This one comes to us from Zac Koons:

An Appreciation of “You Made It Weird With Pete Holmes”

480x270_22627There’s a lot about Pete Holmes’s podcast that might put you off. For starters, episodes of “You Made It Weird” are long—like, Lord-of-the-Rings-long—and even more unwelcome perhaps, they’re almost entirely unedited. Its premise (comedian interviews comedian) doesn’t promise anything out of the ordinary, and he breaks almost every imaginable rule of interviewer etiquette: he indulges tangents, his research is from Wikipedia, and he constantly interrupts his guests to regale them with stories of his own. And then there’s his laugh, which is constant, lasts for a long time, and is so loud it sounds like a helicopter landing on your eardrums. It has also on more than one occasion been transfigured, mid-laugh, into the Lion King chant of AHHHsaaWENNyaaAAA.

But it is, hands down, my favorite podcast ever. And I listen to a LOT of podcasts. At this point, I’m a full-on You Made It Weirdo—an addict, an evangelist even. I’ve forced it on my siblings, friends, and coworkers. I’ve actually completely stopped listening to music or any of the other 33 podcasts (told you) on my subscription list because I’m now feverishly working through the Weird archives of 300+ episodes.

Here’s why I can’t stop listening: Pete is so uncompromisingly honest. Of course there’s other reasons I love the show. He chooses fascinating guests. He is funny, sensitive, bold, and deeply kind. And his laugh actually becomes endearing after a while (after the ringing in your ear wears off). But what sets this apart from other likeminded interview shows is his unrelenting earnestness and honesty. In fact, I’ve come to realize that “weird” functions as a synonym for honest. We just prefer weird because as good citizens of the secular age we’ve all been habituated into the assumption that certain topics are private. And Pete is willing—indeed, eager—to go to those places. He is not afraid to make it weird. And to me the weirdness feels like cocaine, and I can’t stop.

Pete’s go-to topics for weird conversation are sex, relationships, and religion. And one of the reasons he’s able to get more substance and honesty out of his guests than anyone else is that he’s willing to go there first himself. Patron saint of vulnerability, Brené Brown, would be proud. Pete shares openly and often about growing up as a cream-of-the-crop, true-love-waits, going-to-be-a-youth-pastor-someday evangelical who found himself cheated-on, divorced, depressed, and disbelieving everything at the age of 28, and how ever since he’s been discerning what exactly was wheat and what exactly what chaff about his upbringing. He is, in other words, a genuine seeker of truth, for whom sex, relationships and religion are already deeply intertwined realities. The podcast, he readily admits, has been a kind of therapy for him.

But he never starts with sex or God. Somehow, he manages to start even weirder. That is, Pete comes prepared to each interview with a list of “weird” things about his guest as fodder for conversation (like T.J. Miller’s life threatening brain surgery, Demetri Martin’s absurd intelligence, Jim Gaffigan’s decision not to cuss on stage) and frequently, before even getting to what’s on his notepad, he names, with impressive self-awareness, whatever weirdness or tension he thinks might exist between himself and whoever he’s interviewing. As in, let’s-just-say-it-we’re-good-friends-and-you’re-doing-me-a-favor-in-helping-me-get-this-show-off-the-ground (Kumail Nanjiani, Chelsea Peretti), or once-we-competed-for-the-same-job-and-I-got-it-and-you-didn’t (Jon Glaser, fast-forward to 41:35 of Episode 83 for the most awkward ten minutes of audio that exists in the universe), or five-years-ago-you-didn’t-laugh-at-one-of-my-jokes-at-SXSW-and-ever-since-I’ve-been-worried-you-thought-I-was-a-racist-do-you-think-I’m-a-racist? (Mike Birbiglia), or I’m-in-shameless-fan-boy-mode-right-now-please-indulge-me (Jon Hamm, Matt Berninger), or even I-know-I-pretty-much-stole-the-premise-of-your-already-popular-podcast-but-please-don’t-be-mad-because-I-consider-you-my-angry-comedy-dad-that-I-long-to-please (Marc Maron).

I find such a consciously subjective interviewing style to be both more compelling and credible than the feigned objectivity of, say, Terry Gross. This clearing of the air paves the way for unbelievable progress in conversation. Pete is meticulously (at times, exhaustingly) perceptive of both his and his guest’s tone, body language, and interest level at every second of the interview. He’ll often add parenthetical comments to his own comments, like “I think the only reason I just made that joke was because deep down I’m insecure about you thinking I’m a real comedian like you are.” Once, I remember, he stopped, mid-monologue, to say to his guest “hey, I need some eye contact from you right now or else I’ll just start trailing off.” As a listener, Pete does a lot of the work for you. He articulates text, context, and subtext, and he gets away with being a shrewd bullshit detector because of his effusively encouraging, golden retriever-ish personality. (In his stand-up, he describes his temperament as someone who would barge into your room and yell “GOOD MORNING, I fixed your tail-light while you were sleeping! NO CHARGE!”) In short, with Pete we know exactly what we’re hearing.

Pete says that the best kind of comedians are those who are aware of “the great cosmic joke,” by which he means those who live with an awareness of the sheer absurdity of our existence. His curiosity and zest for life stems from his own acute awareness of this miracle, which means that his disposition towards the world, and therefore his guests, is a kind of playful awe. (Which, I think, goes a long way in explaining why I much prefer Weird over Maron’s WTF, whose curiosity is so tinged with cynicism it often keeps him from asking the kinds of questions that would be more interesting to me.) No topic is off the table, and no opinion is too “out there” to be seriously considered. He and Birbiglia get into a detailed and completely serious conversation about aliens and “quarantine and kill” conspiracy theories, for example. Tangents aren’t distractions but opportunities for mutual fascination, and one’s journey of addiction or story of an epically failed relationship are occasions for learning about the nature of the world and and nature of our common humanity.

