Fear Models and Clean Antennae: Pete Holmes on Fresh Air

Another TV season, another bid for our wallets. HBO is making its case this season with […]

Bryan J. / 3.23.17

Another TV season, another bid for our wallets. HBO is making its case this season with comic Pete Holmes and Judd Apatow’s latest, Crashing. Holmes is famous for his standup comedy and “You Made It Weird” podcast (see our writeup), and his biography of “almost-youth-minister-turned-comic” is one for the annals of Christendom. Fewer ex(?) Evangelicals have articulated so well what a law-saturated theology can do to a person. For those of us who can’t afford HBO-to-go yet, here’s a few lines from Pete Holmes interview on NPR’s Fresh Air that make it hard to say no. Hold on to your wallets!

On the relationship between comic and pastor:

And that’s – you know, you can start to smell the this kid wants to be a comedian thing because it’s the same skill set. You know, you get up in front of people, you want them to leave feeling better than they came. And you – you know, you orate. You speak. So my mom, I remember when I told her – she always wanted me to be a youth pastor or a pastor. And when I told her I was becoming a comedian, she literally said, close enough. That was her joke. And I kind of understand what she means by that (laughter).

GROSS: Well, you gave a line to T.J. Miller, the comic T.J. Miller in your series, and he says that comics are today’s preachers. I think that’s the line. And it sounds like that was really one of your lines that you gave to his character in it. Does he talk that way, too?

HOLMES: Isn’t that fun? I’m so glad that it seems that way because T.J. and I have been friends for over a decade. And he said that to me. That’s how weird comedians are. You think it would be me to be like, I’m the god guy, right? But then you call T.J. on the road in North Dakota – I was lonely touring colleges and I called him. And he gave me this pep talk that I always remembered. And this is how comedians talk. This is a real scoop here ’cause we’re insane.

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. He said, you’re like a priest. You’re like a traveling priest. And then, of course, I put it in the show, I remembered he goes, except you’re better than a priest because you’re not lying.


HOLMES: He’s like, you’re giving people an opportunity to laugh at their fears and to – and I believe – and this is me talking now – to experience solidarity. When somebody is onstage in an alpha position, but being what I call alpha beta, 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 is at its best it can really get to that sort of churchy, spiritual – and I don’t mean with any specific deity in mind – it can get to that place where people are unified.

And, on the transition from his more law-saturated faith to something different, and why the difference between Christians and Atheists isn’t morality:

GROSS: So one more question. So for so many years of your life, for the first part of your life, you had a set of rules to use as your moral compass. You were a devout Christian. You were a missionary. Then you end up in the comedy world, you lose that approach to your faith. Over time, you develop a more metaphorical view of Christianity. Did you have to find a new moral compass?

HOLMES: That’s a great question. I – part of the process was seeing the rich and true morality of my atheist friends. Everybody was an atheist all of a sudden. 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 comedians. One of them was T.J. And they were both atheists. And we’re in this hotel and it had one of those minimarts. And I don’t know if you know those minimarts in, like, Holiday Inns, but they’re always unattended.

It’s – and I just said to them, I was like, the – no one’s here. Why don’t we just take stuff? If there’s no God, why don’t we just take the stuff? Like, I want some peanut M&Ms. When we die, it’s just lights off. 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’s not at the counter doesn’t get fired when they count the M&Ms and count the cash.

Like, I started to see that you didn’t need a fear model to be beautifully compassionate and kind to one another. So now my morality – I don’t look at it as God is mad at me. Something that I wrote down recently was I really believe that there’s nothing you can do to increase or decrease the love that God or the mystery or whatever you want to call it has for you. But there are things you can do or not do that increase your awareness of that love because to me, it’s all about a clean antenna.

You want to be plugged in. You want to – you know, you want to be the person on the airplane that’s transfixed with a speck of dust that’s caught in a sunbeam. You know what I mean? Like, you want to stay in that place where life is beautiful, where wonder abounds and connection is real, empathy is real, love is real.