Illustration by Allegra Nina
Story by Simone Rembert
Long before self-isolation comprised the vocabulary of our daily lives, I scheduled a phone interview with Holmes Holmes, the charming Chicago comedian behind one of Twitter’s best accounts. Born Chelsea Holmes, I’d discovered her work through the now viral front-facing video in which she laments a messy legal battle over a rare ruby found in her belly button. Immediately, I was drawn to her playful, vulnerable style. Her silliness radiated kindness and I figured she’d be great to talk to.
In the time between our first interaction and the interview itself, reality shifted in a number of ways— some catastrophic. More people caught on to Holmes and she was cast in Paul Feig’s newest television project. I was summoned home from a study abroad program due to concerns about COVID-19. As the pandemic spread through the United States, both our cities imposed strict stay-at-home orders. Luckily, with phone lines still operating and what feels like all the time in the world, I got to talk to Holmes about her comedy, coping with quarantine, phone therapy and kissing one’s little arm.
Simone Rembert: Where are you from?
Holmes Holmes: I kind of actually, famously, just kidding, have no hometown. I grew up mostly in Nebraska and Florida. But, I would actually say that Chicago, where I live now, feels probably the most like my home. I’ve lived here for four years now.
SR: What prompted your move to Chicago? Was it the comedy scene?
HH: It was for improv, absolutely. [Laughs] That’s very vulnerable. In college, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I did a gap year after high school— I went to Turkey for the year. At the time, I thought I wanted to be a photojournalist. Through traveling that year, although it was incredible, I realized that in a lot of places, a lot of things I want to do are going to be so much more dangerous because I’m a woman, which I didn’t really realize. It’s pretty sad. But then I ended up coming home and I went to college. I tried to go for photojournalism, but it was so expensive to go to art school. So I was back in Florida and very depressed. That’s the thing… coming back when you lived somewhere for a while— it’s really a weird thing that we do. Exchange is so awesome and makes our minds so wide but it’s also very strange because I built relationships and a life and I’ve never been back to Turkey. I ended up going to Florida State, which is a nightmare place, but luckily I ended up finding some people there. I started figuring out that I loved comedy. That was probably one of the only things I did performing in general. One summer, I did the iO intensive with improv in Chicago and I think that’s what sort of solidified it. Right when I graduated, I thought, I’m going to dedicate my life to improv for a little while.
SR: How did you get into stand-up?
HH: I got into stand-up because originally, at my college, there was a sketch comedy group that did not let me in.
SR: Fuck that.
HH: Two different times. And two years later, I saw one of the guys at this party and he told me it was because none of the guys wanted to fuck me.
HH: I know, I know. Men are so horrible. But it’s funny because that comedy group is— perspective is just so beautiful, you know? But it did truly crush me and I just thought I wasn’t funny because I didn’t have friends [at Florida State] anymore. So I just hung out in my room alone a lot, for like a year. But I got the courage— I found the courage!— to do stand-up instead, because I could control it myself. Weirdly, me not getting into the sketch group got me into stand-up. When I started doing improv, I already had the stand-up tool under my belt. In Chicago, I focused on improv a lot for the first two years here and for the past year, I’ve been putting my energy and focus into stand-up again.
SR: So you were just cast in a pilot.
HH: I was just cast in a pilot. We love the timing.
SR: Yes, it’s certainly good timing. [Laughs] But seriously, congratulations! I was really into This Country when I was in the UK and I’m excited to see what comes of it. What was that process like?
HH: That means so much, thank you. I only watched a little bit of the show because I didn’t want to be too affected by [the character Kerry, whom Holmes will adapt for a US audience]— just because I don’t believe in myself to not have that affect me. [Laughs] But I did watch a little and it was so funny. It was very wild how it happened, truly. I don’t even know what I’m allowed to say, but I guess I can say basically that Paul [Feig]’s assistant found this video of me on Twitter and I had just met with a casting person when I was doing general meetings in New York. I just feel like the stars aligned, or whatever you want to say. It’s an honor to do this role.