As a priest myself, naturally my favorite part of each episode is when the conversation turns to religion. It is, as far as I can tell, the ultimate taboo of Hollywood—which seems to operate according to the “if you’re not an atheist, you’re an idiot” principle (unless, of course, you’re a Scientologist for some reason). But Pete himself is too aware of the great cosmic joke to confidently call himself an atheist. He seems to perpetually sit on the fence between faith and doubt—genuinely open to whatever is true, but seriously cautious about claiming anything is. He responds when Sarah Silverman asks him point blank if he believes in God: “I believe in God in the sense that I’m constantly looking for God.” (What a gorgeous sentence.) I’ve also heard him describe himself as a “Christ-leaning spiritual person.” And so he presses his guests, frequently asking questions like: “So what happens when you die?”, “Do you ever meditate?”, and “Do you remember the day you decided God wasn’t real?”

In a stand-up bit, he says he has about enough religion left rattling around inside him as whatever it is you can hear rattling around inside an empty spray paint can, but there’s actually a great deal more than that. He quotes the Bible better than most Christians I know, he’s obsessed with Rob Bell (who is a rare non-comedian guest on Episode 152), and for today’s standards he has the fairly conservative sexual ethic of serial monogamy. He has a bit in which he says, “If any of the girls here would like to have sex with me after the show, I’ll trade you at least one year of my life.”

The fascinating thing Pete’s unapologetic probings help you realize is that just about everyone has thought about these questions before. Most people have a story to tell about it, in fact. But most people—especially people in show-business—are just never asked to talk about it. Which is why his guests often stumble through their first and second attempts to answer these questions. But with Pete setting the tone with his own vulnerability, combined with his genuinely non-judgmental demeanor, what we get to listen to is beautiful and profoundly humanizing. Pete brings these celebrity demigods off the pedestal society puts them on, and helps us realize that they’re human beings just like us who are also completely flummoxed by the world around them, and who hold a wide variety of nuanced (and not) opinions about its meaning. You uncover gems like when Mike Birbiglia says, “My gut says atheism. But my head thinks it’s more likely that it’s more complicated than atheism.” (You also realize that the God in which most atheists so adamantly disbelieve is a caricature of ultra-conservative Christianity that I, as an Episcopalian, despise at least as much as they do.) Hollywood is not as monolithic as you think. There are some militant atheists, yes (Anthony Jeselnik), but the overwhelming majority are actually open-minded and moral agnostics (Demetri Martin, Sarah Silverman), while there’s a good deal of pragmatists (Andy Samberg), and even some Christians (Jim Gaffigan, Ellie Kemper) thrown in as well.

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It’s probably most accurate to say that comedy is Pete’s religion, and by comedy I mean weirdness, and by weirdness I mean absurd honesty. Since it’s uninhibited by any ideological or philosophical fences, comedy offers Pete freedom to be uncompromisingly curious, which is what he felt he wasn’t allowed to be as an aspiring evangelical youth pastor. The podcast is, in a way, the best of stand-up, but without the jokes. That is, it’s comedy in prose, where the keen observations about life that serve as bits on the stage are given a little more room to breathe and walk around. Which is why the podcast wouldn’t work as a tightly edited “best of” 30 minute version of a 2 hour conversation with Ben Folds because the beauty of his show is predicated on resisting precisely that instinct to edit out that which isn’t palatable. Yes, this means that on occasion you suffer through a 5 or even 15 minute stretch you could have easily done without, but that seems a small price to pay for cutting through the mundane, politically-correct patty-cake that makes up the content of most other interviews out there—indeed, most human conversations period. You Made It Weird is worth listening to first and foremost because life in general is so, so freaking weird, and it has helped me realize how much of it we waste ignoring precisely the things that make our mutual journey so fascinating. The irony, of course, is that in this way Pete is his own kind of pastor, shepherding his Weirdos through life’s big questions, encouraging them to lean into their own weirdness; indeed, telling them that what makes them weird is what makes them human. You Made It Weird has helped me realize just what an extraordinary thing it is to be a human being at all.

The broad appeal of You Made It Weird is the opportunity to listen to celebrities dish on questions they don’t usually get asked in an environment that produces genuinely honest answers with miraculous consistency. But the deeper and, for me, more lasting (and addicting!) appeal is that taken as a whole, Pete’s podcast is a beautiful documentary of the human condition—one that concludes that the big questions about God, relationships, and whatever else, though they have mostly vanished from public discourse, haven’t faded at all from the minds of individual people. Indeed, though I’m aware Pete himself might resist this description, his podcast is evidence that part of what it means to be human is the search for truth. It strikes me that that is what honesty is for (that is, honesty seems pretty pointless unless some things are true and other things are not). We ought to be honest because honesty turns our human journey into a dialogue. And whatever it is that’s true, I think we’re more likely to discover it together. And, I think—I hope—that in the end Pete would agree with me; that he too cares about more than just honesty, more than just weirdness for the sake of weirdness. He believes in God in the sense that he is constantly looking for God, and I think he has a sneaking suspicion that pretty much everyone else is looking too.