Is Pete Holmes the Ram Dass of Stand-Up? The ‘Crashing’ Star Talks Faith, Fear and the State of Comedy

'I see the change in the comedy community as just another macrocosm for the inner transformation we should all be going through,' says Pete Holmes.

Pete Holmes
Pete Holmes. Malik Dupree for Observer

In his semi-autobiographical HBO series Crashing, Pete Holmes played a version of himself: a struggling comic trying to make it in New York City’s stand-up scene. Like Holmes, Pete was also a Christian struggling to reconcile his faith with contemporary social and sexual mores and the generally blasphemous world of comedy. HBO canceled the show this year after its third season, but in his new memoir Holmes deepens and continues the story he and co-creator Judd Apatow were telling.

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Comedy Sex God is part prequel, part sequel, part spiritual manifesto. Holmes is both more excited and more anxious about the latter aspect of the book than anything else. He loves nothing more than discussing the great mysteries of existence and acknowledged several times during our recent conversation his deep embarrassment about identifying as religious.

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“Often when you say that you’re religious that just means you exclude people, you judge people,” he says. “I wanted to write a book that wouldn’t convert people to my belief, but rather be one more thing pointing to what’s beyond the symbols—the thing that all the symbols are pointing to, which is identification as a soul or your pure consciousness. That’s where I found peace and joy.”

Holmes recently spoke to Observer about the evolution of comedy, the quest for enlightenment and the importance of Everyone Poops.

Observer: Your show Crashing was pretty autobiographical. How is Comedy Sex God related to it?
Holmes: I think for people who feel like the show sort of dropped off, the book is a deeper look at the three seasons, and it continues on to what would have been the fourth and fifth seasons. Finding a little bit of success, meeting my wife, starting Crashing, doing my talk show, having a baby. If people are looking for what happens next, this is the book version of that.

Comedy Sex God is definitely in the tradition of comedian biographies and biographical essays. When you set out to write a book, did you have an idea of what your version of the comedy memoir would be?
Yeah, very much different from the traditional model. I have a lot of comedian friends, and they write great books. They write out their material, or they tell the story of what led them to success in their career. That’s not really what I was going for. I guess you could say my book was a blend of Born Standing Up and Be Here Now, and I don’t think that exists. [Laughs.]

I joke in the book that Ram Dass is my favorite comedian. I really love the spiritual teachers. I find them very funny. I think wisdom and truth are really funny. I saw a book as an opportunity to cut to the thick of it. I’m still a neurotic person sometimes. I’m still an angry person sometimes. I’m still a horny person most of the time. But there’s also a part of you that’s just awareness, and that’s what I see Christ and Buddha nudging us towards. Christians call that salvation. Buddhists call it enlightenment. I’m trying to say, “I don’t care what you call yourself: Here’s something that’s deeply wise and deeply true for everybody.”

Comedy Sex God by Pete Holmes
Comedy Sex God by Pete Holmes. Harper Wave

You mentioned your anxiety, which really struck me in the early chapters of the book. Your faith seemed so wrapped up in fear, whether it was the fear that church offered a respite from or, later, the fear of sex that church instilled in you.
It was a trade!

What was it like revisiting that time and your relationship with religion?
I wanted to be very careful not to just demonize the church. It was the first place where I felt really safe and accepted, the first place where I tried stand-up and got supportive encouragement. My parents were supportive, but unlike junior high or high school, in the church everybody was sort of bound by faith to be kind, and it shed a little light on my dream and let it blossom a bit.

The problem, though, is that it was, in my experience, a fear-based model and an if/then transactional model: If you behave this way, then God will love you. If you behave this way, then God won’t torture you for eternity. So one of the main things is the sex shame. Shame is a really powerful thing. I forget who said this, but the mafia uses shame. And the biggest shame we all have is our bodies—not just sex. I always say Everyone Poops is a best seller because when we’re little we all need to be reminded that it happens to everyone—you’re not weird. And when you bring in sexuality in the myriad ways that it manifests in the human condition, that is a really easy thing to hook into in order to control and make people behave a certain way and get people into your group—and give you a strong sense of identity.

Some people who grow up religious internalize that dogma and turn it outward on others. Why didn’t you become that kind of person?
The original title of the book was going to be Gateway God—it ended up being a chapter. It was the idea that, whatever your understanding of God is, the game continues. We’ve sort of turned it into the idea that it’s about identity, membership, that cozy feeling you get when it’s about us and them. But when you realize that the dance continues, it’s not about something you think or believe—it’s something you are, a quality of your consciousness, a spaciousness in your being. And somebody had to teach me that. I thought it was all about, This is what our club believes.

When I found Ram Dass and Alan Watts and Rob Bell and Richard Rohr and maybe most importantly when I found psychedelics, is when I started to not just think about, but experience the transformation that the mystics are talking about. You get a taste of it and it changes you. It was a slow, glacial melting of an old worldview and an equally slow, deliberate refreezing. Or maybe never refreezing, just staying liquid in a new way where I could shed the dogma, the judgment, the desire for identity, and give it up for a fluid, inclusive oneness with everybody and everything. That doesn’t mean we like everything, but you can find a place in you where you see it from a different perspective.