SR: That’s crazy. That’s amazing.
HH: I did a tape with a casting person in Chicago and then they sent that off and I got a call that I was going to be tested. And truly, I had just gotten an agent maybe two months before so all of this, so it felt like, I don’t understand what’s happening. Then they flew me to New York and I screen tested! I just have to say that I feel very lucky and privileged and it truly is a dream role. Paul and Jenny [Bicks, the show’s writer] are just dreams. I can talk to them like friends— and I don’t know how other projects are, but it feels like that might not be normal. [Laughs] They let us improvise all the time. I ended up going to North Carolina to begin the filming. We literally just got started when we were sent home, but there was a lot of time for us to spend time together, do screen tests and everything. And the entire cast is filled with the most talented, funny people. So I really hope that we’re able to move forward.
SR: That’s crazy. The story of how that all sort of unfolded is reassuring though, in the sense that there will still be room for people to be discovered and granted opportunities even if live stand-up and improv shows can’t happen.
HH: I have to say, my relationship with social media is… it’s like my relationship with food. [Laughs] There’s a lot of love and hate. But I appreciate it so much. My favorite thing about social media is exactly that— you can have no money. Me, I was just working, selling memberships at a gym, doing improv at night and [social media] is able to give you a platform to be seen without being a trustfund person. And I think that’s really, really beautiful. At the same time, I think you have to have boundaries for yourself if you’re someone with mental health things, like [me] . Everything is so fast on the internet and it feels so intense. I think you can become obsessed with numbers… I think you really have to know: I love my comedy and have fun with it. Otherwise you get lost a little bit.
SR: Do you have any sort of guideline you impose for what your boundary is? In terms of how vulnerable you want to be on social media, or even more broadly, in your comedy itself?
HH: Thank you for asking me. [Laughs] If I’m being honest, I feel like I’m learning it now. For me, the beauty of a live show is that I feel like I can say anything at all. I like to be open and vulnerable. I like my comedy to be very weird, but I like for it to be really open. With the internet, you got back and forth with how open you want to be because you get creepy DMs and there’s any kind of random person on there. I would say that the boundary is whatever makes you feel comfortable. And I will say that people shouldn’t feel scared to change their mind. That’s the thing— I don’t care if I delete something. Don’t be scared to try stuff and then delete it. Some people would say “everything’s on the internet forever!” And maybe they’re right. But whatever you’re comfortable with is how open you need to be and for me, it changes day to day. Some days I feel like I want to talk about my pussy on the internet and other days I feel like my pussy’s my own pussy.
SR: [Laughs] I really like that idea, being okay with deleting things. It is true, everything’s out there forever, but the internet’s so oversaturated and gets crazier by the day.
HH: That’s the other thing. I don’t think people care that much. I know how Jaboukie has a deleted tweets account— and yeah, when people are that obsessed with you, that could happen. But you have to let yourself play online. I would say, don’t take online content and social media stuff as seriously as you take your art. Something you work on might not do very well and then something you improvised for a second in your car will be the thing that makes you. That’s how I felt. I had this video about having a ruby stuck in my belly button—
SR: Yes, I remember. That’s how I got introduced to you.
HH: [Laughs] Yeah. I was running late to therapy, had ten minutes to sit in my car and I improvised that based on my boyfriend, who was going down on me and found lint in my belly button. [Laughs] So I just posted that and when I got out of therapy, I was like, Wow, this one actually is doing better than ever before. You just have to ride the wave of it being, I hate that I have to say this word, random. [Laughs] It has to do with timing and if someone retweets it. Don’t let it affect how good or bad you think you are, that’s what I think. It’s very beautiful that you can share things with people who don’t live in the same place as you. I have relationships with people in New York and LA that I would’ve never had without Twitter.
SR: Speaking of that, who are the people who inspire you? And also, who were the people who made comedy feel like it was accessible or desirable for you?
