LaughFest performer Pete Holmes has a network TV show and hosts a podcast but still credits his subconscious for much of his material. Courtesy LaughFest
Comedian Pete Holmes was in Grand Rapids for LaughFest this weekend, so the Business Journal caught up with the star and creator of the new HBO show “Crashing.”
Holmes also hosts the You Made It Weird podcast, where he interviews other comedians, which has had guests ranging from Judd Apatow to Aziz Ansari and West Michigan native Rob Bell. He also has been a touring stand-up artist for 15 years.
Business Journal: When did you realize you were funny and you could make money doing it?
Pete Holmes: I would joke I’m still awaiting confirmation. It’s still going on and doing analytics, finding whom I’m funny for. There are whole swatches that don’t find me funny. My business is figuring out who will enjoy what I enjoy. That can’t be everyone. Name of the game is doing trial and error and staying yourself when it’s uncomfortable in hopes of remaining authentic to be profitable. It’s not that I’m funny to everybody.
Something Conan O’Brien told me, there’s all this noise, people are making noises with trumpets and drums and tubas and all you do is stand in one spot and ring your triangle and keep making that tone year after year until finally someone says “Everyone is trying hard, but I keep hearing this high pitched triangle and I really like it.”
You do what you do and (what) comes naturally and you enjoy. It used to be you tour and try to have most pragmatic act you could to work anywhere. These days, it’s more about finding the 3 percent of every city.
BJ: Why launch a podcast?
PH: I followed advice that was better than I knew it was. Someone told me it’ll be a way to find an audience. Touring is the worst. It was just bouncing around to convince rooms of strangers to like you. It’s like a door-to-door experience, and everyone in sales knows that’s not ideal. Mostly because when I did other podcasts, I almost always ended up high jacking it, I would steer conversations to my interests, so I said I should just do a podcast now. I’m glad I acted when I did, now it’s pretty saturated. All of a sudden when I was touring, there were a couple hundred people who really liked me. That’s when it made sense.
BJ: You’re all over the place; do you just come up with an idea and try it?
PH: There’s a lot of ways inspiration hits. Sometimes, it’s a lightning bolt. More often now, I’ve been doing stand up for 15 years, I won’t write a thought down the first time. If it’s really good, it will come back. I look at my subconscious as a factory and I’m the CEO. My workers send me memos and some are crazy, and I say this is worthless and I shred it. Sometimes, it sends a good joke or show idea.
A line in “Mad Men,” Don Draper says think about it hard, all day. Then put it out of your mind, and a week or so, it comes back.
I do think that’s the name of the game, respect subconscious, this unseen factory always churning. We can inspire it by being silent, meditate, eat properly, hang out with other creative people. But you’re at its mercy, and the UPS delivery guy will give you something you can work with. I have to imagine it’s the comedian who just turns it into the trade. Going on a ride in a car because you know when you occupy the mechanical part of the body, and that’s when the subconscious takes center stage. You really do take a walk to see if an idea will yell at you because it can be hard.
BJ: How do you split your time?
PH: Sometimes, I get overwhelmed. But most of the time, I feel like I’ve seen every episode of “Shark Tank,” so how busy can I be? I sleep eight hours. There’s just kind of when something presents itself, you make time. If you feel even a little bit like working, that’s as good as it gets. If I just kind of barely feel romantic about writing, then you have to do it. Often, it doesn’t get stronger than that mild urge. You try to figure out which direction you’re supposed to be going when you’re paying attention to the subtle cues. Some days are better for writing jokes or scriptwriting. Recognizing the days it’s not there and not beating yourself up about it. I got up early to write and it’s not there and now I’m playing a video game.
BJ: How’d you build your network?
PH: I was at a club and saw a comedian I hadn’t seen in awhile and I asked him what he was doing in L.A. and he said networking. I threw up in my mouth. It’s not to say that I or anyone deliberately amasses a network. Some of the best business advice was from Bill Burr, “Don’t be a (jerk).” Because what he’s saying is the comedy scene can be competitive and brutal and cutthroat. If that’s the case, shift groups and find like-minded people. You can choose your own reality. It seems to me that people will help out if you’re not a jerk. Before you know it, cross pollinate, if you’re not a jerk to them, they help you. It’s lonely out there, it’s a lone wolf operation sometimes, and when you can relate it’s wonderful to help them out.
When you’re doing a show where every episode hinges on guest stars, you better not be a jerk of the scene. There’s a certain professional level of likability you have to maintain.
BJ: Advice for people who want to start or jump career paths?
PH: I find a lot of people jump to end or middle of a career when they fantasize. It’s way better to just go dabble in the beginning. You don’t have to do it. If you want to try stand up, go to an open mic. Don’t sign up, that’s terrifying. Just go and watch. See how bad it is. These aren’t special people, they’re just like you. You can also do it. There’s lots of different styles, it’s very reassuring. There’s a version that applies to anything. That’s a real key to succeeding. Once you’re in, then you put eyes on a little bit ahead, don’t be a jerk and think you deserve it. Ask what they’re doing. Go and watch. Don’t be entitled, no one wants to help an entitled person. Laugh. Be kind, whatever you can do. It’s like those movies where people pay their dues and people like that. At the end of the day, it comes down to talents and ability, but those things help.
When I was starting out, I’d write Bill Burr and Jim Gaffigan emails and they’d reply. It was smart not to email Jerry Seinfield, but the people a level or two down. They wrote back. Creative people, if they’re not jerks, they retain a soft spot for people starting out. That softness can provide an opportunity.