HBO canceled your show after its third season, but the finale actually felt like a satisfying ending for your character. Did you have a sense the show might not be renewed, and did that influence the way you ended the season?
Absolutely. The show was sort of a love letter to things that don’t go your way, to things changing in ways you didn’t want or expect. So when it ended, I was ready to roll with that and deal with the feelings without any major problems. The truth is, when we were writing it—and when we were shooting it, even—I kept accidentally calling it the series finale. And I wasn’t the only one. I kept saying, “This is the perfect series finale.” My friend Rob Bell, the author, was like, “That’s how truth comes out sometimes.” You know something before you know you know it.

Judd is certainly smart enough, and collectively as a staff we knew we weren’t a cultural sensation. People liked us, but I wasn’t on the cover of Rolling Stone. I wasn’t Lena Dunham. We had a feeling we wouldn’t be a six-season show. And then when you’re writing, you write from your subconscious, and that intel is gonna be bleeding through. If we’d done a fourth season, Pete would have gotten a break, and then I don’t know if it would have been Crashing anymore. It’s supposed to be about crashing, not succeeding. The series ends, and he’s like, What happens next? Well, welcome to what it’s like to be a comedian. That conveys what I was trying to provide for comedians and artists and creative people who recognized themselves in it. I was happy with how it ended.

Pete Holmes in Crashing
Pete Holmes in HBO’s Crashing. Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Looking back on the experience of creating, writing and starring in the show, and working so closely with Judd Apatow on it, what’s the biggest lesson you learned?
The experience of making a show is very different from watching a show. It’s a whole crazy, demanding lifestyle. The thing I learned slowly—and I think other show creators and showrunners have learned this lesson—is that the more I found ways to collaborate and let people be who they are and let more voices in, and the more I opened up and didn’t take so much of the burden, the better the show got. The more scripts Judah Miller, our showrunner, wrote without me—I always like to write the first draft, and that’s a lot of scripts—the more I started to see the potential. Sometimes you have to see beyond yourself. It turns out other people know what they think is funny and lots of people agree with them, even if I’m like, What? I don’t know about that. I learned when to let go of control. Again, you can see the inner lesson in the material expression.

The show came along at a very interesting time for comedy. We’re asking a lot of questions about what’s funny, what’s appropriate. Do you feel lucky to be a high-profile comedian right now, or do you envy previous generations who performed when more was permissible?
I know a lot of us feel like we have to comment for other people who aren’t commenting, like the burden is passed to us: “What do you think about Louie [C.K.]?” But I wouldn’t change anything. I like my life and where I am in comedy. It’s interesting to watch our culture evolve. Obviously there’s growing pains and embarrassment and shame. It’s like a second puberty for comedy. This is the necessary fire in the woods that will hopefully leave our forest more balanced. I’m not talking about getting rid of anything, by the way. There’s an evolution happening, and I’m always optimistic.

I think we’re going to come out better and more woke and just as funny, and we’ll find ways to be appropriate even in our darkness and ugliness. Which is always going to be a function of art: to shine a light on dark thoughts and dark ideas. I personally like dark comedy. But I think we’re going to find a way to find balance in our craft.

You’re very thoughtful about spirituality. Do you apply the same kind of searching mentality to comedy?
Yeah, everything is everything. I see the growth and change in the comedy community as just another macrocosm for the inner transformation we should all be going through. Sometimes it’s ugly, painful and outrageous, and sometimes it’s just devastating.

Pete Holmes in Crashing
Pete Holmes in Crashing. Macall B. Polay/HBO

Do you have a personal metric to determine whether or not a joke is appropriate?
Well, growing up religious, I had a head start on the self-censorship game, because we were always trying to make sure that everything was good enough for our god’s standards. So when I got into show business, I was like, I’ll definitely never show my butt! Which, of course, I did many times on Crashing. Or I said I wouldn’t swear. So I watched my own sensibility get to where I considered to be really crazy, and by being crazy I just sorta got to sea level. I feel fortunate that I don’t have to do the math—like, If I say this, it might be taken this way and I might have to respond this way. I’m just up there talking about silly stuff.

When you started Comedy Sex God, you were having a moment with the show and your podcast and an HBO stand-up special. Having finished the book and ended the show, how would you characterize the moment you’re in now?
It’s a very exciting moment for me, because I’d like to see if with Comedy Sex God people will accept me. I’m not a theologian. I���m not a pastor. I didn’t go to divinity school or anything like that. I’m wondering if people will accept me in this space and allow me to have these conversations and write these books, because I love talking about this stuff more than anything. It really does give me a lot of joy.

Comedy Sex God is available now through Harper Wave.

Is Pete Holmes the Ram Dass of Stand-Up? The ‘Crashing’ Star Talks Faith, Fear and the State of Comedy