Pete Holmes’ Impregnated With Wonder was one of 2011’s finest comedy albums. It’s a record that quietly pushes the boundaries of what a stand-up album can do, all the while retaining an air of silliness that can easily win over even the most cynical of Bill Hicks acolyte. Holmes spent several years working in Chicago alongside current alt comedy it-dudes like TJ Miller and Kumail Nanjiani, and is returning to the windy city, specifically Second City’s brand-new Up! Comedy Club, Jan. 27 and 28. In anticipation of these shows, The A.V. Club spoke with Holmes about his work as the voice of the E-Trade Baby, his role as an occasional cartoonist for the New Yorker, and the hefty thought that goes into his decidedly goofy stand-up comedy.
The A.V. Club: Looking at your website, it’s immediately obvious that you keep pretty busy, between the podcast, the online shorts, the voice work, writing, cartooning, and regular old stand-up. Were you always that sort of person, spinning a whole bunch of plates, or did these things come together as your career developed?
Pete Holmes: I think it developed as I slowly realized how doable things were. It’s overwhelming at first to undertake stand-up; that’ll take your full attention, as it should when you’re starting out. Once you start to feel any sort of proficiency with stand-up, you might have a joke that’s not really right for your act, but you think, “That sounds like a New Yorker cartoon.” So I would just file things like that away.
When I moved to New York, I met all of these New Yorker cartoonists, and I had all of these ideas, but, not to be dramatic, I never dared to dream that I would do it for real, but I met these people that aren’t all that different from me that are in the magazine every week. I’d go out with them and talk to them about all these different ideas and they’d encourage me, so I’m like, “Okay, now I’m doing stand-up and cartoons.”
A lot of these different endeavors are the children of frustration, I’d keep stubbornly pitching these cartoons to the New Yorker; I’m a fan of my own jokes, as strange as that sounds—I believe in them. They would keep rejecting them, so I thought, “If they’re not going to use it, I’ll turn it into a sketch.” I had 30 or 40 different doctor cartoons, and when I started Front Page Films with Oren Brimer and Matt McCarthy, we created a series called “Doctor” where the first line of the sketch is the dialogue from these cartoons.
It’s all comedy, it all trickles down the comedy mountain, looking for a place to pool, looking for a home. Something that ends up as a cartoon probably didn’t work as a stand-up thing, and if it’s a sketch, it probably didn’t work as a cartoon. It all just bleeds into the next thing.
AVC: Are you able to compartmentalize the different aspects of your career? Is there a different mode of thinking when brainstorming ideas for videos or cartoons than when working on stand-up?
PH: It is a trial and error process; when the idea first presents itself, the name of the game is trying to figure out where it belongs. I know it’s kind of severe language, but honoring the joke is important. This joke might not want to be a sketch, this joke wants to be said live with an audience, it wants to participate with a crowd. I know that sounds hoity-toity, but there is a participation with a joke, figuring out where it belongs.
AVC: Comparisons to WTF are probably inescapable at this point for any podcast that features even remotely serious interviews with comics, but there’s obviously a difference between what you do and what Marc Maron does. What inspired you to create a show like You Made It Weird?
PH: The reason the show gets so many comparisons to WTF is because I deliberately ripped that idea off. [Laughs.] I talked to Marc about this; he said that doing the podcast is the closest thing to doing stand-up, the level of joy and interactivity he got out of it, which totally sold me. I knew by virtue of being very different from Marc as a person, I knew that the interviews would be very different, that it would be a very different show.
He’s actually doing the show soon, and one of the things we’ll talk about is his level of comfort with me ripping off his idea. I like to call it “What The Heck?” It’s like a kinder, gentler show, just by virtue of me being a gentler, bubblier person.
AVC: It seems like your personality and general approach makes these conversations tend toward lighthearted, but really introspective and personal discussions with your guests.
PH: I’ve always been in awe of the thoughts that come out of my friends’ mouths. I like to see how much I can get them to share with me, the way that they do when it’s just the two of us. I try to make the show like you’re eavesdropping on us in a restaurant, less an interview than a conversation. I think people like podcasts because they’re less showy than a stand-up set. When people like it, they’re plugging into a true, production-less version of the host and guests.
AVC: The E-trade Baby commercials have been around for a few years at this point. It must be strange to be tied to such a successful ad campaign without the part where people recognize you on the street or scream catchphrases at you. Do you feel a connection with those commercials or is it more of a side job?
PH: I love these commercials, without irony, as pieces of comedy and pop culture. I remember when the ads first started, the baby was voiced by someone else. They would air a lot in movie theaters. When they came on, I noticed everyone, including myself, would all stop talking to watch these commercials. I had no interest in online investing at the time, I just appreciated how these commercials were crafted.
When I auditioned to become the voice of the baby, there was a paragraph of dialogue to read, but I think I talked for about 10 minutes. I read the copy, and kept adding things and adding things, and when that ended, I just went on a tangent, trying to cram as many jokes in as possible. The writers kept laughing—they were behind glass so I couldn’t hear them laughing, but I could see them laughing, so I kept going.
It’s been a couple of years, and the baby has changed into more of my sense of humor. The writers have been sympathetic to that; they try to write more my style of jokes. I’m basically spoiled. It’s a campaign that I had already liked, the “sell” portion, where I talk about the site, gets shortened in favor of jokes every time. From my perspective, we’re creating these vignettes of comedy that most everybody likes.
AVC: You lived in Chicago for a bit. What was your experience with the comedy scene here?
