Fifteen years ago, back when Pete Holmes was still breaking into the comedy world, he was hanging at the club Rififi in the East Village of Manhattan when the comic Nick Kroll mentioned that he was auditioning for a CBS sitcom.
Although Garry Shandling and Larry David had already migrated to cable, many comedians then still aspired to the broadcast network sitcom success of “Seinfeld,” “Roseanne,” “Ellen” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” When Holmes asked Kroll how it went, he was blasé. But he did have some career advice.
“You would be perfect for a CBS sitcom,” Holmes recalled Kroll telling him. It wasn’t necessarily a compliment.
“He might have been making fun of me with my Crest toothpaste face,” he added with a self-effacing laugh.
But Kroll had a point: Holmes had attended a Christian college and had considered becoming a youth pastor before veering into stand-up, where he stands out for his effervescence and relatively wholesome persona. (On a recent video call, his name showed up as “Petey Pants,” which might sound dirty coming from another comic but here sounded like an old-timey Saturday morning cartoon character.)
Holmes, now starring in a CBS sitcom of his own, “How We Roll,” looks back with gratitude at Kroll’s dig. “Seeing something is the first step to making it happen, and even if Nick was joking, I was so touched that it made me believe in it.” Holmes said he recently thanked Kroll for the comment, but Kroll “didn’t even pretend to remember saying it.”
In between, Holmes built a quintessential modern comedy career, going beyond stand-up with internet sketch series like CollegeHumor’s “Dark Knight” parody, “Badman”; podcasting; three cable stand-up specials; a single-camera comedy for premium cable (HBO’s “Crashing”); and an introspective memoir, “Comedy Sex God.”
He realized early that, unlike many club comics, he wasn’t a purist. “If it’s funny, I’ll do it,” Holmes said. “I love acting — and this is almost blasphemy in my circle — as much as I love doing stand-up.”
Debuting Thursday, “How We Roll” feels anachronistic: It’s a classic multicamera sitcom shot before a studio audience — feel-good entertainment from a classic entertainer, where the jokes come right on cue. Based on the life of Tom Smallwood (Holmes), it tells the story of an amateur bowler from Michigan who is laid off from his job at an automotive assembly line and takes a shot at going pro.
Holmes is an energetic conversationalist, his speech animated by funny voices, constant hand gestures and a steady stream of laughter. But beneath his happy showman veneer, Holmes is a spiritual seeker and existential thinker, who in a recent video call quoted Ram Dass as often as he did Ray Romano. He might explain his personality according to Enneagram (Type 3, Wing 4) or encourage you to strip away your personality in order to reach basic awareness.
From his Los Angeles home, where he lives with his wife, Val, and their young daughter, Holmes talked about the importance of “being present” and “connecting to other people,” which he strives to achieve in his work as in his spiritual life, and also about bowling and drugs. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What is your high score in bowling? And since you’re from New England, was it in candlepin bowling?
I have no idea. Most of my candlepinning was between the ages of 8 and 13. I’d start strong and then, as I had more pizza and grape soda, get worse and worse.
For the show, a professional bowler gave me lessons, and I got pretty good. I once rolled four strikes in a row, but it’s easier because it was practice, so I just kept rolling and could get in a rhythm.
What appealed to you about this show?
The script came at the height of the quarantine and sounded like putting on a play at summer camp, which was exactly what I’d want to do after quarantine. My wife, Val, and I laughed on every page, and she noticed right away that the wife wasn’t a multicam cliché nag. When I saw that the son, Sam, is a tap dancer, I got a nervous belly because I worried that Tom wouldn’t understand. But they didn’t go that way — the show just kept surprising me.
How was it acting opposite Julie White, the Tony-winning actress who plays Tom’s mother?
I was intimidated at first. I read a script and think, “What’s the funniest way to say this line?” No. 2 is, “What is my character feeling?” Julie is the reverse. When I’m thinking, “Well, the funny word is ‘Cucamonga,’” she’s thinking, “What does ‘Cucamonga’ mean to my character?” And she’s a real no-nonsense person. But one day I teased her and she laughed, and from then on we just mercilessly made fun of each other.
As a comic, was it a challenge often playing the straight man to her and Katie Lowes, who plays Tom’s wife?
I had to learn to resist the urge to ham it up. I’m drawn to actors like Ted Danson and Ray Romano who naturalize the comedy. Phil Rosenthal, who created “Everybody Loves Raymond,” said they learned to “just try and do it smaller.” I don’t know if I succeeded, but I was trying for that.
There’s a scene in “Crashing” where you and your girlfriend Ali (Jamie Lee) fight about whether toning down material to get lucrative college tour gigs is selling out. Doing a broadcast sitcom feels close to the college tour idea.
That’s maybe my favorite scene in the whole series because I understand both sides of the argument. I could tell you dozens of people that were passing by something I thought was cool because they would say: “No. I don’t do that.” I did a Disney corporate event with rules about what I could say, and I said, “I’ll get up and sing show tunes if you want.” I was just happy to be there — and I got to go to Disneyland.
So how does a broadcast sitcom fit into your spiritual seeking?
We had this monastic period in quarantine where we asked, “What would I change?” This is something I hadn’t done before. And while I loved the kitschiness and nostalgia of a multicam set, it was also spiritual: It’s a way to be together with other people. I would argue that’s one of the meanings of life. Doing this show says: “Hello, I see you. You’re not alone.” “How We Roll” was the most community I’ve felt since summer camp. The show was a regular diet of eye contact and connection.
Did becoming a parent change the way you look at your life and this quest for understanding?
You always run the risk of sounding full of crap, but you realize that your daughter already knows and is everything she needs to know and be. She doesn’t know she’s a baby, she doesn’t know she’s male or female, white or Black. She doesn’t know she lives on Earth. She just knows that she is aware. To me, that’s a very profound spiritual lesson about unlearning and returning to your essential nature.
Also, and this sounds so ham-fisted, but my daughter constantly teaches me. She’s splashing in the bathtub and laughing, and I get uptight until I realize she is right — we’re in these meat puppets that expire [gestures to his body], so we should all be splashing in the tub. And while Val and I love getting existential, our daughter taught us to sometimes stop. So we have No Deep Thought weekends because thinking about reality instead of experiencing it can bog you down.
There’s a poem that says if you’re in an orchard, eat some apples — don’t waste your time wondering where the trees came from.
I’ve read that before becoming a parent, you found enlightenment in mushrooms.
When I talk about how mushrooms had such a catalyzing effect in my spiritual development, some people say, “I took them at Bonnaroo and just saw clowns dancing to Korn.” I explain that I didn’t have a beatific vision but was introduced to a different perspective on life — it wasn’t what I saw, it’s that I was seeing. It confuses the hell out of my parents — they just think I do drugs. I’m still in favor of them, but I don’t do them anymore.
There’s a great Alan Watts quote, “Once you’ve got the message, hang up the phone.” I’d almost feel a little embarrassed going back. If I asked you for a piece of cake and then every five minutes asked for another, after five pieces, you’d say, “What is this guy’s problem?”
But if it’s really good cake …
That’s true. I should have picked any other example because I could eat five pieces of cake.