Comic Pete Holmes Draws On His Early Career And 'Churchy' Roots In 'Crashing'

Jan 12, 2018
Originally published on January 12, 2018 7:19 pm
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, comic Pete Holmes, stars in the HBO series called "Crashing," which has its Season 2 premiere on Sunday. The series is based on his life when he was just getting started as a comic. Like the character Pete in the series, Pete Holmes comes from a Christian background, married young and divorced a few years later after he discovered his wife was having an affair.

The series started with that discovery. Since Pete's wife has been paying the bills, and he's not yet making any money as a comic, when the marriage ends, he's basically homeless and has to crash in the homes of other comics like Artie Lange, T.J. Miller and Sarah Silverman, who guest star as themselves in the series. "Crashing" is also a fish-out-of-water story following Pete with his Christian background and upbeat disposition as he tries to find his place in a comedy world where cynicism, neuroses, depression, sex and drugs are the norm.

Terry spoke with Pete Holmes last March. Let's start with a scene from the first episode, just before Pete finds out about his wife's affair. They're sitting next to each other on the couch, looking at a funny video, when Pete realizes it's time to leave for the comedy club.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRASHING")

UNIDENTIFIED BABY: (As character, laughing).

PETE HOLMES: (As Pete) Stop - that's really...

LAUREN LAPKUS: (As Jess) I know.

HOLMES: (As Pete) I have to go anyway.

LAPKUS: (As Jess) What? It's only 4 o'clock. Where are you going?

HOLMES: (As Pete) Well, the show. The show's at 7, but sign-up's at 6. So if I don't leave right now, I might not even get on. And then the whole night will be a wash.

LAPKUS: (As Jess) I thought we were going to watch stuff together.

HOLMES: (As Pete) Sweetest, tell me if we could, you know, normalize this a little bit. Some people work during the day. I work at night like a cop.

LAPKUS: (As Jess) It's not really work. You go do shows that don't pay you, and you have to buy two drinks in order to do them. It's not really work.

HOLMES: (As Pete) Come on. This is in the West Village. It's all the big guys - Seinfeld, Romano, Chris Rock.

LAPKUS: (As Jess) They perform there?

HOLMES: (As Pete) They perform in the neighborhood in the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Pete Holmes, welcome to FRESH AIR.

HOLMES: Oh, thank you so much, Terry. I'm honored to be here.

GROSS: So we heard that clip from early in the first episode. By the time the episode is over, your marriage is over in the show. When your wife had an affair in real life, did you ever think, this really hurts, but one day I'll make an HBO series about it?

HOLMES: (Laughter) Not quite. I did have a strange - in real life, my wife leaves me. I'm 28 years old. I was religious like the guy on the show. She was the first person I had ever slept with or dated or anything like that. But we had moved upstate to Sleepy Hollow, which is near Tarrytown, N.Y. It's about an hour, you know, driving - maybe 45 minutes from the city. And we moved there.

And I was so miserable because comedy was - this is where I started to learn that comedy was, like, the most important thing to me, that I was happy in our marriage, but one of the things that made our marriage so happy was that we were living in Brooklyn and that I was able to do sets as often as I wanted to.

So when she left, there was a glimmer - even when she was breaking the news to me, there was a glimmer of like, at least I can go back to comedy.

GROSS: So where were you in your comedy career when the marriage ended?

HOLMES: I was a little bit further ahead than the character on my show. I was basically occasionally working a club. I was doing a show on VH1 called "Best Week Ever," so I was actually making money. That's a big difference between me in real life and Pete on the show - is Pete on the show is completely broke because that's far more interesting to me and is more typical of someone starting in comedy. They're really at the bottom. But in real life, I was making as much money as she was. I say that - I'm even still defensive about it - just as much as her.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: So - and then when we broke up, that's when I really started touring and stuff. It was such a strange thing to have someone with me supporting me and loving me while I was coming up, and then we break up. And then I started, you know, not making tons of money, but I started making a much better living. And I remember feeling weird about that. I was like, she's not even here to enjoy this creme brulee I just bought.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I want to skip ahead to further in that same episode, where she's actually told you at this point that she's leaving you and that she's having an affair. You leave home, go to the comedy club for an open mic night. But you feel so bad, you don't really want to perform. But you're called on to perform to fill someone else's spot who hasn't showed up.

