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A Nice Long Chat With Pete Holmes About Comedy, God, And Knife-Wielding Coyotes

Pete Holmes

What makes a comedy special great? Is it something that’s of the moment like Bo Burnham’s Inside or that sparks conversation like Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette? Something confessional and intimate, like Jerrod Carmichael’s Rothaniel, or something that asks big questions while telling us a personal story like Mike Birbiglia does? Maybe it’s the latest dispatch from a legend like Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock.

How about replayability? I can’t put a number on how many times I’ve watched Roy Wood Jr.’s Imperfect Messenger, Taylor Tomlinson’s Quarter Life Crisis, and John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous At Radio City. Accessible, polished, lightly topical, fun.

Comedian and You Made It Weird podcaster Pete Holmes’ new one, I Am Not For Everyone (now streaming on Netflix), is that kind of special. A blend of dark and light, heavy and silly. Holmes reintroduces us to his goofy heart as he talks about midwestern cashier interactions, battery sex chips, YouTube choking tutorials, sex noises, and atheism. I’ve watched it three times. It is exactly what you want from him and maybe a little something you didn’t expect.

After talking with Holmes recently for a 20-minute session about the special that turned into a 45-minute conversation about religion, donkeys in hard hats, laughing at himself, and work-life balance, I can say we got the same result – exactly what we wanted and maybe a little something we didn’t expect.

I love all my comedy best friends. You are all the best, but I do appreciate a comedy special from a guy in his forties that isn’t about death and dying. I did not have an existential crisis watching this special. I appreciate that. Thank you.

Pete Holmes: (Laughs) I appreciate that. That seems a little early, right? I mean, 44. Come on.

It’s funny, I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine the other day and she was like, “Well, how often do men actually think about death?” I said, “Well, I think about it every day.”

You know, Val and I rewatch When Harry Met Sally in the fall. It helps us in the seasonless California, it’s nice to see New York and the seasons and all that. I love the part where you meet them and Sally doesn’t think about death and Harry says, “I spend days brooding on it.” That movie is a masterpiece, obviously. It’s just the kind of movie script that makes you not ever want to try to write a movie script because it’s just too good. (Editor’s note: it was written by the incomparable Nora Ephron.) But there’s no better way to introduce two characters than to see their attitude about death. I relate more to him that he thinks about death a lot and then she says, “And then you waste your whole life worrying about it,” and that’s how the scene ends and you’re like, “Wow, they’re both right.”

I think it’s deeply important. I mean, Buddhism, they say, is summarized by just remembering that everything’s impermanent. I think that’s super funny too, that we’re like ice sculptures walking around acting like we’re not ice sculptures is very funny. It’s deeply funny that we act permanent. If something eternal was watching us, they would think that’s funny. That helps me and informs my approach to comedy certainly, but then my wife is more like Sally, that she’s like, there’s a Rumi poem where it’s like, “You’re in the vineyard, stop thinking about where it came from or where it’s going and just eat some fruit, eat some fruit and relax.” So you’ve got to have both energies.

You have a lot of fun with the God bit in the special, I would say. The pushback on atheism and Ricky Gervais, which is a great impression.

(Laughs) I appreciate it. I actually really love Ricky. I mean, I think that’s clear that I’m not attacking him as much as I’m just kind of continuing the conversation.


I think comedy, one of the shortcomings of it, is that so many people, not just comedians, but people have been sort of burned, or hurt, or maybe betrayed by their religious past that it does come out. We love deconstruction. I actually think deconstruction is far less interesting than reconstruction, but worse than deconstruction is never deconstructing.

I actually think what Ricky does and going, “Do you really believe a talking snake gave a naked lady an apple,” is great, it’s just not the full picture. It’s like, “Yeah, let’s tear it down, but let’s also build something in its place.” There’s a Jewish teaching. It’s not in the Torah or anything, but they say, “Any old donkey can tear down a barn, but it takes a special donkey to build a barn,” which I like because I picture a hoofed animal holding a hammer. You know what I’m saying?

Yeah, I’m trying to figure out the opposable thumbs thing. Maybe it’s like a nail gun or something. Yeah, I’m just thinking of a donkey with a hard hat.

