For a period in his younger life, the host of “The Pete Holmes Show” on TBS, which debuted late last year and follows “Conan” on late-night TV, was on a trajectory to become a youth pastor.
“That’s why I went to Gordon,” Holmes said, referring to his alma mater – Gordon College in Massachusetts, an evangelical Christian school – during a conversation on my back porch in Laguna Beach earlier this month.
“I wanted to be a pastor. I was going to be a youth pastor. I mean, I play guitar, I like to make people laugh. … The skill set of pastor and comedian are incredibly similar. You want to affect people. You’re good at reading rooms. You’re persuasive and you’re likable.”
I met Holmes last summer at a dinner party hosted by our mutual friend Rob Bell, the former pastor and bestselling author of Christian-themed books including “What We Talk About When We Talk About God,” “Velvet Elvis” and the controversial “Love Wins,” in which the author questioned the existence of hell.
In his early 20s, Holmes, now 33, discovered his vocation and a calling that took him away from houses of worship and into nightclubs as a stand-up comedian in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. He’s written for several TV comedies (including the short-lived “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” and NBC’s “Outsourced”) and is host of the popular podcast “You Made It Weird” on nerdist.com, where he interviews other comedians about comedy, sex and religion.
“The Pete Holmes Show” began airing in October and has just been renewed for a second season, with new episodes beginning Feb. 24. And Holmes is now a regular presence in Laguna Beach, where Bell has attempted (rather unsuccessfully) to teach him how to surf (some of that effort was captured on film for a hilarious segment on “The Pete Holmes Show”) and (much more successfully) introduced him to the joys of stand-up-paddleboarding.
More often than not, whether on a board or sitting around the kitchen island with a glass of wine in his hand, Holmes can be found talking about God, faith and relationships with equal parts humor and humility.
Holmes grew up in New England in an evangelical “Bible-believing personal-relationship-with-Jesus” church and continued his education at Gordon. As he entered adulthood, his life (and faith), as they often do, got messier. He married his college girlfriend at age 22, the year he started working professionally as a stand-up comedian. Six years later, the couple divorced.
The divorce was a catalyst for epic changes in Holmes’ life, faith and career.
“I look at my faith like a room and there was all of this furniture in there, but I had inherited most of the furniture,” he said.
“Then, when I got divorced, I took everything out just to see how I was going to refurnish the room, and that was a very essential step in my life. It was great. All of it was cheesy, secondhand stuff and corny, Jesus-hugging-you paintings. My in-laws actually had that painting in their house.”
After the divorce, Holmes “dabbled in atheism.”
“I enjoyed my romp in just sort of considering it. Going from a world where I feared God’s wrath for even entertaining the idea that there is no conscious power controlling the universe, and it felt great. The beautiful freedom that God gave you,” he said.
“Whenever I make a blasphemous joke I always say that I believe in a God big enough to know that I’m just kidding. How can God not know that I’m kidding? And also, how could God be offended at a thing that he made not believing in him?”
Did he ever consider becoming a so-called “Christian comedian”?
“For some reason, I never did. And I’m really glad I didn’t. But in my own way, when I started doing stand-up, it was very, very clean and very, very positive. What’s weird is that I’m still considered a ‘clean and positive’ comedian even though I swear and I often am negative about things.”
While Holmes is known as a “clean and positive” comic, he’s no Jeff Foxworthy. Both his show and his stand-up are decidedly intended for grownups.
After a recent taping of Holmes’ television show at Warner Bros.’ studios in Burbank, where Bell was a guest, an audience member asked to have his picture taken with the men, saying, “I’m a Christian, too.”
“It was one of my favorite moments in our friendship. We shared a look. I made a face. I don’t know what face it was, but whatever it was, he was making the same one,” Holmes said.
Part of the look Holmes and Bell shared was one of familiarity. They recognized themselves in the “I’m a Christian, too” guy.
“They’re in a different place. I’m not above them or below them. I’m beside them. It takes one to know one. I’ve been that person. I completely empathize. I don’t hate them; I don’t even completely write them off, if you want to talk about it. But I just spent enough time in that space,” he said.
Holmes is painfully (and often hilariously) honest about himself, both on stage and off. He sees his time with friends such as Bell and others – “going to the spiritual gym,” he calls it – probing life’s eternal questions, and talking about the God of inextinguishable love and audacious grace, as complementing his life in Hollywood making audiences laugh.
“I’m looking for more than laughter. I’m looking for an investment; I’m looking for communion. If they give it to you, then you can get to a really great place. It’s like falling in love. And when they don’t, it’s like having your heart broken.”