And you tell the manager that you just don't want to do it. Your wife left you. You're in a terrible mood, and he says, do like Tig Notaro did. She got diagnosed with breast cancer. She went right onstage and talked about it. It was a great set. Everyone talks. So, you know, talk about what happened. So you do, and it does not work out well for you. So here is that moment. And this is Pete Holmes from HBO's "Crashing."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRASHING")

HOLMES: (As Pete) Good to see you. So this is real. This is like a raw thing. I want to talk about my wife.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) My wife.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: (As Pete) Yeah. My wife slept with somebody else today - today - I caught her today, which is weird. Like, a naked woman is normally my favorite thing. But if you walk in, and there's a naked man there, suddenly your favorite thing is like your least favorite thing. You know what I mean? It's like, I love steak, but if you delivered a steak to me, and there was eight bites out of the steak, I'd be like, why did we come here? You know what I mean? This isn't good.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Oh, boy.

HOLMES: (As Pete) Yeah. Oh, boy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Go write some jokes.

HOLMES: (As Pete) Thanks. Where are you from, Syria? I thought we didn't let you in.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) That's the best you can do? This is painful. Can't you feel it?

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Oh, wow. Wow. It's even uncomfortable just as audio (laughter).

GROSS: Have you done much of that kind of autobiographical comedy that so many comics do?

HOLMES: You know, I do it more in my podcast. That's - that seems to be my preferred medium. The catch is that you're not ready to do that until you've been doing stand-up for 10 years. So I see a lot of newer comedians trying to do that, when in reality, I think when you start, you have to kind of do cheesier, safer stuff just to get your sea legs, if that makes sense.

GROSS: So what kind of material were you doing when you were starting out?

HOLMES: (Laughter) You know, it's funny. I was just in Michigan yesterday, and we drove past a road sign that said bridge may be icy. It's a Midwest sign, you see. And I remembered. I was like, oh, my God I had it - that was a joke I had. I go - I was so Seinfeldy (ph). I was so clean. And it would be, like, a lot of road sign stuff. I was like, I love that sign - bridge may be icy. Is the bridge icy - maybe. Like, that was the sort of stuff I did. It's barely...

GROSS: You have a joke just like that in your show. It's a falling rock sign.

HOLMES: Yes. That's the thrill, Terry, is that I get to do the jokes from me starting out. That's why I think maybe they feel so real is that early stand-up - we can't just do bad stand-up. It just has to be somewhat naive standup, sort of general jokes that almost anybody could do. Like, what's the employee discount at the Dollar Store? That's, like, an observation that I would make and kind of dig into - very safe and kind of interchangeable.

GROSS: Well, you have to do the punchline now that you did the set up.

HOLMES: Do you think it's just take it? (Laughter) It's not bad. You know, it's like "Reader's Digest," like, a little nibble of comedy at the back, you know. It's fine. But at a certain point - I remember having a conversation with a manager. I was unsigned. And I was unsigned for you, know, 10 years, 12 years maybe. And the guy sat me down. His name was Rick (ph). I've thanked him many times for this conversation. He's like, I'm not signing you. And I'm telling you why. And I was like, OK. And I'm in my mom's bedroom for some reason, visiting home. I sat in a rocking chair.

And he was like, I just - I don't know what you're about. I don't know what you like. I don't know what you dislike. I don't know what makes you angry. I don't know what makes you scared. And my stomach is kind of churning. And I'm really mad at this guy (laughter). And I didn't know he was giving me really, really invaluable advice. If you get off, and they don't know who you are, I think you kind of fail. Even if it is just the essence of who you are, not all the personal details.

