When Conan O’Brien landed at TBS, George Lopez embraced moving his show back to midnight as a boon because he would get to follow Conan, with a network late-night host riding his biggest wave of populist success in years. But everyone knew what was going to happen. Eventually, inevitably, Lopez Tonight was cancelled (and the announcement made only days before the final shows), and Conan continued as TBS searched for a way to build off an already recognizable property and look more like a late night block on the major broadcast networks.
O’Brien’s production company Conaco began developing a show with Pete Holmes all the way back in July 2012, tinkering with a format and eventually settling on a seven-week run of 28 episodes in a half-hour format. The Pete Holmes Show is another promising show with a rising standup comedian at the center, continuing the trend of shows like The Jeselnik Offensive, The Eric Andre Show, and The Chris Gethard Show to put a different spin on the late night talk show in an effort to grab viewers with something unfamiliar and inviting.
Many comedians build sketch shows around their act—Nick Kroll and Amy Schumer are just two examples from this year. Anthony Jeselnik combines elements of the late-night monologue, pre-recorded sketches, and a podcast-style panel riffing on strange news stories from the week. The Pete Holmes Show takes bits and pieces from the late night stable in order to formulate a breezy new concoction. Instead of a topical monologue on issues of the day, Holmes does a more personal routine about his own reactions to events like Halloween, or in the case of the premiere, literally performs a bit from his first special Nice Try, The Devil. So far in the first week every episode has included a pre-recorded sketch that was available online in the lead-up to the premiere. (Both the Wolverine and Batman/Superman sketches are hilarious.)
It’s easy to understand why Holmes would be selected to follow Conan. The network could not have picked a more similar comedian, since Holmes is essentially a younger version of O’Brien. They’re both tall, gawky, and after the warts-and-all tour documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop and Holmes’ personal musings on his podcast, dealing with a lot of emotional issues behind their drive to be funny. But that selection speaks to whether networks should be attempting to stay within rigidly defined late-night programming parameters. Every single host of a major network late night show is a white man, and the attempts to expand beyond that to more diverse entertainers have been rare, and even more rarely, successful. (The only one I can think of is Arsenio Hall, who was on the air for five years, only for his show to be revived nearly two decades later.)
Pete Holmes’ first guest on his show was Kumail Nanjiani. They’re good friends who have known each other a long time, and they spend most of the segment chatting about how Nanjiani isn’t famous enough to be a first guest that attracts viewers, and how nobody will be watching Holmes’ show at this hour. But they make an accidentally prescient point: if a wider audience doesn’t know either of these guys in a late-night capacity, why doesn’t somebody like Kumail get a shot at having one of these shows? He regularly kills it on Harmontown and almost any other podcast he appears on as a guest. His first standup special is among the best of the year. Nanjiani is Pakistani—though now an American citizen, and he’s mocked the naturalization process in his act—and would be a much more progressive choice than the tall white guy who jokingly presumes this is the only universe in which he is not a youth pastor.
When Seth Meyers was announced as Jimmy Fallon’s successor, we did an AVQ&A on this very topic, with suggestions ranging from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to Ta-Nehesi Coates to RuPaul to the inspired choice of Aisha Tyler. A woman, or anyone of color, deserves a late-night hosting gig. And while Holmes is an adept and likable comedian with a lot of talent, seeing yet another tall white guy get one of these shows highlights the discrepancy in opportunity. Networks don’t want progressive or exploratory, especially a cable network making tentative forays into building a larger late night schedule. They want safe and reliable, and for a new show starting out, a guy like Pete Holmes at least gives you the former.
This is not to say that The Pete Holmes Show is bad. It’s actually very funny in a loose, disconnected way. Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird can frequently stretch to a full three hours as he hosts extended discussions about religion, comedy, mental health, and existential topics with his guests. Which makes the half-hour limitation a much-needed bit of structurally imposed editing so that Holmes can dole out most of his act over the course of seven weeks in monologues if he wants, and doesn’t run the risk of making sketches compete with each other within the same episode.
And Holmes’ best quality as a host is exactly what makes him so similar to Conan: his disarmingly gawky charm. It’s what helps make his complete inability to play basketball at James Harden’s kids camp work, and what cracks up Harden during an interview. The interview with Allison Williams is the best segment of the entire week, since she matches Holmes’ tangent-hopping conversational skills with her own dynamite charm away from her occasionally cloying character on Girls. Her knowledge of Holmes’ podcast is incredible, and the whole feeling of an interview on a couch in pajamas with ice cream has an adorable feeling to it. I admire the decision to book guests like Nanjiani, Williams, Harden, Jim Jeffries, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine actress Chelsea Peretti for the first week. They’re all under-the-radar to moderately famous comedic talents just bubbling up the surface, and that fits with a late night show that isn’t going to land the top billed talent that would appear on Conan instead.
Conaco is clearly allowing Holmes room to experiment with his sketches and atypical interviews. It’s an attempt to build a show that mimics elements of late night comedy in talk show, sketch, and standup formats to find what Holmes is most comfortable with, before moving forward in a more focused direction. Holmes doesn’t need to be a breakout success in 28 shows following Conan. He’s been working with Conaco for over a year to develop his work to this point, and he’s a natural progression of O’Brien’s comedic strengths. TBS renewed Conan through at least 2015 in the spring, a sign that even if O’Brien’s show isn’t competing with the broadcast network shows in raw numbers, the median viewer age and amount of digital engagement with the audience shows advertisers a market waiting to be tapped, and the possibility of a continuing viewership. Pete Holmes will be a litmus test to see if TBS viewers want more in the same vein after the man himself, or whether further tinkering needs to be done to build out the cable network’s late night offerings.
- “What is a motorcycle made of?” “Tubes?”
- “But where did I come from?” “Get a journal, Logan!”
- Chelsea Peretti wins for the friendliest contentious interview of the week, and proves just how similar her character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine is to her own personality.
- I would pay good money to see James Harden destroy Pete Holmes in a game of one-on-one or even HORSE.
- Not an original observation by any means, but: Allison Williams. Swoon.