Pete Holmes has built quite a career in comedy.
He has two HBO specials to his credit, the three-season HBO sitcom “Crashing,” a best-selling memoir called “Comedy, Sex, God” and his upcoming role in the upcoming faith-based comedy “The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever.”
But it’s his first Netflix special, “I Am Not For Everyone,” that has brought him into viral status lately, thanks to a minute-long clip he created called “God Is No-Thing.” In it, Holmes takes a sharply funny look at the great debate between those who believe in God, and those who are atheists.
His open embrace of God amidst a comedy community that often prides itself on scoffing at the very idea of a higher power has proved refreshing to fans who tune into his podcast “You Made It Weird.” In it, he discusses deep spiritual themes with fellow comics, as well as leading spiritual and religious scholars.
Holmes came on my “Catholic Laughter” podcast, co-hosted by Scott Vinci, to discuss his career in mixing God with comedy and what drives him.
“If you listen to my podcast it’s probably 20 percent silly and 80 percent spiritual, but look at my standup and it’s actually probably like 95 percent silly and 5 percent deep. I would say that if you look past some of the silly premises, there’s some kernel of perspective,” Holmes says. “Like I have a joke about how I don’t like the WAZE app that takes you around while driving, and that’s just a silly joke.
“But there’s also a message of mindfulness, a message of being present like the sacrament of the present moment as Catholics might know it, and of surrender to the moments of life. It’s like during the pandemic, everything big in comedy shut down for a couple of years and my life was just hanging out with my family. I take issue with those who say they lost two years of their lives, and I surrendered by saying yes to what is, and I shudder to think of the moments I might have missed if I kept touring.”
Holmes’ spiritual journey has been long and complex.
He was a “hyper-literal” Christian growing up and followed all the usual standards one might expect from a devout teenager and college student, such as not smoking or drinking and remaining a virgin until he married his college sweetheart.
A few years later, he learned his wife was having an affair and she decided to leave him, and Holmes found that the sad situation affecting everything he had believed about life.
“That really shattered my worldview, and I always think of the [songwriter] Leonard Cohen quote that ‘the cracks are how the light gets through,’ so there was a blessing in disguise from that disruption,” recalls Holmes, who leaned on his pain for the HBO series “Crashing.”
“I always felt like God was just there to protect me, and was sort of minted in good, like if I had been paying protection money to the Mafia.
“Having something bad happen was very confusing to me, but it ended up being the kick in the pants to get a little bit more curious. I learned from Joseph Campbell about metaphor and mystery and story, and from Ram Dass to be here now, plus Eckhart Tolle – all of which my parents might see as New Age-y things. But the more I got into the nitty gritty of those teachers, I started to recognize Jesus, and I started to see what had been in my own faith was right in front of my face.”
Insights like those bring Holmes back to discussing the “God is No-thing” video, which many Christians saw as just a mockery of atheists but he says is meant to show that “we’re all in the same boat.”
He explains that God is not an actual thing that is tangibly found in the world, making Him “no-thing,” but that atheists miss the point when they declare there is no God at the center of the universe.
“There’s something you call God that you can’t see, touch, taste or photograph, and science can’t prove it,” says Holmes. “But then I say I think we can agree that if one of the things your ‘nothing’ does is spontaneously erupt into everything, that’s a pretty magical nothing.
“So when atheists say nothing happens when you die, and we just go into nothing, I’m like ‘You mean you merge back with your Creator? That’s Heaven!’”
This really happened, but it was Jon Stewart’s mom when I was doing warm-up for the Daily Show and I wasn’t fired. Ha ha.
Crashing / S1 Ep8
(HBO Max) pic.twitter.com/28ulP5qTgU
— Pete Holmes (@peteholmes) December 12, 2023
While Holmes calls himself “Christ-leaning,” potential viewers should take note that his comedy routines may be infused with spirituality, but they’re definitely not like a church service.
“We’ve sort of reduced faith into just being polite. And don’t get me wrong, we’re being polite right now because I’m not swearing, and I don’t swear or tell dirty jokes around my kid,” says Holmes. “But I’m also an adult person, and I like using every tool in my toolbox to delight people and entertain them.
“I don’t want to be a mascot of piety, but rather someone who’s comfortable in his imperfection. So much so that he invites you to laugh. Put your own projections onto me and laugh at it with me so we can be a little less scared, and a little less alone in the world.”
Pete Holmes’ special “I Am Not for Everyone” is on Netflix now.
To hear the full interview from “Catholic Laughter” podcast, download the Fio app or click here to watch or listen on Spotify. Audio-only is available at Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts and Amazon Prime.