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break. And then we'll talk some more. My guest is comic Pete Holmes. He created HBO series "Crashing." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF OF MONTREAL SONG, "GRONLANDIC EDIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Pete Holmes. And in his HBO series "Crashing," which is on Sunday nights, he plays a comic called - named Pete who, very much like Pete Holmes, got his start when he was still a faithful Christian. And we'll talk about what he is now in terms of faith, where his faith has taken him.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

GROSS: But it's a very funny series with a lot of heart to it. You know, you grew up Christian. You went to Christian school and Christian camp and Christian college. And, you know, so much of the comedy world is this kind of, like, bitter, angry, sarcastic, sexual, you know, drugged-up kind of world.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And you're so not about that. So let - were you afraid if you really showed who you were, it would be considered so foreign to the world that you were in?

HOLMES: Yes. And I also think it went the other way - that if I was really being honest with who I am deep down - that maybe I would admit that I like pornography or something scandalous like that. You know what I'm saying? I was scared of it going either way - me seeping into the scene and being ridiculed for being spiritual and religious and having the scene seep into me and corrupt me in some way 'cause, you know, it's - it takes a lot of courage to admit that you want to do stand-up. And then once you're there, it's kind of this strange party. And it takes another kind of courage to admit that you like it there.

I never did drugs or got into the debauchery of it - you know, little things here and there. But it took some time to adjust, I suppose. But I was trying to be the good boy, you know, capital G, capital B. So I was trying to do the comedy that I thought my parents wanted me to do. Not just my God, but my mother, my father.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Like, I wanted to kill for Jesus. Like, I wanted...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Basically picturing him in the back row of the club. And if I could go up and not say the F word, I thought he would love me more and that I would shine and be the sort of example of salvation for people. But that's why I liken the episode of my parents that my mother, who Pete is expecting to love what he did, is like, I didn't - I don't know what you're doing.

GROSS: I'm going to stop you right there because we have that clip ready.

HOLMES: Oh, my goodness.

GROSS: And I really want to play it for our listeners. This is a wonderful scene.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

GROSS: So let me set this up. Your parents have just found out at your mother's birthday dinner that your wife is leaving you. And then right after they find that out, you leave to go to your comedy club - to the comedy club to perform. And you just kind of leave them there. And suddenly, like, your parents show up at the club. And you're astonished.

Like, they do not come to the clubs where you perform. And the first thing that happens after they arrive is that another comic goes on and does this really filthy set. (Laughter) I mean, it's all about sex. And he's using like the microphone and the microphone stand as sex props. And it's incredibly explicit. And, like, you're just kind of, like, dying, thinking of your parents hearing all this.

Then it's your turn. You do your set. You're telling jokes like people sometimes call you the lesbian Val Kilmer because of how you look. And then you're telling the kinds of jokes that, you know, like you said, that, you know, you think Jesus would like and that your parents would like, jokes about road signs like we were talking about. You come off stage. And then your parents have a whole kind of critique for you. So your father speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRASHING")

FRED APPLEGATE: (As character) It was very good. It was very good.

HOLMES: (As Pete) I can't believe you came.

APPLEGATE: (As character) Oh, it's all right. We couldn't sleep. We haven't been out this late since - I don't know - maybe ever.

HOLMES: (As Pete) And what did you think, Momma? I'm sorry some of the other guys were dirty. But it's not always like that.

AUDRIE NEENAN: (As character) Well, it was - you know, I didn't get everything you said.

HOLMES: (As Pete) Like what?

NEENAN: (As character) Like lesbian Val Kilmer. You look like Val Kilmer. I get that. But what's the lesbian part? Do lesbians look a certain way? Can you even say that? I mean, aren't all kinds of different people lesbians?

APPLEGATE: (As character) Yeah, mostly women.

HOLMES: (As Pete) I know. I'm just making jokes, just jokes, the lighter side of...

APPLEGATE: (As character) Just jokes, yeah.

NEENAN: (As character) Well, but I didn't really learn anything about you. Where was the perspective? The other guy - he was dirty. But at least he had a point of view. Sex can be a difficult thing. I got a very clear picture of what he's struggling with.

HOLMES: (As Pete) I'm sorry. You liked Jason (ph)? Who - he slapped that stool with his microphone penis.

NEENAN: (As character) Sweetheart, you were up there talking about road signs. Is that how you want to spend your life - talking about road signs?

HOLMES: (As Pete) It's observational. It's - you know, it makes people happy.

