Late on a Friday afternoon in early spring, inside a cavernous soundstage on the Warner Bros. studio lot, Pete Holmes stood in the dark. He had finished the monologue of his talk show and introduced the latest video comedy sketch he made with his writers and producers, then the lights in the studio had dimmed. And he stood there.
When "The Pete Holmes Show" started last year, he would often take this opportunity to step offstage, to think about the next segment, to worry about whether a show was working.
Now he stays a while.
He watches every new video along with the studio audience, stands with his hands in his pockets and tips his 6-foot-6-inchframe forward slightly. He held a small, expectant smile and watched the monitors at the foot of the stage. When the audience exploded in laughter, he looked up briefly, grinned broadly, then looked back toward the monitors. Because Holmes has decided something: He's going to savor this time.
But it's not easy.
The day before, Pete's father had flown in from Boston. Jay Holmes came 3,000 miles to sit in the studio audience of his son's late-night talk show. Pete Holmes was never comfortable with this kind of thing. In his early 20s, when he was still honing his chops as a stand-up comic in Chicago and then in New York, a family member in attendance could unnerve him. Now, at 35, it bothers him less, but the stakes have changed: Seven months into its run, "The Pete Holmes Show" on TBS is still struggling for footing in a crowded late-night field, still waiting to hear if it'll be around for the rest of the year.
His father had been to the set once before, during its rocky ratings debut in November. And this time his son was at the end of a three-week, 20-show marathon. The crew was shooting as many as three a day. Everyone was visibly spent; Holmes had just delivered his 17th or 18th monologue in as many days.
That's, of course, when his father sidled up: "How are ratings, Peter?"
The Pete Holmes brand is vulnerability. Humility is his signature. He is compulsively modest and sincere, disarmingly matter-of-fact. Within 10 minutes of meeting him in his office he had told me about his painful divorce, revealed where he lost his virginity and, before I could even get to the inevitable, said: "You're probably thinking: 'Do we need another late-night talk show in the world?' And no, we don't. There are great people already doing it. We don't need another joke about (Justin) Bieber. So … what's left? The human experience."
And he's right: "The Pete Holmes Show," which is probably unnecessary, does excel at human moments, at an unexpected decency. "Community, transparency and authenticity" has become its mantra, Holmes said. "I want viewers to feel like my tribe, to feel invested, to understand I'm introducing them to a talented pool of comedians who are also my friends, and when we talk, we're not making up stories. We're not lying to you."
Welcome to the fringe of late-night talk TV.
Here, earnestness feels like a revelation. Here, the host reminds his audience that he looks like a youth pastor. The comedy is not topical, the format is 30 minutes, and the guests are mostly from Holmes' circle and aren't on the air-kissy autopilot that's a staple of every talk show. Comedian Anthony Jeselnik once pointedly told the doughy Holmes that he dressed like "the CEO of a pumpkin patch." Comic Chelsea Peretti described in gruesome detail how she could murder Holmes some day.
Production-wise, the show looks as off-the-rack and unremarkable as any other TV talk show, but it was designed as a kind of extension of Holmes' popular and deeply personal podcast, "You Made It Weird With Pete Holmes." And so, it's also awkward and weird, generous and uncomfortably honest — unusually distinctive for the late-night landscape, circa 2014. It might be the only late-night talk show where, I get the sense, the host is actually having a real conversation.
Watch it and you want it to work.
"Pete is a really great example of why so many stand-up comics who started in Chicago — himself, Hannibal (Buress), Kyle (Kinane), etc. — have done so well," said comedian Dan Telfer, himself a transplant from Chicago (and a friend of Holmes'). "Their success is not just a sense of humor, but the way they give an audience someone to root for. Pete is offering a part of himself on that show. It's not false modesty."
"No one is paying attention!" said comedian Matt McCarthy, a writer on the show (and frequent performer alongside Holmes in its videos). "But that can also be a great place to be. We can do what we want there."
Indeed, a recurring segment has Holmes trading cringe-inducing true stories with audience members: Recently, a woman told him about accidentally exposing herself to her boss, and Holmes replied that, as a teenager, he would write letters to Penthouse Forum. Not to mail, just to keep on hand.
"You think that's weird?" he asked.
The woman was noncommittal.
Executive producer Nick Bernstein, a former vice president of late-night programming for NBC, said he likes to think of "The Pete Holmes Show" as an understated forerunner of the next generation of talk show: "It's an evolutionary step. Letterman on NBC spoke openly of being the only thing on at 12:30 a.m. That led to Conan being more absurdist, which led to Fallon creating an incredibly friendly environment. And so the next step? That oversharing atmosphere we all live in. Which Pete already captures on his podcast, that willingness to embrace intimacy. Yes, Johnny Carson talked about his divorce on his show, Stephen Colbert talked about his mother dying. That's so rare on a talk show. But make a real connection with (an audience), it's for life."
That said, even Jay Holmes, who owns a fuel tank installation and removal company in New England called Tanks-A-Lot, recognizes that success for the talk show of a still-obscure comedian is an uphill battle. Pete Holmes understands too. So, on that stressful day when his father asked about the ratings, Pete — "such a habitual people-pleaser, he had a hard time being a boss at first," said executive producer Oren Brimer — didn't yell or complain. He said: "Dad, I love you. But you know that I don't know."
Because he doesn't.
He wasn't being disingenuous. Pete Holmes stopped looking at the show's ratings months ago. Ask his staff and producers if he's exaggerating and they say, no, no, he will not look at the ratings. He will look at the number of YouTube views that the show's popular digital short films get (often millions). He doesn't have a problem reading the audience feedback that he periodically receives from TBS. He used to scan Twitter and Facebook.