(Laughs) Yes! No, it is funny. It’s supposed to be funny. The whole thing is funny. The Jewish faith is so good at that. Don’t get me started. I think the Old Testament is being funny in ways that people just don’t appreciate, but that little maxim is a good example. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s absurd. A donkey building a barn is just as absurd as a human being building the meaning of the universe in words.

But I do think there’s an experience that is available to anybody. I am not hinting at psychedelics. I just mean the phenomenon that’s looking at your eyes right now. it couldn’t be closer. When we get involved and interested in that, it’s not just a good worldview, it’s actually like a path, I hate to say a path, but you know, a path to peace. It’s a way to experience joy and peace now.

It doesn’t matter if you even tell anybody that you’re doing it, but if you get curious about your own nature not to belong in a club, or to go to the same building every week, but because even as we’re talking now, you can remember that you are… I say this all the time, but Harry Potter and stories like that. How many fairytales does a lowly person discover that they’re of royal blood? Everybody’s journey is to recognize that you are the child, you could say, of something mysterious and infinite. We ruin it when we turn it into an old man in the sky, although that’s fine, I call that a gateway God, that’s a nice intermediary.

But when you realize that that mystery is much closer, it couldn’t be closer to you and that you can draw upon it. That’s why I think those stories are valuable, including a story that I don’t believe to be literally true about naked people in a garden, eating an apple and being naughty. I think there’s value there, and it’s way more interesting and funny and engaging. But there’s more to unpack in “What is the value of this?” Not to defend it, but to find it for yourself. (More) than there is to just go like, “Well, that’s Santa Claus.” Oh, fuck off. I hear a lot of pain in that and a lot of loneliness and a lot of angst, and that’s valid. But I do think there are pearls hiding in a lot of things that we’ve maybe even rightfully turned our back on.

I choose the idea that I don’t have any fucking clue and that I probably won’t ever know.


But what you’re saying makes a ton of sense. In the special, there’s a moment after when you’re talking about all of this stuff where you, I don’t want to say bail out, but you throw a joke out there of, “Let us pray.” It gets the biggest laugh for me. Was that you kind of booping yourself to change course? How did you discover that you needed that at the end?

I love that you asked that. Okay, so you have this little Ted Talk in the middle of a standup special, and you don’t want it to be sweaty and pun intended, you don’t want it to be preachy. You really don’t.

It doesn’t get to that point, but I get where you would need to wrap it right where you did.

Yes. It’s dangerous.

It is, but it shows the craft there.

That’s why I love the question because I feel like I could talk about it a lot, meaning I’ve had those ideas and then you’re like, “But I’m a comedian.” (Dave) Chappelle does this really well too. He’s an inspiration to me, obviously. That he can talk about something, but he never leaves it too long without something, a laugh, but like a surprise too… When I was doing that joke, the reason I was like, “Okay, I think it’s ready,” is when, and as silly as it sounds, I don’t think, “But that’s too many words for the back of a quarter,” is hilarious, but it’s enough grease to get it through the doorway, you know what I mean? You need a moment where we can remember it’s comedy and laugh so it’s not just this silent little one-man show and I turn and there’s a different color spotlight on me, and then everyone’s like, “What was that?”

The let’s pray moment, I’m sure the first time I did it was improvised, because I’m doing this thing and I’m going and I’m like, “What am I doing?” And then you just go, “Let’s pray,” and everyone laughs. You’re like, “Yeah, that’s also my job to introduce tension, and then it’s also my job to relieve that tension.” That felt so funny, but it also leads to my favorite line of the joke, that got snuck in the prayer, which is, “Heavenly Father, you are in fact no thing.” (Laughs) And that becomes the bow. It’s like God is nothing. God is no thing.

When you consider the Hebrew Bible doesn’t have punctuation, so if you wrote, “God is nothing,” you could either read it, God is no thing, or God is nothing. It would be the same words, it would be the same letters. That’s back to your perspective. It’s like we’re doing our best, we’re dogs trying to understand the internet, but we can get these little pointers, these little things that draw us into the experience of it, because you can’t know it, but you can be it briefly. You can be it.

You mentioned it a little bit in the special, expectations about you talking about religion, but also being a nice guy. Does that limit you because of people’s idea of who you are and how do you kind of push back on that? Again, the special is fun and you come off as a good guy, but it’s also not…

It’s not clean. (Laughs)

There are still surprises. It wasn’t what I expected going in.