NEENAN: (As character) Well, you want to make people happy, darling? Remind them of your faith. This is a distraction.

HOLMES: (As Pete) This isn't a distraction. This is my life.

NEENAN: (As character) You're losing your marriage for this? This is no kind of life.

HOLMES: (As Pete) Yes, it is. This is comedy. This is what I want to do.

NEENAN: (As character) Honey, how will you survive?

APPLEGATE: (As character) Rita (ph), come on. He's fine. Let's go to bed. Goodnight, son.

HOLMES: (As Pete) Goodnight, Pop.

GROSS: So that's Pete Holmes with Audrie Neenan and Fred Applegate playing his parents on Pete Holmes' show "Crashing" on HBO.

HOLMES: Yeah.

GROSS: So I thought your parents' reaction is so interesting. Like, the critique that your mother does, which is that, but I didn't learn anything about you - that's what you said this agent who didn't sign you said.

HOLMES: Yeah.

GROSS: So did you put that in your - in the mother's mouth in this? Or did your mother actually say that to you, as well?

HOLMES: No. My mother is pretty with it. It's so funny. If I seem like I'm in a good mood today, it's - I am. I'm in a very good mood because that episode aired last night. And I called my mother this morning to see what they thought of it. And there's a lot of oversharing, and there's a lot of, like, kind of personal family stuff in it. And they loved it. And it was such a thrill. And I think one of the reasons is because my parents are very funny. And, you know, they're smart in the show. So that kind of trumped everything.

So I'm kind of on cloud nine knowing that - I was a little bit worried, to be honest, that they would be upset or offended by the show, especially with the language, seeing as my mom is still quite churchy. But this scene is the genius of Judd - is that - like, I would tell him something like, you know, it would be interesting if my parents came to see me. And then I do a clean set. And everyone else is really dirty and then my mom is really proud of me. You know, I would kind of pitch that fantasy. And then he would be like, I think your mom should think that you stink.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Like, she should have, like, really valid, on-point, oddly on-point advice for you. So then when I wrote the scene, I considered what Rick Dorfman had told me, the manager agent guy, and had her say those things. She's more savvy than she appears.

GROSS: Even her take on, like, aren't there all kinds of lesbians, dear (laughter)?

HOLMES: Yeah. And she's kind of right.

GROSS: Yeah, I know.

HOLMES: I mean, that's one of the fun things - like, the clip you played earlier where I say, are you from Syria? I thought we didn't let you in. And then jokes like lesbian Val Kilmer - you know, I'm more OK with the second joke, obviously. There's a lot of fun in showing how bad we can be. You know what I mean? Like, I say the Syria joke because that's what it's like when you're bombing, and you're just in a tailspin, and you're going right to the earth on fire. And it's so painful that you'll do anything. You'll sell out your values and say something...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...If you think it'll win the audience back (laughter). Like, my character is not a cruel person or even a political person, but he's certainly not unsympathetic to refugees. But that's how ugly stand-up can be - is you say something that even offends you.

And then in - with a joke like lesbian Val Kilmer, a joke I still make from time to time, it's so fun to then write - what are the things that I say that could be conceived as offensive? - and then write a scene where someone confronts me. It's very - it's therapeutic. It's interesting. And it's actually a lot of fun to be like, OK, let's break down my bets. This one is kind of implying that lesbians all look a certain way, and that's not OK. Like, what a fun thing to write.

GROSS: So in the clip that we heard earlier, your mother says to you, after hearing a set that she thinks wasn't revealing enough of who you are - she says, if you want to bring joy, talk about your faith. (Laughter) And so...

HOLMES: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...What was your faith upbringing?

HOLMES: I think it's so funny that my mom in that scene thinks people want to hear about your faith. Is there anything more awkward when someone wants to tell you about the Lord?

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I mean, people tuck and roll out of cars in situations like that.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: But I spent so much of my life being that person, living with the burden that basically everyone you met was just another person going to hell. And you had to, like, find a way to weave it into a conversation, like, the special prayer that they needed to pray. And then they could kind of go back to their day-to-day, you know? So yeah, I grew up non-denominational. But that really is just kind of code many times for evangelical, meaning I went on missions trips when I was 17 and 16, actually.

