Pete Holmes on fringe of late-night

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A skit from the "Pete Holmes Show."

BURBANK, Calif.

Executive producer Nick Bernstein, a former vice president of late-night programming for NBC, said he likes to think of "The Pete Holmes Show" as an understated forerunner of the next generation of talk show: "It's an evolutionary step. Letterman on NBC spoke openly of being the only thing on at 12:30 a.m. That led to Conan being more absurdist, which led to Fallon creating an incredibly friendly environment. And so the next step? That oversharing atmosphere we all live in. Which Pete already captures on his podcast, that willingness to embrace intimacy. Yes, Johnny Carson talked about his divorce on his show, Stephen Colbert talked about his mother dying. That's so rare on a talk show. But make a real connection with (an audience), it's for life."

That said, even Jay Holmes, who owns a fuel tank installation and removal company in New England called Tanks-A-Lot, recognizes that success for the talk show of a still-obscure comedian is an uphill battle. Pete Holmes understands too. So, on that stressful day when his father asked about the ratings, Pete — "such a habitual people-pleaser, he had a hard time being a boss at first," said executive producer Oren Brimer — didn't yell or complain. He said: "Dad, I love you. But you know that I don't know."

Because he doesn't.

He wasn't being disingenuous. Pete Holmes stopped looking at the show's ratings months ago. Ask his staff and producers if he's exaggerating and they say, no, no, he will not look at the ratings. He will look at the number of YouTube views that the show's popular digital short films get (often millions). He doesn't have a problem reading the audience feedback that he periodically receives from TBS. He used to scan Twitter and Facebook.

"But," he said, "you learn, in this position, to stop when you're waking up to 'Your laugh makes me sick …' and 'Go kill yourself …'

"So no, I don't worry about being canceled now," he continued. "You can only make the show the show you make. I don't like to complain. Still, you worry. I know our numbers aren't great. I know we're not blowing it out of the water. You definitely get ideas, like: 'If someone just sat me down and gave me a tan, made me lose weight, cut my hair and whitened my teeth, it'd all be OK.' I even said to Conan, 'How do you sleep?' He said, 'Pete, I think you just have to own up to the fact you are not going to be sleeping well for a while.'"

That's Conan, as in O'Brien.

He liked Holmes so much that last year he asked him to develop "The Pete Holmes Show" to follow his own TBS show, "Conan," at 10 p.m. O'Brien knows a few things about feeling on the bubble, between buoyant and bust, hoping for a sizable audience to acclimate to a smart talk show. Never mind that the 4-year-old "Conan" itself remains a touch fringy, viewership-wise, drawing about 700,000 viewers a night, compared with 3.7 million for Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight Show". (However, TBS just renewed O'Brien's show through 2018.) Two decades ago, when I was working at a different newspaper, I spent some time on the "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" set on NBC, and the show had just finished a tenuous year of being renewed in brief, 13-week chunks. I asked O'Brien then about the uncertainty. He said he was grateful for each reprieve.

Diplomatic, and honest.

On the fringe of late-night, you relish any victory.

"Success now looks like the chance to just keep going," Brimer said. No good news is small. Holmes said the great thing about the late-night TV commotion — the announced departures of David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, the migration of Stephen Colbert, the rise of Fallon, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel — is the hope that his own show will be included in that conversation. When NBC News did a piece on the shake-up, "The Pete Holmes Show" (and Tribune-owned "The Arsenio Hall Show" on WGN) went unmentioned (defeat); soon after, anchor Brian Williams apologized for the omissions (victory).

And those ratings: "The Pete Holmes Show" averages roughly half the nightly viewership of Conan (defeat).

But those viewers: Average around 36 years old. Relatively young for a late-night talk show (victory).

Even on his own set, Holmes carries a humble, unassuming quality. He's large, a little flabby, a touch gawky; when he laughs, his lips fly back, his eyes crinkle and the sound is so braying and insistent he can seem like a guy pretending to laugh. But it's his laugh. And despite his size and ingratiating manner, watching him warm up his studio audience before a taping is both endearing and like watching an awkward kid ask someone on a date. He tells them he's making comedy with them, not at them. He says they don't have to laugh, but it would be good if they laughed, so he needs them to laugh.

Which gets a big laugh.

"Remember," he says, "it's not every day you can squash a man's dreams."

After "The Pete Holmes Show" finished taping for the day, and the audience was ushered out, and the crew vanished for the weekend, the soundstage became stone silent. Holmes, who said untucking his shirt on camera is the closest thing he has to a signature talk-show move, untucked his shirt and put on running pants.

He curled into a chair and told me we could talk as long as I wanted. You never hear this on a soundstage.

"The thing about Pete's stage persona is, there is no stage persona," said comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who started as a stand-up in Chicago with Holmes and has remained close. "He is doing exactly the show he wants to do. I mean, the fact I was the show's first guest should tell you that. And he might not be an alpha male talk-show host, but when the camera's on, he does a good job of owning the room. He's not so much aggressive as sure-footed. That show really is a good mirror of who Pete is."

His unvarnished mildness? Do not confuse it with a lack of ambition. If nothing else, Holmes owns one of the more eclectic resumes: He was the voice of the E-Trade baby in TV commercials for six years. His Batman parodies are among the best-known series on the CollegeHumor video site. And he's been a cartoonist for The New Yorker. (Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor, told me: "He didn't really make it as a cartoonist because his ability as a comic was not quite enough to overcome his inability as an artist.")

Even his stand-up career is a lesson in persistence: "Before I lived in Chicago, I would fly there from Boston for the weekend, go to shows at Second City, then fly home. My parents paid for the tickets. My brother got a car, I got plane tickets to Chicago." He took a few improv classes at iO (but none at Second City, which proved too intimidating), then spent three years in the Chicago stand-up scene, which at the time boasted T.J. Miller, Nanjiani, Kinane and Buress.

"Then everyone left for Los Angeles or New York," Holmes said. "Maybe you have to. I remember clearly talking to this older comic at Zanies in Vernon Hills (since closed), and him saying, 'I'm only going to LA when someone asks me to.' I remember thinking: 'No, no — no one asks.'"

Holmes left Chicago for New York in 2004. He became the audience warm-up act at "The Daily Show." One night, while performing in a club — and bombing — he showed uncharacteristic presumptuousness. "I was doing so poorly, I just said, 'I want to fast-forward to the part where Conan says, "You're my guy."' I shouldn't have said it. It was precious. I thought the audience would relate, (but) they really didn't," he recalled. "And still …"

A decade later, he's Conan's guy.

At least though June 18.

That's when the last new episode of "The Pete Holmes Show" is scheduled to air. A spokeswoman at TBS said the network will likely make a decision in June about whether it will renew the show. As for Holmes, he said he has no idea about its fate. He said all he can do is wait, hope that nothing has changed. He's still the kind of guy who meets Ben Affleck at a party and can't bring himself to ask the movie star to be on the show (true story). He still believes in the wisdom of network executives to give him a solid year to find an audience.

"And I'm not backstage yet yelling at the writers, wearing a bathrobe and pretending to be happy. I am happy. I have good feelings about this. Which is based on nothing more than: I'm doing what I want to do."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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