Pete Holmes on his talk show's return (and goofing around with Mark-Paul Gosselaar)

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Image Credit: Jeremy Freeman/Comedy Central

Between its litany of pretaped sketches, its unique interview methods, and its host’s largely personal monologues, The Pete Holmes Show doesn’t look like a typical late-night talk show. And that’s sort of the point. “We’re going for a very transparent, authentic, silly, safe, fun show,” Holmes says. “Safe, but not boring.”

Clearly, Holmes and co. are doing something right — their Conan O’Brien-produced experiment returns to TBS Monday at midnight. Shortly after Holmes taped his first post-hiatus episode, he spoke with EW about getting guests to open up, getting advice from Conan, and getting Mark-Paul Gosselaar to strap on one hell of a wig.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is it weird at all for you to be the interviewee instead of the interviewer?
PETE HOLMES: You know, it’s funny — the reason I started doing a podcast was because every time I was on someone else’s podcast, I would take it over a little bit. So yeah, it’s not a natural role for me. [Laughs] Yammerin’. So much yammerin’.

I almost feel like I should be asking you for tips.
No, I have no tips — except if you want people to tell you something private about them, tell them something private about you.

Okay, so — my parents are divorced…
There you go! It has to be of the same currency. If you tell me your parents are divorced, I’ll just be like, “My parents are still together.”

Changing topics to The Pete Holmes Show: Tell me what’s new in the second batch of episodes.
The short answer would be we’re parodying a lot of new areas. We’re doing a Sherlock parody, which I’m really excited about. We just wrote a True Detective parody. We always parody stuff that we love — even when we’re making Batman or somebody look like a doofus, it’s because I’m obsessed with Batman. So it’s coming from a positive or silly place. And something we noticed in the first run is that when we did interviews remotely, we tended to get a lot better stuff. There would be moments you weren’t afforded when there’s an audience hoping for a laugh every three to five seconds or whatever. This second time around, we’re doing a lot more pretaped interviews. It really does capture more of that podcast feel — people open up a little bit more.

You do those interviews on a couch, which seems like a cozier and more intimate setting than a studio.
That’s exactly right. It heightens the intimacy. We do “Gabbin’ Like Gals,” [in] which we literally have the guests wear pajamas, and I wear pajamas. And sometimes we eat frozen yogurt, or Jenny Slate and I, we tried to make our own shampoo together. There are so many people that do late night so, so well. I feel that ground is covered so well; we’re trying to be like, “What if we took the pressure off in some ways, and made it a little bit sillier?”

What did you learn from your first batch of episodes — things to do, things not to do?
I’ve learned that I prefer doing monologues that we all write together, as opposed to just bringing in something that I’ve been doing in a club. It’s not exactly like my standup, and it’s certainly not like a traditional monologue. It’s this third, new thing. [But] the main thing I learned, and Conan literally taught me this, was to react. It’s not a showcase — it’s about reacting to whatever happens. Like, when I think of Johnny Carson, the first thing I think about is him lowering the boom mic onto his face when a joke would bomb.

How involved is Conan as a producer?
It’s true that in show business, a lot of times a producer will just not ever be there, not even be aware that a show is renewed or canceled. Conan’s not that way. We had our first tape day yesterday and he was in the wings. He was watching the show. He literally came straight from his show to our show. It’s incredibly valuable to be able to run things by him and pick his brain, and he is always available.

You did a bit last fall where you went over to the set of The Daily Show and asked Jon Stewart for advice. It was pretty jokey — but did he give you any actual tips?
His time was so tight; when we were still on the stage [after taping the bit], they started doing the rehearsal. So there wasn’t really any off-mic stuff. But I did sit down with Seth Meyers, and we got to kind of encourage each other in the sense that we were like, “as long as you’re being yourself, the show will be different.” The successful ones, I think, are the ones where the host is really being authentic to himself. It’s a pretty ambitious undertaking, but we really want to up the stakes on what the host shares. We’re trying to dissect the late-night show and turn it into a more personal experience, where you see some of my darker thoughts, or whatever. Whether it’s drugs, or sex, or I want to swear, or talk to my friend deeply and get into weird conversations — instead of having it be so polished.

What do you think of Fallon’s first few episodes of Tonight?
I think he’s great. I’ve always loved Jimmy, and [his] was actually the first show I did standup on back in New York. Lorne Michaels doesn’t pick bad ponies, you know what I mean? He picks guys that can go the distance. And something I’ve certainly learned from both Conan and Fallon is the importance of likeability. When somebody comes across as authentic and genuine and sweet, people just want to spend time with that person.

I know a lot of comedians have strong feelings about Jay Leno, and I was wondering if you’re one of them.
Not really. I know people do enjoy sh—ing on him a lot. Kimmel, of course, is very famous for sh—ing on him. He said something that I thought was actually kind of interesting — that Leno was like a master chef who opened a McDonald’s. Which is really interesting, because Leno was and is this great standup. When you read books about the ’70s, it was Leno who was like, the guy. So as a fellow comedian, I will always have respect for that side of him. It sounds like I’m dodging the question, [but] it’s honest.

I also wanted to ask you about that great video with Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Ryu from Street Fighter.
I’m a huge MPG fan — I grew up on Saved by the Bell. [In] the full interview we did with Mark-Paul, I think I playfully creeped him out by how obsessed I was with Saved by the Bell. Sketches like that work when you have actors like him who know how to play it. You play it serious; you actually play it like Ryu wants to be in this tournament.

Do you feel like nostalgia stuff is your sweet spot?
Oh yeah. I’m happy to say we keep mining stuff that’s very genuinely interesting to me that, happily, the zeitgeist is also interested in. I actually wrote “Professor X fires Wolverine” about 10 years ago. [Laughs]  So we’re going to keep going into that realm. Even the younger kids — I just interviewed all of these basketball players, and the median age was probably 22, and they got every reference. They’ve seen The Simpsons, they know what Saved by the Bell is even if they watch it on Nickelodeon. Like, they know Star Wars. Why would you know Star Wars? That movie was made in the ’70s!

I guess some things are just universal.
That’s right! Hollywood has yet to replace them. I know we have Harry Potter and stuff, but it didn’t really replace Star Wars. It just kind of joined those things.

Joined… forces?
Yeah, I would say joined the dark side. [Laughs]

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