I went to the Amazon to build a house. I went to Uganda to build a house. I was building a lot of houses for poor people. And I ran a Bible study at my high school called Mustard Seeds, (laughter) which is a reference to one of Jesus' parables about faith. And I was the dorky, billowing khaki, churchy guy. That was my identity. I played, like, a moderately funky bass in the worship choir. (Laughter) You know, I brought nonalcoholic alternatives to parties.

This is my sort of identity growing up because I really - I bought it. You know, that's what was interesting. I became way more religious than my parents because they took me to church. And, you know, I have an older brother who just didn't buy it. But something about my temperament - grown-ups - like, tall grown-ups with deep voices telling you things. You're just like, this guy definitely knows what happens when we die. Like, he's seen it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: He has a beard and glasses. He clearly knows the mysteries of the universe. So I took it in hook, line and sinker and really, you know, went through that very churchy phase. I mean, I looked like a youth pastor. I almost was a youth pastor.

GROSS: Were you almost a youth pastor?

HOLMES: Yeah. I went to Gordon College, which doesn't sound like a real college (laughter). It sounds like my parents hired a wise, old man named Gordon to shepherd me for one summer...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Man with no face style. But it's a small liberal arts school about an hour north of Boston. And I went there. And, you know, I never declared, but I was intending to be a youth ministry major. That's one of the reasons I went to that school.

And that's - you know, you can start to smell the this-kid-wants-to-be-a-comedian thing because it's the same skill set. You know, you get up in front of people. You want them to leave feeling better than they came. And you - you know, you orate. You speak. So my mom, I remember when I told her - she always wanted me to be a youth pastor or a pastor. And when I told her I was becoming a comedian, she literally said, close enough. That was her joke. And I kind of understand what she means by that (laughter).

BIANCULLI: Comic Pete Holmes speaking to Terry Gross last March. They'll continue their conversation after a break. And I'll review the new monthly Netflix talk show with David Letterman that launches today. It's called "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MURRAY PERAHIA'S "SONATA IN D MAJOR, K 491 (CLEAN)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from last year with comic Pete Holmes. He created, co-writes and stars in the HBO comedy series "Crashing," which begins its second season on Sunday. The series is about a comic named Pete who's trying to break into New York's comedy club scene, working open mic nights and sometimes even paying to get a shot at the mic. Like the character Pete in the series, Pete Holmes comes from a devout Christian background. So he didn't quite fit into the comedy world of sex, drugs and cynicism. When he was in college, he considered becoming a youth pastor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Well, you give a line to T.J. Miller - the comic T.J. Miller - in your series, and he says that comics are today's preachers. I think that's the line. And it sounds like that was really one of your lines that you gave to his character in it. Does he talk that way, too?

HOLMES: Isn't that fun? I'm so glad that it seems that way because T.J. and I have been friends for over a decade. And he said that to me. That's how weird comedians are. You think it would be me to be like, I'm the God guy, right? But then you call T.J. on the road in North Dakota - I was lonely, touring colleges. And I called him. And he gave me this pep talk that I always remembered. And this is how comedians talk. This is a real scoop here 'cause we're insane.

He goes, it's like you're in service to our comedy god. You have to put things on the altar and sacrifice your time and your leisure and your comfort to the service of this thing. He said, you're like a priest. You're like a traveling priest. And then, of course, I put it in the show. I remembered - he goes, except you're better than a priest because you're not lying.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: He's like, you're giving people an opportunity to laugh at their fears and to - and I believe - and this is me talking now - to experience solidarity. When somebody is onstage in an alpha position but being what I call alpha beta, where you're talking about how weak you are and how scared you are and how vulnerable we all are, that's a very therapeutic thing for an audience. And when comedy is at its best, it can really get to that sort of churchy, spiritual - and I don't mean with any specific deity in mind - it can get to that place where people are unified.

GROSS: So I want to cut back to when you were a missionary, and you went on, say, a mission trip to the Amazon. So were you trying to convert people there? Because I'm trying to imagine what it was like for you...

HOLMES: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To be, you know, a white guy from Massachusetts going to the Amazon to tell people about your god.

