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Exclusive Interview: Pete Holmes on ‘The Pete Holmes Show’

We interview late night’s newest host about his favorite sketches, working with Conan O’Brien and doing the voice of the E-trade baby.

What did talk shows mean to you growing up in the days before DVR?
 
Yeah, that’s a good question. I lived in Chicago when I was watching Conan the most. Right after I graduated college I moved to Chicago and I always liked that he was on earlier, because it was Central time.
 
Oh, so you got him at 11:30?
 
Yeah, I got him at 11:30; which I remember really changed it for me. Even as a comedian I wasn’t always up at 12:30 so I used to watch Conan every night back then and that of course meant a lot to me. He was always somebody that I just had a feeling that we might work together and I really wanted to work together. I really wanted to just be on his show and that was always a goal of my life. So to have things go this well in that way is very, very surreal and unbelievable. 
 
I also went to a taping of [David] Letterman when I was probably 15. My father took me to see Letterman and that had an impact on me, just this idea that there was a man and it was his show and whatever he did was the show, was very, very appealing obviously. We had really, really bad seats and he looked like a tiny spec but it had a profound impact. Around that time, 15-16 is when I started considering that that’s what I wanted to do.
 
I never really told people because it’s so preposterous. It’s kind of like announcing that you’d like to try flying or something. So I kept it to myself and just did the things that I knew that Letterman and Conan did, which were writing and standup. I never really focused too hard on where those things were leading. I just tried to do those art forms in their pure way to their fullest expression and it’s unbelievable that it just worked out.
 
At this point what would be your thoughts on doing a full hour?
 
We get that from time to time. I haven’t heard anything from the network. At this point I just want to hear that we get to keep doing it, just because it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life and I want to keep going. A lot of fans say that they wish the show were an hour but that’s just something that I can’t even consider until the powers that be would want to entertain that. We tape a lot of stuff, we have a lot of fun.
 
There’s times when I like that we’re a half hour because it makes it different. It gives it a certain pace and it gives it a little bit of urgency that you see on “Colbert” and you see on “The Daily Show.” That’s why we don’t have a band and we don’t have a sidekick and we only have one guest. That’s because there’s less time so it gives it that sort of “Let’s do this. We’ve got to get into it quickly.” It’s kind of got a little bit of adrenaline in it that I appreciate.
 
How hands on has Conan been?
 
Conan’s been wonderful. Through the whole process he’s always been available which was just so surreal whether it be to go to dinner or grab lunch on the lot or something. He’s been wonderfully not too involved in the sense that he knows that these shows take time and that it’s about our instincts and following our impulses and he understands that. We’re making a show that is in the service of my sensibility and he gets that, and he trusts that. 
 
That being said, when I need him, he’s always there. If I just want to get my adrenaline going, I’ll pop by just to say hello before my taping, just because just being around him is inspiring to me. Then also whenever I’ve had problems, questions about the show, questions about how to approach the show, he’s always been there for advice, whether it’s e-mail or on the phone or in person, he gets right to be. It’s really been quite incredible.
 
I remember the first week, the biggest problem I was having was not being able to sleep. You do the show and you go home and you’re just jacked. So I texted him the next day, “Can you come by?” I expected to see him maybe a couple days later but he came by that day and gave me a really, really nice pep talk and some advice on how to go to bed. Honestly, his advice was, “You just might not be sleeping that well for a while.” It was nice to be heard. He was like, “I completely understand. To be honest, I still have that problem. Go home, read, relax. Don’t watch TV, don’t think about the show, just relax and do it again the next day.” 
 
All of his advice has been, “Be yourself, do shows. Be yourself, do shows. Be yourself, do shows.” That’s really one of the things I appreciated is there is this rushing river element to it. It’s like we’re always moving forward, we’re always moving ahead. There isn’t too much time to look back and be like, “How was that? Was that okay? Was that okay? Was that okay?” It’s always just the next thing so the show starts to gather its own identity which is kind of fun to be in service of.
 
Before this show, you were a writer on scripted shows. Were “Outsourced” and “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” doomed before they really began?
 
Yeah, they actually were. That’s a fair question. Robert Borden, who’s so wonderful, he actually just sent me a bottle of bourbon. I just e-mailed him today and told him how I still run into die-hard fans of “Outsourced” that were so upset it didn’t go. To answer your question, I think that’s a good question, people just assumed “Outsourced” was going to be inappropriate or some sort of racism. At the end of the day, it was just a really fun and silly show that was very funny. Some of the funniest people I’ve ever known and still know, and honestly I’m trying to poach to come and write on my show, I met on “Outsourced.” Really, really wonderful people. That kind of had a curse hanging over its head. I don’t know if it was ever given its due chance.
 
Then “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” was the same thing. People were like, “This negative show, this negative title, this flashy title.” At the end of the day, that was just a show with an unfortunate name, but I don’t know if it got its due chance either. Both of those experiences were so, so fun. In my e-mail to Robert, I was telling him how grateful I was. Even though I had been doing standup for about 10 years at that point, I do consider that my first real job in show business.
 
Learning what it’s like to work on a deadline, learning what it’s like to work on a deadline, learning what it’s like to see a room run and work with other writers and collaborate and just learn some of the lingo and absorb all that stuff. Now to be in the position where I’m running the room and I’m having to work with the writers and lead the writers, it was invaluable. It was just such a fun thing. I still enjoy both of those shows. I think they were a good time. 
 
Are you still doing the E-Trade baby?
 
I’m hoping that we see the baby come back. I know they’re running the old spots. They’ve gone through some agency shifts and stuff, and I’m waiting for the phone to ring because I really enjoy that campaign.
 
Do you write those spots or are you given ad copy?
 
There are wonderful writers that write the skeleton of the script and then they also do have some jokes in there. It’s not that they’re not good. It’s just that the creator of the series, Tor Myhren, he and I just loved improvising and loved trying to find a moment. I think that’s what made those commercials so compelling. It wasn’t always just saying something solid like “Where’s the beef?” or something. It was about a reaction. It was about something sincere and then you get that kind of magic delivery that you can’t really manufacture. 
 
The answer is, I think one of the reasons I’m credited as the writer is because they loved the idea and then obviously, it’s my sense of humor. It’s me doing silly voices, it’s me saying silly things. It’s basically me in a booth alone looking through a glass window trying to make them laugh. I’m desperately trying to get a reaction out of them. And that’s the sort of stuff that stays in. Often it would be some first take, the only time I said it just perfectly and it was just something that I was like, “They’re not going to use this but I’m going to say it” and then it ends up in the commercial. That sort of attention to the craft of spontaneity and the craft of comedy that I think makes those commercials a pleasure. I was a fan of them before I did them. 
 
Do you remember one that was a first take?
 
I remember one that was a last take. I believe it was the First Class spot. I’m watching the video, the baby gets a glass of milk brought to him in the middle of his little tirade and I have to say, “Thanks, Martha” and then continue. We were doing it and we were doing it and we were doing it. We just couldn’t do it and I had a show that night and I had to go. I was like, “Let’s just do one more” and they hit record. I left the booth and then I was like, “Just do one more.” I threw the earphones back on, I got in the booth, we ran it and that’s the one that ran. It was almost one take, the whole thing, which was so fun. Everybody cheered.