Oh, I’m so happy to hear that. It’s funny, if there’s one thing, and I don’t seek out reviews or comments or anything, but the thing that I get the most, and sometimes people say it to my face too, they’re like, either they like that I laugh at my own jokes, or they’re like, “Will this idiot stop laughing at his own jokes?” It’s interesting to me. I could talk about that forever, by the way. But that likability or relatability that we’re talking about, which is something that is important to me as the medium, the way that I’m presenting it, is so crucial.

It’s not just, “Oh, I’m so funny. I couldn’t help it.” Of course, of fucking course, I could deliver these jokes dead-faced. Like Neil Brennan, one of my favorites. Neil Brennan watched my special and he gave me notes. He wanted me to cut all the moments where I stepped the joke out or I explained that I just offended myself. He was like, “You don’t have to do that. That’s like a comedy misdemeanor. Why are you doing that?” I’m like, because that’s what I do. That’s what I figured out works for me. Meaning, I don’t think a special is a collection of jokes. I think it’s a space. You go into a space like a room and you hang out there, and the jokes are an excuse to hang out in a certain space and a certain attitude.

There are jokes that make fun of “unhoused” language and it makes fun of tutorials for choking children– this is dark, dark stuff. The difference between that being palatable or not palatable is a little twinkle in your eye at the least, or a smile. Now we’re warming up, or allowing myself to remember what made me think it was funny in the first place and not restraining that and laughing.

If I were to talk to somebody that was like, “Stop laughing at your own jokes, you schmuck,” I would be like, “Go watch Dave Chappelle, the greatest comic, and tell him to stop laughing.” What are we doing?! It’s just an ingredient that some chefs choose to use. When I was starting out, Chappelle would come by the club all the time, and I was like, “This guy is fucking loving it. He’s loving himself!” And it’s a powerful thing as a theatrical device to remember that I’m not trying to make you laugh. I’m inviting you to laugh at what I like to laugh at and how better to do that in the quickest and most efficient way than to just let myself laugh?

That’s what Dave does as well. But I get grief. I don’t know. I look like a golden retriever or something. And I get it, and I don’t even fault it, but I’m also like, “Don’t [you get] that everything I’m doing up there is to delight you?” And if I thought it would delight you more to not, I would. But I’m trying to make everybody release steam that would otherwise lead to bad days and bad relationships and horrible traffic road rage. (Laughs) Let’s release it and anything I can do to make that happen, I’ll do it.

Pete Holmes

10, 15 years on the road doing this. Obviously, your life has gone through some changes in that time — you’re married and have a younger kid now. How has life on the road evolved for you to be able to have the work/life balance?

You’re asking all my favorite questions. You really are. These are the things that I’m like, oh, I could talk for nine hours about that for my people, my tribe, comedians, but also everybody. It’s this question, which is, good life, when? Right? Good life, when? Or you could just say, “Life, when?” When are you going to do it?

How do you define it?

Yeah, just get curious about what does a good life mean to you. I know it’s dumb, but any life-coach-type person is going to tell you, the first thing you have to do is ask yourself, well, what do you want? And in my life, I’ve been very happy to find that going out once a month is… Not everybody can do that. Not everybody has a luxury of like, okay, I’m only going to go out on the road once a month. A lot of comics I know would be like, “That’s nice.” And yeah, I spent the better part of 20 years not being able to just do it once a month. You had to earn a living. Now I do it once a month, but I could also say on the other side of the issue, I know a lot of comics who don’t have to go out every weekend, and they do.

And I’ve had these debates. I love these people. I’m not thumbing my nose at them, but I’m like, at a certain point, Chappelle’s another example. When do you walk away from the thing? When do you go like, this costs too much? I always think of the Bourne movies, where Jason Bourne and the other Bourne kind of guy, they’re on the roof, and they have their guns on each other. And Jason Bourne gets the guy to not shoot him by saying, “Look at what they make us give.” I think about that all the time. Look at what they make us give. I know that’s kind of dramatic.

No, it’s an interesting question. I’d love the chance to have enough money to be able to prove my theory, which is that I would just hang out on a yacht or go anywhere that I’d want to be (if I were rich). Like with Elon Musk. I wouldn’t be injecting myself into things that make people feel bad on a social media site. It’s just weird to me.