HOLMES: Yeah, I was a bright-pink guy...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: ...In the Amazon. I was not a white guy. I'm also 6-foot-6. I got out of a plane the size of a Honda Civic. I can't imagine - it was with the Yanomami Indians - I can't imagine what their reality was. But to answer your question, I was not converting people. I was just a soft kid from Lexington, Mass., saying he was dehydrated and couldn't get on the roof that day. You know what I mean? Like, just picture Lena Dunham building a house. That was me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: That's - I was no help. No offense to Lena, but we're the same. No help. I pumped water all day. And, you know, they didn't - I spoke a little Spanish, but I didn't tell anyone about Jesus or try to get anyone to accept him in their heart. But the family there did do that. Like, it was what it sounds like.

GROSS: What was it like for you in college being a young man, you know, being, you know, as young men are and young women, too, like, sexual but, like, following prohibitions that I'd say a lot of young people no longer follow in the U.S.?

HOLMES: I mean, that's what we're talking about, a good comedian being, like, this self-explored comedian. They're really at odds with each other because the way that I viewed Christianity at that time had a lot to do with repression and oppression, like keeping those bad feelings away. You didn't - you would never admit that you were horny or just wanted to get drunk or whatever it may be.

That's one of the reasons I got married - was because things had progressed physically with my girlfriend. Once it progressed to a certain point, I wasn't in the moment. I was literally just thinking, well, this is close enough to sex. I'm going to marry this woman. Like, that's what I was thinking in the act. Like, I was like, we're going to get married because, you know, this is kind of like sex. Sex is for married people. God can see. I'm calling a caterer.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, I see.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: During it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Like, that's how hard I believed. Like, I really was in, and I was like, I'm not going to bend the rules. I had, like, a very strict policy with myself. I was constantly trying to curb my lust, curve my levity. I don't know if you've ever heard of the sin of levity. But it's the joke - the sin of joking around too much.

GROSS: Whoa. Hang on (laughter).

HOLMES: I mean, yeah. It's - I'm telling you, man. It's...

GROSS: That is not the first step to a comedy career...

HOLMES: No.

GROSS: ...Worrying about the sin of levity.

HOLMES: But I'll tell you something. This is - talk about grace in unexpected places - so I go to a Christian college. You can't drink. You can't smoke, obviously. You can't close the door when a girl is in the room. A girl can't even be in your room except for a three-hour window every day except Tuesday. This is true. It's called open dorm. And then the door had to be opened 90 degrees, and there had to be two lights on. And all four feet had to be on the floor. These were the rules of open dorm. And all my friends were girls, so I used to joke - I still haven't seen the end of "Forrest Gump" because, like, I'd always have to leave (laughter). Like, I couldn't hang long enough to finish the movie...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Because - and this is what I'm saying about grace in unexpected places. Suddenly, a pretty good boy - like, a rule-abiding fella such as myself was the guy in "Footloose" teaching the town how to dance. It's really easy to be funny in a community that is in so desperate need of a laugh. So this is when I started doing improv in college, and I started writing for the paper.

And I basically became like a bad boy, leaning on a car, flicking a nickel, chewing on a matchstick. Like - and nowhere else on Earth would I be the bad boy, but I got that outsider perspective. And that's what being a comedian is all about - is looking at what we're stuck in and making fun of it. And because my school was so rigid, it was pretty easy to be funny, and it gave me that feeling of success. Like, oh, I can do this. And then I got out into the world with that boost.

GROSS: OK. So then you get out into the world. You do open mic nights in New York. That is not like your Christian college crowd.

HOLMES: No.

GROSS: They're used to really raunchy humor. And your idea of rebellion was, like, so safe for - to them.

HOLMES: Yeah.

GROSS: So...

HOLMES: (Laughter) My idea of rebellion was we should be able to do other types of dancing that aren't swing dancing.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Like it - that was something that, like, people - I used to write articles about, like, open dorm isn't biblical. Like, Jesus was all about choice. And, you know, we should be governing ourselves. And we don't need - we're grown people. Like, why can't we close the door? And other students would be offended. They would be like, Peter, the school is our in loco parentis. They're here to make sure that we maintain a standard of purity. Like, they wanted it (laughter). Like, they were nuts. It was crazy.

