Yes, thank you, Pete Holmes

What is this?

It’s a common refrain from a Pete Holmes, a successful comedian, podcaster, television star and, now, author. His new book, Comedy Sex God, is a personal examination of that question and a chronical of his journey to find an answer. 

The “this” above is existence, I guess. Or consciousness. Or God. Or maybe “God,” the metaphor, the divinity in all things, the whole within the parts. Or the sublime nothingness in somethingness – or vice versa. Or whatever. It’s a knotty, slippery notion, and one that Pete tackles with his trademark enthusiasm and genuine insight.   

Though it’s never stated directly in the book, the title is a play on what would otherwise be an ego-soaked assertion. Instead, it's a thesis for what he believes are the three building blocks of existence, or at least the three major preoccupations in his life. 

Comedy represents art, passion, the innate urge to create. It is that thing outside of ourselves to which we are devoted, whatever that means to you. Sex represents love, naturally, and relationships; our burning need to connect. But it also ecompasses pleasure and shame, and primal wants as complex as carnal desire or as simple as ice cream. God represents religion, obviously, but this is beyond that. This is the God in everything – The Mystery – capital T, capital M. It can be praying twice a day to 20 different deities or simply sitting in a quiet room, focusing on your breath. This is God as awareness. T

To the funnyman author, these three are intertwined, inseparable from one another. 

Another common Pete-ism is when he points out that we’re all floating through nothingness on a spinning rock made of the same molecules that make up our toenails or turkey burgers and says, with emphasis, “and I’m tired of not talking about it!”

Here, he talks about it. Actually, he talks about it everywhere – in his stand-up, on his podcast You Made It Weirdwhich is alternately transcendently goofy and goofily transcendent, and in the mouth of Leif, the scene-and-wife-stealing character on his recently-concluded (which sounds much gentler than “cancelled”) HBO show, Crashing. But when Pete talks about it, he does so in a way that is accessible and earnest. This isn’t a smirking cynic mocking the notions of a God, nor is it an evangelist knocking on your door to talk about salvation. This is someone who is genuinely interested in the great mystery of existence and who, finally in the absence of answers, finds himself on a quest for questions.  

Lest this all sound too woo woo, it’s grounded in hilarious prose. Pete is a comedian, first and foremost. Though his concerns are larger than mere entertainment, he never abdicates his duty (or compulsion?) to make us laugh. He reveals his darkest impulses and most embarrassing moments with a big, dumb smile and enviable detachment. His jovial, unflinching perceptions of a fraught childhood and a divorce in his 20s (a true transformational moment for him) only add to the impact; the jokes don't undercut his stories – they enhance them. The voice is unmistakenly his, the same genial and oft-interrupting voice that dominates over 300 episodes of his podcast. Reading it, I could almost hear his loud, distinctive laugh after various punchlines.  

None of this is surprising. I have been a Pete Holmes fan for a long time (since hearing "the stupidest joke there's ever been" and instantly recognizing a soulmate). I thought I knew what to expect with this book. But I was wrong. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for how enlightening it was. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit – an affliction of the ego that Pete himself would gladly put under a microscope – that this silly book, this comedian’s memoir, caused in me a true spiritual stirring. I, too, spend a lot of my time wondering "what is this." I, too, am "tired of not talking about it." The reason the book works is because everyone is. There's kindship in that. We are all one.  

The last third of the book, which concludes his journey from deep Christian faith through secular hedonism, all the way to his zen encounters (zencounters) with the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, is profound and insightful, making Pete Holmes as worthy of a place on the shelf beside Thich Nhat Hanh and Elizabeth Gilbert as he is Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler

A particularly keen passage finds Pete at an outdoor garden. Many readers, I’m sure, will relate to his anxiety at such places, the way we make a show of “getting it" – the furrowed brow, the soft nodding, maybe a subtle hum of understanding – rather than just allowing our honest reaction come through. To combat this, Pete silently repeated the mantra, “yes thank you,” while looking at the beautiful plants all around. Yes thank you yes thank you yes thank you. Suddenly, he wasn’t in his head so much. He was able to shut off his mind and “look without thinking.” The point, he realized, wasn’t to review the flower like a blogger reviewing a new book (irony noted), but to experience the flower in the present moment. The chapter ends with a perfect summation, and a new mantra I’ve since used myself: “Don’t consume the flower. Be consumed.”

Miraculously, I was able to do the same with Comedy Sex God.

So what is this? I don’t know. You don’t know. Ram Dass doesn’t know, and Pete Holmes surely doesn’t, either. Nobody knows. There is no answer. What this is is simply this. Right now. And it’s all there needs to me. 

This and laughter.