Comic Pete Holmes Draws On His Early Career And 'Churchy' Roots In 'Crashing'
Coming up in the New York City stand-up scene, Pete Holmes was something of an anomaly, working clean alongside other comics whose jokes were raunchy or sexually explicit. Holmes, who grew up a devout Christian, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he saw himself as the "Good Boy" in the early days of his career.
"I was trying to do the comedy that I thought my parents wanted me to do," Holmes says. "I was basically picturing [Jesus] in the back of the club, and if I could go up and not say the F-word I thought he would love me more."
Holmes' new HBO comedy series, Crashing, draws on his early years as a comic, shortly after his wife left him, when he was finding his voice in comedy as a devout Christian. Though his character struggles to reconcile faith and comedy, Holmes has gradually found his footing on both fronts. He says he no longer worries about offending God on stage.
"I really believe that there's nothing you can do to increase or decrease the love that God ... has for you, but there are things you can do or not do that increase your awareness of that love," he says. "You want to be plugged in ... [to] that place where life is beautiful, where wonder abounds."
On how his first marriage ended
In real life, [when] my wife leaves me, I'm 28 years old. I was religious, like the guy on the show. She was the first person I had ever slept with or dated or anything like that, but we had moved upstate to Sleepy Hollow, which is near Tarrytown, N.Y. It's about an hour driving, maybe 45 minutes, from the city. And we moved there and I was so miserable because ... this is where I started to learn that comedy was the most important thing to me; that I was happy in our marriage, but one of the things that made our marriage so happy was that we were living in Brooklyn and that I was able to do sets as often as I wanted to.
So when she left there was a glimmer — even when she was breaking the news to me — there was a glimmer of like, At least I can go back to comedy. I know that sounds crazy, but I think that's what we're trying to do in Crashing, is show that [the character of] Pete is having an affair as well, if that makes sense. He's cheating on her with comedy.
On his devout Christian upbringing
I grew up non-denominational, but that really is just kind of code, many times, for evangelical, meaning I went on missions, trips when I was . I went to the Amazon to build a house; I went to Uganda to build a house. I was building a lot of houses for poor people, and I ran a Bible study at my high school called Mustard Seeds, which is a reference to one of Jesus' parables about faith. ...
I was the dorky ... churchy guy. That was my identity. I played, like, a moderately funky bass in the worship choir, you know? I brought non-alcoholic alternatives to parties. ... I became way more religious than my parents. ... I took it in, hook, line and sinker, and really went through that very churchy phase. I look like a youth pastor. I almost was a youth pastor!
On the pep talk fellow comic T.J. Miller once gave him about how comedians are like priests
I was lonely touring colleges and I called him and he gave me this pep talk that I always remembered. ... He goes, "It's like you're in service to our comedy god. You have to put things on the altar and sacrifice your time and your leisure and your comfort to the service of this thing. ... You're like a traveling priest ... except you're better than a priest because you're not lying. You're giving people an opportunity to laugh at their fears." ...
And to experience solidarity ... where you're talking about how weak you are and how scared you are and how vulnerable we all are — that's a very therapeutic thing for an audience. And when comedy's at its best, it can really get to that sort of churchy, spiritual ... place where people are unified.
On recognizing and correcting how his faith made him unfairly judgmental
Being judgmental isn't just toxic and negative and gross, it's actually really tiring. Going around and hearing people and then sending it through your filters in your brain of morality and seeing which side that person or that behavior comes out on — it's just no way to live. It's really a drag.
But it also, I think, brought to light that I didn't believe what I thought I believed in my head. ... If I really believed, I would've been very concerned that all of my friends were going to hell. ... And I started actually listening to my heart, listening to my intuition and wondering what it was that I really believed.
On coming to a new understanding of his faith, and developing a new moral compass
Part of the process was seeing the rich and true morality of my atheist friends. ... I went from a lot of Christian friends to almost exclusively atheist friends. And I remember — this isn't that crazy of a story, but it was huge to me — I was on the road with a couple of comedians, one of them was T.J. [Miller], and they were both atheists and we're in this hotel and it had one of those mini-marts ... but they're always unattended. And [I] just said to them, "No one's here. If there's no God, why don't ... I just take these M&Ms?"
And T.J. was like, "Because we're doing it for one another. It's not to please some god somewhere else who's mad when you steal M&Ms; you're doing it so the woman who is not at the counter doesn't get fired when they count the M&Ms and count the cash."
I started to see that you didn't need a fear model to be beautifully compassionate and kind to one another.