But then you're right. I get into Chicago and then later New York. And you would follow not just one comedian being dirty. You'd follow three comedians just in the middle of, like, an insane person's level of a blue streak, saying everything you couldn't say, things that used to - when I started, I used to go up at the club called the Boston Comedy Club in New York - very confusing.

And I used to follow comedians that would walk the audience. I'm sure you know what that means. It means people would get up and leave because what this person was saying onstage was so jokeless and offensive - and I can't even tell you the categories that she was talking about. And then I'd have to go up. My friend Kyle Kinane joked it's like following the elephants at a parade. You're just walking through all the crap.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And imagine - and this is one of the stories we're trying to tell on "Crashing" - those guys, Seinfeld, Romano, you know, a lot of my heroes, they forged those squeaky clean, theater-ready acts in clubs following people talking about X, Y, Z that I can't even say - crazy stuff.

GROSS: Did anybody ever holler things like, you're too bland? Get off the stage?

HOLMES: I mean, it's more the lack of noise that they would make (laughter). But what happened was I was in the clubs - right? - and I would go up. And it would be very kind of rowdy crowds, New York crowds. People would turn their back to you when you got onstage. Or they'd talk, or they'd heckle and all these things.

And I'm going up there, and I'm going like, I bought a paper shredder. I didn't read the manual. I just put in the shredder, plugged it in. Like, if this doesn't shred, I'll read it, right? So that's, like, a joke I was telling at the time, and the guy before you did, like, a 45-minute closer where he's swinging the mic around and talking about breasts or whatever it is.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: You know, and I'm going up there, trying to sell that. So I would just - I would bomb. But then I remember Jim Gaffigan, Demetri Martin and your friend and my close friend Mike Birbiglia would sometimes come by the Boston. And they would go up, and they - and I mean this as a very high compliment - they would do badly. And that meant everything to me because these people were heroes of mine - still are - and talking to them after, they would always say the same thing.

They're like, what are you doing here? Like, I saw a little bit of your act. You don't belong in the rough and tumble. You belong in what we call the alt scene, which were places like Rififi and UCB and the Slipper Room at that time in New York - had all, like, college-aged, polite people. And I went up - same jokes - and I'm getting applause breaks. And people are really into it, and. I'm like, oh, my God. I was in the wrong section of comedy. (Laughter) I was in the wrong aisle. You know?

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Pete Holmes, and he has a new series on HBO that's called "Crashing" that's loosely based on his life. And he plays a character named Pete. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON GIDDENS SONG, "THE LONESOME ROAD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Pete Holmes. He created HBO series "Crashing," which is about a comic named Pete - loosely based on Pete Holmes' life - who ends up having a divorce because his wife's had an affair. And he's kind of living in the open mic comedy world, trying to get a foothold in the world of comedy. And he's broke and consequently has to crash on the couches of fellow comics who are charitable enough (laughter) to let him stay over. In the series "Crashing," your character gets his start by doing open mics and by having to bark. Would you explain what barking is?

HOLMES: Yes. So when I got to New York, I started doing the open mics there. And they were different from the open mics in Chicago. In Chicago, there'd be 25, sometimes 50 real people in the audience. Then you - and it was free. And then you got to New York. And the open mics you had to either just straight up pay to perform, or you had to buy two items. And, of course, it's the Manhattan cliche that it would be, like, a $7 Coke. Like, we all knew the rooms.

And we all knew the cheapest items to get, like, pretzels or a bottle of water to try and keep it as low as possible and still manage to tip the poor waitress who had the misfortune of working an open mic at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night in the Upper East Side. I mean, just like not an ideal situation for anybody involved. So I literally couldn't afford to do it anymore. Like, I didn't have a job. I told my wife at the time - I was like, I really want to go for this. I don't want to have a backup. And I just want to do shows every single night.

