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.