PH: I lived off the Brown Line, right near The Lyons Den, which is now closed, and when I would walk past, I’d see a sign that said “Monday: Comedy.” I was taking classes at iO at the time, and I’d done stand-up five or six times in college, but it took me forever to go in. I was still afraid of doing stand-up. One week I finally got the courage to go in to watch, and that’s when I met Robert Buscemi and Kumail Nanjiani, who are both great comedians who now live in LA. It just happened that we all had gotten the courage together to go this one week, and here we are 10 years later and Kumail was on the first episode of my podcast.
This was around 2001, and Chicago’s a great comedy town in general, and on top of that, we had contemporaries like Matt Braunger, Kyle Kinane, TJ Miller, Jared Logan—this endless stream of really great performers all doing the same open mics.
There wasn’t any industry, which is what makes the town a great incubator. The fact that there is no industry is what made it so pure. We were all doing stand-up to be good stand-ups. Even though I technically started in college in Boston, I still consider myself a Chicago comedian, because that’s where those formative years were spent, and that’s where all my friends and contemporaries are from.
I don’t know if we had a feeling we were all going to make it or anything, but I think we knew we were on to something, but we didn’t necessarily know where it was headed. I remember having a sense that we would all be okay, and I’m very happy to say that turned out to be true.
AVC: The way Impregnated With Wonder opens is extremely unique. You’re immediately sidetracked by an audience member, which really sets the playful tone for the whole album. Was that a conscious choice to leave that in beyond “well, this is how the show opened”?
PH: That was definitely deliberate. I wanted the album to be an accurate representation of what it would be like to see me at that time in that club. I know that probably sounds obvious, but there are a lot of ways you can polish and edit an album. When you announce that it’s a CD recording, people might be aware that something artificial might be happening. We’re trying to capture lightning bugs, it’s very difficult. [Laughs.]
That bit at the start of the album is me telling the audience that it’s going to be a silly, fun time. Nobody was going to sit there worried that I was worried that the album wasn’t going well enough. I can’t live in a vacuum where you’re doing something, and it’s not working, and you’re not allowed to talk to the audience about how it’s not working; you’re not allowed to be present. Maybe that’s some of that improv stuff I gained from living in Chicago. The whole thing reminds me of something Richard Pryor said at the start of one of his specials: He said something like, “Let’s all just relax and enjoy whatever the fuck happens.”
There’s a certain extent to which you can tell someone, “You’re having a good time.” Our brains are suggestible. It’s the same sort of thing where you can make someone sick with what you’re saying, or make them afraid. You can also make them feel relaxed, and happier, and more comfortable, and I think that’s the goal of a moment like that.
AVC: There’s a real sense of, to borrow a term from your album title, wonder at the heart of a lot of your work. Like midway through the “Pierce, get beers!” track, you shout, “Live your life! Do things and feel good about yourself!” It’s funny and fits with the moment, but there’s a tangible sincerity behind it. It reveals the humanist angle that’s present in much of your comedy. Does that sound at all accurate?
PH: I’m frustrated that more people aren’t reminding us to live our lives. Where are those people that are supposed to remind us to have a good time? As we grow up and become adults, there are less people guiding us, and then we’re just left governing ourselves. I think one of the things that can fall by the wayside is that silliness and that sense of play, just deciding to enjoy yourself.
That bit is almost lamenting the loss of being a kid; when you’re a child, there are all [these] people giving you advice and telling you how to live and telling you what works for them. Then when you’re older, it becomes every man for themselves, so I just want to be like, “This works for me: I say ‘Pierce get beers’ to myself.” I’ve said it since high school, that’s 100 percent true, that’s something I’ve said my whole life. One day I said it onstage and the idea of arming the audience with this tool that has given me pleasure, it’s an almost evangelical joy-spreading that I like to think happens sometimes when I’m doing stand-up… Heavy stuff. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve mentioned on your podcast before that you come from a pretty strong religious background. Do you think that evangelical way of thinking stems from that?
PH: Absolutely. My mom always says, “I wanted him to be a youth pastor. He became a comedian… Close enough.” I have a lot of problems with the church and religion as a whole, a problem with buying the whole thing, but it’s still present on my mind.
This next part is going to be hard for me not to come off like a total dickface, especially in print… There is something proselytizing about comedy. One of the purposes of religion is to alleviate your fear of death. So it is with comedy.
When we’re all together and we’re laughing at the same thing, there’s something connective about that, especially when we’re all laughing about a fear that we have, like the joke on my CD about thinking there’s a person in the back seat of your car waiting to murder you. Looking at the faces in the crowd when I say that joke, there’s always a couple people who thought they were the only ones. They think they’re the only ones worried about a serial killer in their car, and then I say it, in this sort of alpha position, this really beta, cowardly thing.
In that moment, we’re certainly not thinking about our concerns, we’re not thinking about our mortality, we’re not thinking about anything we happen to be battling at that time, so there is a ministry to it. I know that sounds like a big claim, but I think there’s a ministry to a lot of things, not just comedy and the church.
I’m looking at comedy as a humanitarian sort of thing and hopefully achieving it. Comedians go from town to town, almost like an evangelical preacher, and we do preach a gospel. TJ [Miller] says that what we’re doing is better because it’s not a lie. [Laughs.] I’m not in a position spiritually to think that myself, but when I hear him say that, it rings true. We don’t have any other agenda. We don’t want anything out of this other than the audience to have a good time.