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What comedian Pete Holmes knows about the self and love, and self love

Salon talks to the "Crashing" star about his new memoir, "Comedy Sex God" (psst . . . those are three nouns)


Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 22, 2019 8:30PM (UTC)

You could call it a Boy-meets-God story. Comedian Pete Holmes is best known as the creator and star of "The Pete Holmes Show" and HBO's "Crashing," as well as the host of the long running podcast "You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes." But he's also a man with a mission.

In his new memoir "Comedy Sex God," Holmes delves into his strict Christian upbringing, his post-divorce turn at a hedonistic atheism and his journey to a kind of peace with the mystical. He joined us recently for a conversation about comedy, Christ and masturbating at a Ram Dass retreat.

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When I saw the title of the book, I assumed it was this photo of you as "Comedy Sex God Pete Holmes," but now I think it's more "Eat, Pray, Love."

You got it right. When we were naming the book, I wanted to call it "Comedy Sex God" because those are the three things that interest me the most. I considered "God Sex Comedy." Doesn't sound as good.

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I like "Comedy Sex God." I like that I have something to say about the title. It gave me a jumping off point to talk about the book with anybody. If I saw the book in an airport, I'd be like, "It's a little icky. What is this?" Makes you want to know, does he mean that? I don't, for the record. That's not what I'm saying. Those are just the three things that I love the most.

I was reading it initially as two adjectives and a noun, and I think now it's three nouns.

It's three nouns.

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You have so much going on in your life right now, professionally. You are a family man now. In the midst of all this, you say, "You know what? This would be a great time to write a whole book."

I had to finish it when the baby was newly born. My original deadline was before my baby was born. I missed my deadline. If you read the book, the whole summation of the story is obviously having baby Lila. A big point of the book is God — or, I understand rightly, people don't like that word. I'm just talking about infinity, I'm talking about consciousness, I'm talking about the mystery.

Then, I had this baby, and the baby doesn't have anything to sell me. She doesn't know she's a girl. She doesn't know she's a human. She doesn't know she's white. She doesn't know she's American. She doesn't know she's a Los Angeleno, or a Californian, or anything. The chapter about her is called "Luminous Emptiness," and that's a Buddhist idea. She's luminous, she's light, she's there, she's present, she's aware, and she's empty. Me, I'm a host, I'm a comedian, whatever it is. She doesn't have any of that.

That was better than any guru or teacher that I've ever sat with. Just being in the presence of unencumbered awareness. That really is what God is for me. Not to get too Jesus-y right off the bat, but my favorite Bible verse is Jesus says, "Lest ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not see the Kingdom of Heaven." Kingdom of Heaven meaning something here and now. That's Jesus-y, and electric, and exciting, and vivid that we've all sort of tasted in moments of deep passion, or deep love. Maybe it was a concert, or maybe it was a meal, maybe it was a conversation, maybe it was rain, or a sunset, or something. We felt the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, which is where Jesus says it is.

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We were told that the Kingdom of Heaven is something later. But Jesus keeps saying, "It's here, it's here, it's here." He's seeing it, he is it, he has become it. He has remembered his place in the abundant, inherent dignity of being a part, just as we are, of what is.

I love becoming his little children to see, or enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Right there. It's all right there. How could it be about a philosophy, or a set of ideals, or a set of thoughts, or beliefs that gain you permission to enter into oneness, or unity? It's not. It's becoming like a child. It's about spaciousness, it's about freedom, it's about joy, it's about wonder, it's about presence.

My baby is present, my baby is spacious, my baby is yes. She cries sometimes, I understand that. But she's even saying yes to her emotions, and her discomfort, and her suffering. She's feeling and emoting. She cries one second, and then she's happy. Everything is just a green light with her, she's there. She's churning in what is.

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Religion to me, got kind of co-opted, or stolen, by people saying, "No, I want to turn you into me." When I was a Christian, I would have wanted to turn you into me to save your soul when you died. Now, it's very important that people know that I didn't write the book to make people into me. I'm very clear about that. I'm just trying to share some of the thoughts, the teachings, the philosophies, the practices, and some of the story that helped me lighten up, helped me become a little bit more spacious. A lot more joyful, a lot more present, and a lot more peaceful. That came from identifying, for lack of a better word, as a soul, or as consciousness itself.

We just don't have the vocabulary. I feel like "patriotic," "moral," "Christian," these words have been corrupted.

