Comedian Pete Holmes has been pushing boundaries with his work ever since the start of his career in 2001. Through his highly-acclaimed 2011 comedy album, Impregnated with Wonder, his Youtube parodies and his conversations with other comedic giants on his podcasts, Holmes has delighted his audiences with his sharp humor. On Aug. 23, Holmes performed at the Welcome Back Comedy Show. In an email to the Daily Trojan, he offered some introspection on comedy and on how college students can make it in the business. The interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Daily Trojan: You’ve found many outlets for your comedy with your podcasts, television shows and collaborations with other comedians. In this day and age where there are constantly new ways, including social media and internet specials, for comedians to reach audiences, what platform do you think is most important for a comedian and why?
Pete Holmes: I really think it’s all comedy, and a joke will tell you where it belongs. Some ideas are perfect to do as stand-up, others may be short sketches you do for YouTube and others may be short films or books or a cartoon. You just have to ask yourself where it feels right. Because the thing that’s going to get the most attention is good work, and good work starts with honoring where an idea wants to grow best.
DT: Speaking of collaborations with other comedians, you have worked closely with Conan O’Brien in the past. In your podcasts, you’ve had the opportunity to interview other greats in comedy. What does it feel like to work with other comedians, and how does that affect your material?
PH: It’s great to collaborate with other comedians, especially like-minded ones. Conan was a dream come true, obviously, and we shared a lot of the same sensibility, so that was a nice fit. A lot of the time, however, if I can, I like to do things like starting a podcast or writing a script on my own. I’m only saying this because college students looking to get into comedy may be quick to pair off with someone they “kinda” like. Too often another person in your project can become an excuse to never get it done; for example, “They were never available when I was” or “They didn’t take it as seriously as I did.” So, when the time comes to collaborate, make sure you find the right partner. I’m glad, for instance, that I host my podcast alone. It’s hard enough finding a time for two people sit down, let alone three or four. That being said, I come from an improv background and love collaborating with other funny people on stage or acting in a scene together. The Ex-Men sketches, for example, were so much fun trying to improvise and make the other person laugh. That gives a pulse and an energy to the project that’s hard to write on the page. The scenes I’ve done with Thomas Middleditch stand out as favorites and, of course, Matt McCarthy.
DT: Though humorous parodies, YouTube videos “Badman,” “Sherlock Holmes Sucks at Deduction” and Ex-Men: Jean Grey” are rooted in very acute observation. How do you extract the truth in what everyone is thinking and infuse that with comedy? What would you like your audience to get out of your routine?
PH: For those sketches, they were just the elaboration on a basic observation. Like, “It would be funny if Batman were the only stupid thing in Chris Nolan’s dark, serious world.” Or watching Sherlock and noticing that there’s no way he could be right all the time. So you take a small observation like that and you expand on it and work with incredible directors that can make the feel of the sketch match the T.V. show or movie, and then you put it out there in hopes that maybe people will relate. But I don’t try to think of things that people will relate to or something that everyone was thinking, I just try to do what I think is funny and has a shot at other people thinking is funny.
As far as what I want people to get out of my routine is obviously some silly fun, some relief through laughing, some solidarity to see people laughing at the same things as you are and an overall feeling of being less alone in this weird, weird world.
DT: At USC, there are many improv groups with aspiring comedians who look up to you and your work. When you were in college, which comedians did you look up to, and how did they affect your decision to go into comedy?
PH: I was big into Steve Martin (his standup), Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld. Those guys were doing it in a way I wanted to do it: Silly, hilarious and smart.
The big advice I would give any of those improv teams is to do as many shows as you can, or at least have open rehearsals. I look back at my own college improv team and wonder, “Why didn’t we just do a show once a month or once a week?” Nothing teaches you like doing it on stage. Everything else is just theory.
DT: Los Angeles is definitely a different environment than most college towns. How should college students take advantage of this city to study comedy?
PH: I studied at [Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre] and highly recommend it — the improv program. I have friends who did classes at iO as well and liked them. The main thing would be see as many shows as you can and lay low, meaning don’t get a reputation as a weird college kid who’s always cornering people for advice. Just play it cool, observe and when you start to write stand-up or sketch ask yourself, “When would I laugh if I saw this?” If you’re not sure, chances are neither will the audience be. The Meltdown on Wednesdays is the best stand-up in town, and Largo is amazing for comedy. I also like the Improv, but a club is different from night to night, so make sure you like the line-up.
DT: Lastly, do you have any advice for USC students who want to go into comedy? How should they face rejection and adversity?
PH: I would say if you want to do comedy, do comedy. There’s nothing stopping you from doing an open mic or joining an improv team or writing funny essays or drawing cartoons or, if none of that seems doable, studying great comedy from afar until you build up the nerve. Surround yourself with people who have good attitudes, are better than you and aren’t just going to drag you down with how hard everything is or how unfair everything is. Keep creating. Don’t be afraid to fail. Good jokes lie at the end of a road paved with bad jokes. Have confidence, but don’t forget to balance it out with some uncertainty and humanity. No one likes a cocky turd. Be honest, and try and find the comedy that you do best. In other words, find your voice. If you’re being authentic to you, your background, your wants and your fears, no one will be doing exactly what you are doing how you are doing it. Try out your influences, but shed them before anyone notices (their styles, not their material). And if you face hardship or adversity, it’s a good sign you’re doing the work. Take it with pride, and try not to take it personally. We all suck for about five years, it’s what paying your dues means. Keep your eyes on your own paper, keep your head down, don’t expect a “manager” or a “deal” or talk about how much money you want to make, do the work for the work, make the art you want to see in the world, get on stage, write and, as with all things, don’t be a d*ck.