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Interview: Pete Holmes on his new HBO special “Dirty Clean”

The ‘Crashing’ star talks creating material that excites him, perfecting his routine and more.

Pete Holmes is a jack of all trades in the entertainment world. He’s a comedian, actor, writer, producer, and podcast extraordinaire. He currently stars on the HBO hit comedy Crashing (season 3 premieres on January 20th at 10pm ET/PT) and keeps it crispy on his podcast “You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes.” He’s had one HBO stand-up special before, and now his second one, Pete Holmes: Dirty Clean, premiered Saturday, December 15th.

Taped at the Aladdin Theatre in Portland, Oregon, this latest comedy hour finds Holmes confronting personal truths about the mechanisms of consciousness, Michael Jackson, the afterlife and Elon Musk, as well as sharing a few thoughts on being a new dad.

I jumped on the phone with Holmes a few days ago so that AiPT! could chat with him about Dirty Clean.

AiPT!: Why’d you end up calling this special Dirty Clean?

PH: It’s a paradox. In my career, I’ve had these sets like the one I just filmed where I may say certain swear words, I talk about sex, I talk about drugs…and I’ll still get off stage and these little old ladies will come up to me and say “I love how clean you are.” Or they’ll say “Thank you for being so clean.”

That really made me wonder what people are picking up on when they think I’m clean. I’m obviously not a clean comedian, but I think what it is, and this is certainly my hope and absolutely what I’m going for, is that there’s something behind the word that leans positive. I want people to feel more included. I want them to feel delighted, I want them to feel joy, I want them to feel safe, and I want them to feel heard. It doesn’t really matter that I’m saying f*ck, it’s really more about the transmission of the set.

I’ve seen people that don’t swear and at the end of the set it makes me a little more fearful or alone. It’s a little bit exclusionary sometimes. So I was very interested in the idea of being dirty, but also being clean.

Judd Apatow has also been very helpful. My last special I told him I was a face and sound guy and he said “You should call your special that.” This one, I told him I’m dirty clean and that that’s just my type of comedy and he goes, “You should call your special that.” He’s a good friend. He really thinks a special should say something about the comedian. There are a lot of specials out there that have these one word titles that don’t necessarily mean anything. You can have a title like Pete Holmes: Unstoppable, and maybe if I was that type of comedian it would work, but we wanted something a bit itchy that maybe after you watch you think about it and say, “That’s right. That was dirty and clean.”

AiPT!: Honestly, that description is spot on in regards to your comedy so you’re definitely achieving what you’re going for in my opinion.

PH: Thanks, man.

AiPT!: Do you have a process when it comes to coming up with new material?

PH: Some of it is a little bit more obvious than others. I remember when I was up with my newborn baby and trying to find the line between rocking a baby and shaking a baby, now I’m holding a screaming baby, and with my free hand I’d be writing out the pieces of what would become the “shake the baby” joke. That was one of those “it happened, then I wrote it.”

A lot of stuff comes like an Amazon package that shows up on your porch that you don’t remember ordering. And often a premise will present itself and you won’t even write it down, and you’ll go “If it’s really good, I’ll think of it again. If it really matters to me, I’m gonna forget it and it’ll come back.” And the good ones usually do come back. It’s also not just about what’s funny to me anymore, it’s “what am I really excited to be talking about?” That’s why there are jokes about the afterlife and consciousness or the way that our brains work.

AiPT!: That was some of my favorite stuff in the special.

PH: I appreciate that! That was one of my favorite parts of the show too. That’s something I love about stand up too. You can talk about stuff that really gets you excited. When I’m not doing stand up, I talk about that stuff endlessly. I felt like I leveled up by realizing you can talk about your passions while up on stage…I felt like I ate a mushroom like Mario and I leveled up. I’m going to talk about this stuff not only on my podcast but on stage. When you first start doing stand up, you’re thinking about what will make people laugh. After twenty years, you’re thinking about what will make people laugh but also what will you be most excited to talk about every time you get on stage.

AiPT!: How long did it take you to perfect this particular routine that you did for Dirty Clean?

PH: I worked on all of it over the course of about two years. There wasn’t a lot of time to do a nationwide tour. Since we were filming Crashing, I had to condense it. But a lot of the material I had while we were filming Faces and Sounds [his previous stand-up special with HBO]. It was all about structuring it and making it cohesive. And then I had a baby, and then that presents new experiences and you’re like “Oh, I want to talk about what it’s like to have a newborn.” But I had to book the date and plan the special before the baby was even born just hoping I’d have a couple good bits about it.

The other thing that’s interesting is you want to film something before you get tired of it. There’s some comedians, Mitch Hedburg comes to mind…where it doesn’t matter if Mitch was tired of one of his jokes, it would still work. Almost like haikus of perfect comedy. What I’m doing has so much more to do with my current state when I’m doing the joke. It has as much to do with the words and the cleverness of it as it does with my performance of it and my own concurrent enjoyment of it with the audience, so I have to film it sooner rather than later. If I practice it a thousand times then film it, I don’t know if I can manufacture the level of joy and fun that I’m supposed to be having.

“A lot of [material] comes like an Amazon package that shows up on your porch that you don’t remember ordering.”

We then got to chatting about an absolutely hysterical bit in the special where Holmes talks about proposing to his wife on a hot air balloon. The “pilot” of the balloon was quite the character, saying things that were so ridiculous I could barely believe it actually happened.

AiPT!: I can’t believe the hot air balloon story was real.

PH: Every word of it. I knew my wife, Valerie, was the girl for me when the moment we landed from the hot air balloon, I had my phone out and I didn’t even have to tell her what I was doing…I was so clearly taking notes on what had just happened, and she just started helping me remember. She was telling me “Oh don’t forget when he did this, don’t forget when he said that” and I knew I was marrying the right person for me. [laughs] And a lot of the funniest lines in that story came from Valerie’s memory. It’s all true.

The guy was sweet as pie. He may have heard it by now since I’ve told that story on a bunch of late night shows and now it’s gonna be on the special. He was so nice, it was just a little bit rougher than you might expect for your engagement.

There’s also some stuff I left out…you have to help erect the balloon. There’s labor involved! You have to hold the balloon open while it’s filling up with air. When it lands, you have to grab him and really try to anchor yourself down. It’s not a passive activity. I didn’t mind, but I wasn’t expecting it. Also, it’s muddy. Wear boots.

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