I completely agree. If somebody pooped in the punch bowl, what I'm sharing in the book is, there are other people who are like, OK, that punch bowl's been pooped in. But come over here, we're making our own. It's still going to nourish you, and there's no poop in it.

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I could have called the book, "Saving Baby Jesus From the Bath Water," but it's not really a very Jesus-y book. It's about saving the core message of all spirituality from the bath water. Let's get rid of the bath water. Let's get rid of the shame, the judgment, the feeling that you're unworthy. That you're unloved by your creator for your sexuality, gay or straight. In my church it was all bad.

You had an actual list of sexual activities.

Yeah, how far you would go. They gave us cards to fill out before the heat of the moment — before I knew what the heat was — and when the moment was coming. They had hand holding, French kissing, buttocks touching. Because they didn't want to be too crass.

But you know, here's the thing — an inner transformation occurs, and that's what all these traditions are pointing us to. When that inner transformation occurs, when you're converted, or enlightened, or working towards enlightenment, or working towards conversion, chances are you're not going to lie, steal, cheat, or be cruel to people.

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In the west, we want the results. We're producers, we're capitalists, and we just want the result. So, what church became was politeness enforcement, niceness enforcement. Richard Rohr, one of my biggest influences and teachers, pointed out that the word "nice" is nowhere in the Old Testament. It's not about ethics. Good ethics and good behavior might be a way to get there, and it certainly is a product of what happens when you get there, but it's not the point. It's certainly wonderful to be nice, I think people should be nice. But it's not the point.

What we're looking for is a fundamental shift in your consciousness from the small self, which is, "I'm Pete, I'm a comedian. This interview is important. My book sales are important." As Buddha says, it's all on fire. It's all passing; it's change. Zoom out — a hundred years, all new people. What does remain? Consciousness, it remains. Awareness remains, is-ness remains. When you claim your birthright — or the Holy Spirit as the Christians call it, or the Atman, as a part of the Brahman, which is what the Hindus call it — when you identify as that, it helps with so many things I can't even begin to tell you. It helps with your joy, it helps with your fear of death, and not because you're getting into some country club in the sky, but because you start to feel, and experience, your belonging in the universe.

But that sense of belonging is also what can be so toxic in humanity. That's how we wind up being in our little gated communities. You put a label on it that says, "I'm a Christian." That's a pretty limited scope, and you have to have your blinders on. On the other side of that, a lot of people then say, "Now I reject that, and now I'm an atheist, and I believe in nothing." You talk about that.

I really liked being an atheist.

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"That's it, now I'm just done." But you missed Jesus.

I did miss Jesus. That might have been psychological. It doesn't really matter.

Because you were also missing marriage, at the same time. You say you lost your wife and Jesus at the same time.

I was codependent to both my wife and to Jesus. I didn't know who I was without one of those marriages reflecting my identity back to me. To your point, that is primarily what religion is doing, historically. It's meaning making, and identity making, and culture making. That's OK, but that's not the point. It's actually not that OK, but we'll let it be because it's what it is.

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There's community.

Sure, there's covered dishes, and funerals, and sitting Shiva. That's wonderful stuff.

There's ambrosia.

Ambrosia's disgusting.

There's fudge.

Yeah, fudge is nice. But the idea that religion is supposed to wake us up to our unity. I don't just mean we're chums. I'm saying belonging, I mean cosmic belonging. I like to think of the whole thing, the whole solar system, everything that is, as this undulating, infinite fountain. You have an inherent place at that. Your ticket to the show is your very being, is what's looking out your eyes right now. Your consciousness is your place in this world, and the rest is your story. That's on fire, that's not real.

But, that being said, church does exactly the opposite. These days science, and I'm grateful for this, does a way better job. Physics is doing a way better job at pointing out how everything's made of one thing. It's all one thing, this, me, you, and that can be one way that makes people sort of wake up to the illusion of separateness, and to the illusion of our stories, and all that sort of stuff.

That's not to say that we should be like dispassionate zombies. I'm saying, play the game, just don't get lost in it. I think that's what Jesus is saying when he's like, "Be in the world, but not of the world." Be in it. Be a barber, cut the hair, scold your child. Somebody read my book, and they were like, "Maybe I'll yell at my coworkers less." I was like, "Maybe you'll keep yelling at your coworkers, but you'll be less attached to it. You'll be less identified with the man who yells at his coworkers." By the way, don't yell at your coworkers. But you see what I'm saying? We're losing the point. I'm not trying to make anybody nicer, per se. I want a lightening, and a lightening up.

One of the lines I think was so resonant is that you said you felt more Christ-like once you left the church.