"But," he said, "you learn, in this position, to stop when you're waking up to 'Your laugh makes me sick …' and 'Go kill yourself …'
"So no, I don't worry about being canceled now," he continued. "You can only make the show the show you make. I don't like to complain. Still, you worry. I know our numbers aren't great. I know we're not blowing it out of the water. You definitely get ideas, like: 'If someone just sat me down and gave me a tan, made me lose weight, cut my hair and whitened my teeth, it'd all be OK.' I even said to Conan, 'How do you sleep?' He said, 'Pete, I think you just have to own up to the fact you are not going to be sleeping well for a while.'"
That's Conan, as in O'Brien.
He liked Holmes so much that last year he asked him to develop "The Pete Holmes Show" to follow his own TBS show, "Conan," at 10 p.m. O'Brien knows a few things about feeling on the bubble, between buoyant and bust, hoping for a sizable audience to acclimate to a smart talk show. Never mind that the 4-year-old "Conan" itself remains a touch fringy, viewership-wise, drawing about 700,000 viewers a night, compared with 3.7 million for Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight Show". (However, TBS just renewed O'Brien's show through 2018.) Two decades ago, when I was working at a different newspaper, I spent some time on the "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" set on NBC, and the show had just finished a tenuous year of being renewed in brief, 13-week chunks. I asked O'Brien then about the uncertainty. He said he was grateful for each reprieve.
Diplomatic, and honest.
On the fringe of late-night, you relish any victory.
"Success now looks like the chance to just keep going," Brimer said. No good news is small. Holmes said the great thing about the late-night TV commotion — the announced departures of David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, the migration of Stephen Colbert, the rise of Fallon, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel — is the hope that his own show will be included in that conversation. When NBC News did a piece on the shake-up, "The Pete Holmes Show" (and Tribune-owned "The Arsenio Hall Show" on WGN) went unmentioned (defeat); soon after, anchor Brian Williams apologized for the omissions (victory).
And those ratings: "The Pete Holmes Show" averages roughly half the nightly viewership of Conan (defeat).
But those viewers: Average around 36 years old. Relatively young for a late-night talk show (victory).
Even on his own set, Holmes carries a humble, unassuming quality. He's large, a little flabby, a touch gawky; when he laughs, his lips fly back, his eyes crinkle and the sound is so braying and insistent he can seem like a guy pretending to laugh. But it's his laugh. And despite his size and ingratiating manner, watching him warm up his studio audience before a taping is both endearing and like watching an awkward kid ask someone on a date. He tells them he's making comedy with them, not at them. He says they don't have to laugh, but it would be good if they laughed, so he needs them to laugh.
Which gets a big laugh.
"Remember," he says, "it's not every day you can squash a man's dreams."
After "The Pete Holmes Show" finished taping for the day, and the audience was ushered out, and the crew vanished for the weekend, the soundstage became stone silent. Holmes, who said untucking his shirt on camera is the closest thing he has to a signature talk-show move, untucked his shirt and put on running pants.
He curled into a chair and told me we could talk as long as I wanted. You never hear this on a soundstage.
"The thing about Pete's stage persona is, there is no stage persona," said comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who started as a stand-up in Chicago with Holmes and has remained close. "He is doing exactly the show he wants to do. I mean, the fact I was the show's first guest should tell you that. And he might not be an alpha male talk-show host, but when the camera's on, he does a good job of owning the room. He's not so much aggressive as sure-footed. That show really is a good mirror of who Pete is."
His unvarnished mildness? Do not confuse it with a lack of ambition. If nothing else, Holmes owns one of the more eclectic resumes: He was the voice of the E-Trade baby in TV commercials for six years. His Batman parodies are among the best-known series on the CollegeHumor video site. And he's been a cartoonist for The New Yorker. (Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor, told me: "He didn't really make it as a cartoonist because his ability as a comic was not quite enough to overcome his inability as an artist.")
Even his stand-up career is a lesson in persistence: "Before I lived in Chicago, I would fly there from Boston for the weekend, go to shows at Second City, then fly home. My parents paid for the tickets. My brother got a car, I got plane tickets to Chicago." He took a few improv classes at iO (but none at Second City, which proved too intimidating), then spent three years in the Chicago stand-up scene, which at the time boasted T.J. Miller, Nanjiani, Kinane and Buress.
"Then everyone left for Los Angeles or New York," Holmes said. "Maybe you have to. I remember clearly talking to this older comic at Zanies in Vernon Hills (since closed), and him saying, 'I'm only going to LA when someone asks me to.' I remember thinking: 'No, no — no one asks.'"
Holmes left Chicago for New York in 2004. He became the audience warm-up act at "The Daily Show." One night, while performing in a club — and bombing — he showed uncharacteristic presumptuousness. "I was doing so poorly, I just said, 'I want to fast-forward to the part where Conan says, "You're my guy."' I shouldn't have said it. It was precious. I thought the audience would relate, (but) they really didn't," he recalled. "And still …"
A decade later, he's Conan's guy.
At least though June 18.
That's when the last new episode of "The Pete Holmes Show" is scheduled to air. A spokeswoman at TBS said the network will likely make a decision in June about whether it will renew the show. As for Holmes, he said he has no idea about its fate. He said all he can do is wait, hope that nothing has changed. He's still the kind of guy who meets Ben Affleck at a party and can't bring himself to ask the movie star to be on the show (true story). He still believes in the wisdom of network executives to give him a solid year to find an audience.
"And I'm not backstage yet yelling at the writers, wearing a bathrobe and pretending to be happy. I am happy. I have good feelings about this. Which is based on nothing more than: I'm doing what I want to do."