“I mostly do faces and sounds. That’s what I do. Comedy doesn’t have to be art.” So proclaims Pete Holmes partway through his new stand-up special, called, naturally, Faces And Sounds. In his comedy, Holmes cultivates his image as the goofy man-boy, the jovial, harmless jokester just out to make people laugh. And he is that, Holmes’ open, fleshy face with its big, toothy smile signaling his essential friendliness and eagerness to please. Indeed, Holmes is a very animated comic, slipping into funny voices and stretching his features around the impressions that pepper his anecdotes.
But Holmes isn’t showy in the exhausting way that some especially animated comedians can be. There’s an unassuming quality to his delivery that makes all the mimicry and vocal silliness seem to emerge naturally from his self-deprecating persona. Speaking of the time two separate people gave him the same Dr. Seuss T-shirt within the span of a week, Holmes bridles before imagining it to be a message from God, booming out, “I gave you that goof-goof face. Wear the uniform.” In Faces And Sounds, Holmes wears his inventively amiable silliness with welcome pride.
The deceptive sophistication of Holmes’ technique never calls attention to itself, even as he weaves a consistently funny and varied hour-long set. Confessing late in the special that he’d just recently discovered how hard acting really is, Holmes diverts attention from what a fine and subtle comic actor he actually is on stage. Unafraid to let a bit build, seemingly to its breaking point and beyond, he rides some of his best anecdotes on the back of silent face-work. Whether mimicking his confusion that a musician he went to see hadn’t played his one big hit (having forgotten about encores), depicting a rapper patiently waiting in the recording booth for his cue to sing a chorus, or imagining a video-game actor warming up to spout authoritative snatches of nonsense dialogue (“Sonic boom!”), Holmes is a much better and more patient actor than he says he is.
Plenty of comics traffic in self-deprecation, but Holmes never really suggests that he’s anything but fine with who he is, which keeps his material from becoming gloomy or tiresome. In fact, Holmes positions himself as something of an ambassador for positivity, a conceit that could swing too far the other way into chipper innocuousness if he weren’t so silly about it. Badgering the human brain for being a “withholding piece of shit” by not letting people be happy all the time, Holmes’ exhortation to up your “joy quotient” by loving yourself “for what you are doing, not what you could be doing” would be cloying if his premise weren’t expressed in such eccentric ways. In consistently amusing anecdotes, Holmes takes on mundane topics—losing a parking space at Target, a rude barista, working up the courage to ask a cab driver not to do something really inappropriate while driving—from such a place of bemused wonder that the ordinary becomes irresistibly entertaining.
As much as he projects an easygoing storyteller vibe in much of his material, Holmes isn’t averse to elaborate wordplay, although he almost always calls attention to his own cleverness. Finishing up the story of that concert he attended with a funny/hacky one-liner, Holmes greets the expected wave of laughter with almost sheepish apology for going for a laugh other comics would kill for. Similarly, while he admits another, Star Wars-themed observational joke is lame, he absolves the audience, saying, “You are right to groan. That is a terrible joke, but it’s the only joke tonight that you’re gonna remember.” Holmes cracks up at his own jokes—again, something that could be off-putting if he weren’t so self-aware. Laughing along with his Chicago crowd over an observation (about a famously cool musician with the un-coolest name imaginable), Holmes extolls the virtue of the easy laugh, explaining, “That’s it. No twists or turns on that one.” Holmes wants people to laugh, damn it, responding to those who take perverse pride in being hard to amuse with a curt, “Yeah. Work on that.”
Hardly a squeaky-clean stand-up, Holmes delves into topics like sex, porn, and strip clubs along the way, that material deriving an additional layer of laughs both from how solid the jokes are and the perceived incongruity of this “silly, silly fun boy” (as he terms himself) being a fully functional sexual being. Holmes is capable of getting worked up over an issue—like stereotyped gender roles and homophobia—but his comic anger is expressed with equal parts generosity and creative detail that, like in his act as a whole, his takes emerge like good-natured, very funny common sense.