At the start of his career, what set Pete Holmes apart from a pretty cynical status quo in comedy was his unbridled, earnest enthusiasm for the world around him. A big-time Seinfeld acolyte, Holmes directed his observations not at “what’s the deal with…” subjects, but instead at things that he finds delightful—ways to entertain ourselves that we’d closed off.
Now, several specials and one HBO series later, that skill has aged into a different asset. In his new special (also for HBO), Holmes proves himself to be a master manipulator when it comes to his audience. I mean that in a good way. His signature move these days is to curate the live experience by addressing the audience’s inevitable concerns and anticipating its reactions.
“I feel you pulling away,” he’ll tell them before they actually do. He’ll encourage them to get on his wavelength (“if you laughed at that, you’re going to love this show”), and activate them out of passivity by singing “Happy Birthday” in their heads to see if they can make it louder, or asking everyone to just check in to see if they have to pee. As a result, while not every part of Dirty Clean works, you do have to respect the trust Holmes is able to build with the crowd, and the way he’s able to set them at ease.
This is not to say he’s not still tapped into the unbridled enthusiasm thing. From the very top of the special, he asks the audience to acknowledge the sheer event of them leaving the house to go see a show out in the world. “What did you pass up in your homes?” he asks them. “ANY movie?” Further along, he reveals the secret upside of having to wake up twenty-two times a night to care for his newborn (“the best part of sleep is falling asleep. That’s the only part you’re there for”).
However, the drawback to both of these qualities in Holmes’s stand up is that there can sometimes be a dorm-room philosophy element to the second half of the special. Holmes is not shy or apologetic when it comes to his interest in God, the afterlife, etc. It’s covered in depth on his podcast You Made It Weird, and unfortunately the subject matter is better suited to the conversational approach in those episodes. On stage, Holmes can come off as holding court over the common room.
That said, he also rolls out his idea for a Christian buffet called “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” So I can’t say his loftier interests never pay off.