called open dorm, which means that for two hours a night a boy could be in a girl's dorm or vice-versa. I used to joke, "I still don't know how Forrest Gump ends." Doors would have to be open, there had to be a certain number of lights on, and there was a rule that your feet had to be on the floor. You take issue against something as absurd as that and, at my school, you'd be a revolutionary.. I actually miss it a little. Imagine we lived in a world with stupid rules like that. It'd be a lot easier to be a comedian. "Why is the government telling me that I can only be in a room with my wife two hours a night?"
When did you decide to do stand up?
My senior year of college. I was having a lot of success with Improv and wanted to do a stand up show, so I started writing material for it. I literarily sat down at a desk, listened to every Steve Martin and Cosby CD I could get, transcribed them, and would put in a number value for pauses and how big the laughs were. I wrote my own routine and then rented the top floor of a bar, invited everyone I knew, video taped it, and did forty-five minutes. I don't know how I did it, but I'll tell you asecret: it wasn't very good. My home crowd audience loved it and it got a standing ovation. You can't get a better send off into stand up than that, but it was my family and friends, what else would they do?
I took the tape of my forty-five minute show and gave it to the Comedy Connection in Rhode Island, where my then girlfriend now wife was working. They gave me a three-minute guest spot. I did okay for a minute and then tanked for the last two. You need to taste the bitter and the sweet right up front or else you'll spend all your time chasing one and avoiding the other.
Later, I moved to Chicago. I was there in the heyday of the open mic scene. When I was there, there was a room called the Lyon's Den. Every Monday night, right around the corner from my house, maybe sixty people would show up to do four minutes. The scene in Chicago was such a community. I made a lot of life long friends there. We're-all-starting-comedy-at-the-same-time type people are people you remember for the rest of your life. A lot of actual audience people would come to the shows too.
New York, on the other hand, is a very different experience and the open mics here are terrible. Even people who do them on a regular basis will tell you that. You get a lot of people who perform and then leave. I can't begrudge people for that because I'm a person like that too. You often perform for comics only and they're all nervous, thinking about what they want to do, going over their set in their head, and you're trying to make them laugh.
The way I was successful at the open mics was by being present. I want to be honest about what's happening, so if the room's full of comics and we're all tired and it sucks, I'm going to force it into my set and talk about our lives, what it means that we're all in the room together, and that this is what we've chosen to do. That's going to be funnier to them than just an observation or a joke I wrote three years ago that I know works. I learned that you need to be genuine with yourself, the show, and the audience to get them to pay attention.
What stage were you at when you moved to New York?
When I came to New York, I checked whatever ego I had at the door. Out of Chicago I had a little big of credibility. I worked clubs, hosted shows on the road, and started to do a little bit of middle work. I certainly had forty-five to sixty minutes of material, but when I came to New York I was basically starting over and I didn't have a problem with that. I came to New York to start at the bottom and get in the line. A lot of people make the mistake of coming to New York with a chip on their shoulder saying, "I'm Johnny Lightening and I middled at the Cleveland Improv. You owe me something," and New York says, "No we don't," and sends you on your way. It's smart to come and not really expect anything.
Oh, and you have to pay in the New York open mic scene. Just five dollars. Why? For performing. Watching, you don't have to pay. How can you keep doing that? I didn't have a job. I was giving them five dollars that I needed.
Eventually, I started barking at the Boston Comedy Club, which is now closed. But, every night, for sixth months, I handed out flyers for two hours, sometimes more, rain or shine, snow or otherwise to perform five to seven minutes in front of three people who have been there for two hours and don't care. The club booker,Dustin Chafin, was very gracious and treated his barkers very well. I thought it would take years, but Dustinsaw potential in me, started letting me host, and I became the house emcee, even working weekends. It was at the Boston that I met all the other comics, learned everybody's name, I was bringing them on and they were seeing me as a comedian. I still benefit in the club scene today that people know me from The Boston. It was also there that I started to branch out to the alternative rooms, which is where I feel more at home.
What were you doing to support yourself financially while working in Chicago?
I waited tables for three years at Bennigan's. Some of my favorite jokes, even though it's been years, are based on things that happened to me during that time. The staff was really diverse and interesting, so I actually enjoyed my time there. I only did about one weekend at a club a month and those things only paid like 150 bucks to host. That wasn't exactly my bread and butter, even though most of that money went toward bread and butter.
Did you ever do any bringer shows?
No. I didn't know too many people and when I was figuring out New York and what makes New York crowds laugh, I realized that I don't want my closest family and friends there. I don't want them to see me bumbling around. To them it might not have been that bad, but knowing that they were there might have prevented my progress. I still feel the same way. If I have a big show, I don't bring anybody. People are always saying, "We never met your wife." You might never meet my wife because I'm not bringing her to this horrible bar.
What are some projects that you're currently involved in?
There's Honesty, which is a series for Comedy Central's Motherload where characters always say what they really feel at funerals, at the mechanic, in the bathroom. I'm the male lead in the "date" episode as well as the "bathroom" episode.
White Giants is a comedy web-pilot written by myself and Kevin Maher, who's written for AMC, VH1, and Nickelodeon. It's about PEEV and K-RON, supernatural giants living in a regular-sized world. They belong to a group of outcasts and misfits (dwarves, wizards, robots) trying to make their way in a non-fantasy world that shuns them as freaks. They become inadvertent crime-fighters as they just try and get enough food to fill their enormous bellies, pillows for their enormous heads, etc. That should be airing on-line soon.
What do you like to do after a performance?
If I'm on the road, I like to hang out with the people there before a performance. When the show is done, I'll stick around and say 'thanks for coming' to the crowd as they leave, but other than that, I'm not a 'let's go party' kind of guy. Unless I'm in the city, because when you perform in the city, there are so many people at each show that are friends- other comedians, mostly, and some regulars from the audience. If that's the situation, the thrill of a good show can be a great starting point for an awesome night out. Either way, my night usually ends with me on the couch watching Must Love Dogs.
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