And I knew myself. If I had a job, I'd be too tired or this or that. And she was gracious and supported that. And I just ran out of money. And then I asked people, what do other people do? How do you get into the clubs in Manhattan? And there were two ways. One was a bringer, which is where you bring five paying guests. So clubs would have bringer shows. And if there's 10 comedians on the bill, and everyone has to bring five, you know, that's 50 people that all have to buy two drinks and a ticket. So the club is happy to do that. If you'd like to have amateur hour, they'll make quite a bit of cash off of that.

I didn't know five people. (Laughter) And to be honest, it seemed a little dirty. It just, you know, performing for your friends - it just seemed a little bit grotesque or whatever. So the other option was barking, which is, I went to a club, and I asked them how to get on. And they said, if you hand out flyers for about four hours, five hours, you'd get to go on at the end of the night if anyone was still there.

GROSS: These are flyers advertising the show in order to bring people into the room?

HOLMES: Yeah. They'd give you a stack of yellow flyers that said, you know, Boston Comedy Club, two for one with the flyer, 8:30 show. The real - like, clubs don't really care about the covers. It's kind of like going to the movies. You make your money on the popcorn. So they just want people there. The comics want people there 'cause it's a better show. And the bar wants people there 'cause they drink and all that.

So I would stand on MacDougal and 3rd. That was my real corner, same corner as Sarah Silverman, same corner as a lot of people - as I mentioned, Demetri Martin. And I would stand there and just say great, live comedy 3,000 times a night (laughter) as people were in...

GROSS: What would you do to get people to take the flyer from you?

HOLMES: The only technique that kind of worked was you couldn't just leave it hanging out like a fish lure. You had to give it action. You had to, like, snap it like it was urgent. So when someone didn't take it, you put it back in the stack. And then you'd snap it out again. So it really looked like hot potato. You know, like, you want this. And people would take it.

And sometimes it would work. It's - it was never good. All of these people were being tricked to come to a bad show. And as we were talking earlier, I was promoting - I feel bad saying this - but I was promoting a show that I didn't endorse. Like, I was just, like, look, I like what I'm doing, but you're going to see some stuff, man. This is going to be a mixed bag for you (laughter).

GROSS: So one more question. So for so many years of your life, for the first part of your life, you had a set of rules to use as your moral compass. You were a devout Christian. You were a missionary. Then you end up in the comedy world. You lose that approach to your faith. Over time, you develop a more metaphorical view of Christianity. Did you have to find a new moral compass?

HOLMES: That's a great question. I - part of the process was seeing the rich and true morality of my atheist friends. Everybody was an atheist all of a sudden. I went from a lot of Christian friends to almost exclusively atheist friends. And I remember - this isn't that crazy of a story, but it was huge to me. I was on the road with a couple comedians. One of them was T.J. And they were both atheists. And we're in this hotel, and it had one of those minimarts. And I don't know if you know those minimarts in, like, Holiday Inns, but they're always unattended.

It's - and I just said to them - I was like, the - no one's here. Why don't we just take stuff? If there's no God, why don't we just take the stuff? Like, I want some peanut M&Ms. When we die, it's just lights off. Why don't I just take these M&Ms? And T.J. was like, because we're doing it for one another. It's not to please some god somewhere else who's mad when you steal M&Ms. You're doing it so the woman who's not at the counter doesn't get fired when they count the M&Ms and count the cash.

Like, I started to see that you didn't need a fear model to be beautifully compassionate and kind to one another. So now my morality - I don't look at it as God is mad at me. Something that I wrote down recently was I really believe that there's nothing you can do to increase or decrease the love that God or the mystery or whatever you want to call it has for you. But there are things you can do or not do that increase your awareness of that love because to me, it's all about a clean antenna.

You want to be plugged in. You want to - you know, you want to be the person on the airplane that's transfixed with a speck of dust that's caught in a sunbeam. You know what I mean? Like, you want to stay in that place where life is beautiful, where wonder abounds and connection is real, empathy is real, love is real.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

HOLMES: I was looking forward to this. Thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: Comic Pete Holmes speaking to Terry Gross last March. The second season of his comedy series "Crashing" begins Sunday on HBO. Coming up, I review the new monthly Netflix David Letterman talk show that launches today. It's called "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE HOLLAND QUINTET'S "NOT FOR NOTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.