The problem is the kind of consciousness, and I just mean human consciousness, I’m not talking about existential stuff, the consciousness that leads to success. That’s often this coyote with a knife in its teeth, restless, thin, lean, fast. That consciousness that helps you push the boulder up the hill, when you’re at the top of the hill, that level of consciousness is not changed and it cannot relax. It can’t sit on the beach. It can’t go on a yacht. It only knows blood. It only knows to kill. It only knows to conquer. It only knows to claim. So the level of where you are can’t relax when you finally get to the place where you can relax. So that’s why I think balance is something that we should all be talking about, every profession.

And when it comes to being a husband and a father, the greatest compliment that my wife gives me, and it’s not directly, is people say, “What’s it like being married to a comedian?” And she says, “Honestly, most of the time I can’t tell.” And you’d think that means I’m not funny. That’s not what she means. Val and I like each other’s senses of humor and we laugh a lot, but it’s taken a lot of deliberate choices and action to go, “Let’s get the work-life balance correct.” My daughter is five, so she now knows that I am leaving. And this was the first time. I was just in Bloomington and I FaceTimed with her, and she got sad that I wasn’t there. So she’s just getting old enough to kind of put it together, I like when dad’s here, Dad’s not here.

To that, I would say one day, I hope my daughter remembers that example and lets it inform that what she is excited about is worth sacrifice. Right? That’s a good thing. But also, we need to get those levels right when we can. And for me, living a very pretty quiet, simple, small-town life, when I get a little bit itchy, without even looking I know, “oh, I bet I have a date coming up.” I just know. I start getting a little bit like, oh, I’d like a little Indiana Jones. And then I get to go on the road, and I go with Matt McCarthy. We go to a new city, and we do shows, and I come back, and I’m good.

It’s like weaning off of a drug. I look at my comedy like a cactus. How little can I water this? (Laughs) Not, can I plant this and clone it and have a field of cactuses? And then what? You’re a guy surrounded by cactuses, and you can’t leave your house. There are cactuses fucking everywhere. And now you’re the coyote that can’t enjoy the quiet. And I think cactus, I picked that subconsciously before, but that’s the right plant. It’s beautiful. It’s nice, but it’s also prickly. So keep an eye on it. Don’t let it get too big. Don’t let your ambition get too big. Don’t let your fame and all that stuff get too big.

You saw the special. If I did that not enough, it wouldn’t be good. And believe me, a lot of specials that I see that I don’t like, I’m always like, they needed to do that bit 150 more times at least. So I can talk from that side of my mouth, but I’m also like, if I do this too much, all the fun drains out of it, and now I’m just a traveling salesman. I’m like Willie Loman opening my briefcase and screaming, “I want to buy a dildo!” It’s not fun anymore. So even that has its own microclimate of balance. And then my own life has its own climate of balance, and I’m very interested in that, clearly. (Laughs)

I’m not going to offer any context for the dildo comment. I’m just going to let that stand, let people find that out themselves. Before we close, I should say that “battery sex chips” is maybe my favorite new phrase.

Oh, buddy. You’ve dialed in exactly on the difference between doing a joke 50 times and doing it 100 times. When I watch Dirty Clean… it’s a great special, I love it, but I did it a little under the gun. It was faster than other specials I had done. And when I watch it, there are just moments where for myself, I’m like, “Oh, if I had done that joke 300 times, I know I would’ve beaten that line.”

And this one, because the pandemic broke the flow and everything, there was a silver lining there that I ended up doing these jokes so many more times. Obviously, that’s a joke about the pandemic, but then I had all this time to run, run, run, run. And those are the things that they almost do themselves, meaning I couldn’t force it. It just comes out of a moment of boredom. You’ve done it too many times, and then you just catch yourself saying it, and then you’re like, oh, that’s what the joke wanted to be the whole time. Only repetition will get you there. Again, we’re back to the balance. Not doing it enough, doing it too much, but you want to be right in the middle.

Everything else I have is crap, so it’s a really good time to stop right here.

I always get, “How tall are you?” So you did well, just for not saying, “How tall are you?”

No, I wouldn’t. I’m a tall guy too, so I know… but do you get bothered by other tall people?

Sometimes. I’m like, who do you think you are? I always say the same thing. If they’re taller than me, I go, “That’s off-putting.” (Laughs)
‘Pete Holmes: I Am Not For Everyone’ is available to stream on Netflix.