Because when I was in the church, I was just looking for a way that you weren't doing what I was doing, and you weren't doing it well enough. My friends who were gay, or who had had abortions, or that did drugs, or were alcoholics, or whatever it was — these are the people that Jesus kicked it with, or would have kicked it with. He was with the thieves, and the prostitutes, and the tax collectors, and the lepers.

When I was a Christian, I was judging all those people. I was pretending to love them, but I was judging them. Then, once I lost my faith I realized, "Oh, this is me. That's just me in different circumstances. Me with a different story." It's such an important distinction for me. Jesus never said to like your neighbor. I think Christians are burdened. They have to find something to like about you. Maybe they don't like you.

We talk a lot in Christianity about tolerance.

Yeah, exactly. We would be like, "Boy, they're a sociopath, but great vocabulary." What I think [Jesus is] calling us to, and what a lot of other traditions are calling us to, is you love the part of you that is me, that isn't me at all, that is just is-ness. I like pointing out that when Moses asked God, in the Old Testament, what his name was, He said, "I am." God is I am-ness. The quality of being is, what God as consciousness, is-ness, is God, and you are a piece of that is-ness.

The piece of is-ness that is me can love the piece of is-ness that is you, and still think you are a piece of shit. Like, I can't stand your voice, I can't stand your attitude, I can't stand what you say. This one just doesn't like to be with that one. My old model would be like, "But I have to pretend." It's OK to be honest, and be like, "Maybe I don't like you. I'll still be kind to you, compassionate to you, I'll try." There's also a quieter subsystem running.

Because it's without judgment.

Exactly.

It's interesting the way that you juxtapose these stories in your book. You have your proposal to your wife. When you get off the balloon, and you're both writing it down right away, because you want to get it right, and you want to be able to tell the story. Then you talk about this very Buddhist idea of detachment, and being able to be an observer in the events of your life. To experience them, to enjoy them, or to feel the suffering of them, but to then also be able to observe them. As you put it, to say, "That's a good episode."

I wonder if for someone whose a comic, or a writer, or a film maker, or a photographer, that is a skill set that you already had been developing to apply to your spirituality.

I think you're absolutely right. I wish I had done that on purpose, to put those two chapters next to each other.

I think anybody that's journaling even, having some sort of extra personal perspective on their lives. Like, "This was my day. This was what happened to Pete. Boy, Pete was mad. Boy, Pete was hungry. Boy, Pete sure did eat a whole cake by himself." Whatever it is, that is a spiritual practice to start going, "Who is the observer?" When you're journaling, you're still you, but you're observing you in the past.

You're the only person I've ever read who has had more than one conversation with Ram Dass about his masturbation habits. You had a whole spiritual experience around masturbation. You got to this place that's really profound. What can we all learn from our masturbation experiences? Teach us.

So, Jesus has this parable. People quote the ones about being nice. I think we misunderstand them a lot. He has this parable where he says, "Don't pull the weeds out while the weed is growing. Wait for both to be done, and then harvest the whole thing." In my interpretation, that's saying these things that we think are wrong about us, our temper, our envy, our greed, and in my case, my blinding horniness... not all the time.

I was in a hermitage at Ram Dass' house. I was alone for most of the time. I got really, really horny, and that's why the book is called "Comedy Sex God." It's about reconciling my relationship with my sexuality, just as a normal living, human person, and God. Because those things were at odds. I was taught that God fundamentally didn't like that about me. But then I went through this period where I just indulged, I just had sex, I didn't beat myself up about it, I tried to tell myself that it was OK. I rationalized it.

Then, when I was in Ram Dass' house, I was so embarrassed that all of this horniness was coming up. I really wanted to jerk off, and I was like, I can't. The password to his wifi is the name of his guru.

I really was just really at odds with myself. What made me relax, and what I'm talking about, is spaciousness, love. Love is a yes. Love isn't rationalizing why I love myself for being horny. Love is just like my baby, it's just, saying yes, to what is. That's what the Buddhists say, your resistance is what's causing you suffering. How you think it should be versus how it is, and in between is your bad mood, and your discomfort, and your discontent.

In that moment, I just felt like opening the shutters and letting the light in. I had this very transcendent moment where the horniness I thought was in the way of my teaching, I realized was the teaching. It was like holding a candle right in my face: "You think you're done with this? You have to deal with this. This is your shame. This is your inner disgust. This is what you think is ugly about you. Love it. Love all of it." That is absolutely the message of the book.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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