HH: For me, my biggest influence, when I was growing up and when I was first getting into comedy was probably Maria Bamford or Kate Berlant and John Early. Maria was very big for me because she talked about mental illness in a way that wasn’t just slow and kind of sad— she’s very upbeat and lets her comedy have some imagination. Mental illness, she can play within that world of humor. I love how in her Special Special Special, she’s in front of just her mom and dad. And her voices for different characters! People who mix improv, or mix characters into stand-up really influence me. Kate Berlant and John Early did that, the New York comedy scene does that really well— Megan [Statler] has done incredibly well there. Carmen Christopher too. The New York scene has a lot of that. And the first people I saw doing it were John and Kate and Maria. When I was in college, I would watch their videos on YouTube all the time.
SR: So good.
HH: It was like permission to be able to play more on stage versus tell a story. Also, in a normal stand-up way, Nate Bargatze. Which is maybe more random, because he’s totally “a boy,” and most of my icons have more of a queer/alt vibe, but I do love a stand-up set that is just a story that is told so well that you’re dying laughing. And he does that. I saw him in college and he definitely resonated with me too.
SR: Aside from This Country, do you have anything you’re working on or thinking about working on?
HH: Yes, I’m working on a few things. Caleb [Hearon] and I are going to start doing At What Cost, which is our live show. We’re writing together. I’ve been trying to work on a movie, a comedy that’s about mental illness within your family. Cause it’s super funny. [Laughs]
SR: The best topic!
HH: Yes, I want to get into generational jealousy and what we’re taught about mental illness by our families. Coming up immediately, I’m working on a series where I interview people about their relationship with their bellies. But if I’m being truly honest, Simone, I’m just going to let myself try to be okay during this, you know?
SR: I don’t blame you.
HH: At first I was like, I have to do comedy. Because when I got [This Country] I was like, okay, now I don’t have to be online. And now, I’m thinking, you actually still don’t have to and maybe you need to learn how to be patient during this time. There is so much sadness to process and deal with during this time. I’m really grateful for the people who can always be funny during this, but I’m not one of those people.
SR: It’s tough. There’s so much ample timeand there’s a lot of pressure to make something of it. And you don’t have to make anything of it; it’s a really tragic situation. If anything, you should just be looking after your bodily functions.
HH: That’s how I feel too. The thing I’m working on right now is making sure my family and friends are okay. I’m so worried about my friends. Luckily, I had just quit my job, so I can last a couple months right now. But I just hope everyone is okay. We really need to be gentle with ourselves— you do not have to be writing now. Right now, I’m getting a teeny bit of work done every day. If I have an urge, I’ll write something small and then go back to like, I don’t know… I feel like I just sit. Just trying to think or something. Is it like that for you?
SR: I’m still very much in the bored, restless stage of things. I spend all day on my ass. I think I checked yesterday and I had walked .38 miles, up and down the stairs.
HH: I think I was just in that boredom phase. Two days ago, I had a really bad day. A dark, dark day. And then the past two days, the sun finally came out in Chicago and I’m fortunate enough to have a therapist that I’ve been having phone calls with. That’s been so good. I’m so used to being go, go, go and I think almost all of us are. I don’t think it’s like, “Use this time to slow down!” But I actually am being forced to do that, because it’s something I really didn’t know how to do before. I used to think I really liked spending time with myself, but now I realize I never actually did, so I didn’t know… I spent a lot of time with other people and I really liked it.
SR: [Laughs] Do you have any rituals or routines that are stress-relieving?
HH: For me, I smoke weed and call my friends. I think my routine is: smoke weed, call my best friend Ashley. Ashley does improv, so maybe she’s not the best example, but I think there is something to calling your friend and not talking about comedy. What’s yours?
SR: I don’t know. I feel like the reason I ask is because I’ve had medical professionals and my parents and all my friends constantly telling me that was something I needed. Right now, I’m trying to find those things.
HH: I actually do have an embarrassing routine, I just realized.
SR: What is it?
HH: I went through a very, very horrible break-up about two years ago. After that, I had to get a weighted blanket because I literally couldn’t sleep. I was so used to touch. When you sleep with a partner, you give them so much love before bed, you know. (Laughs) And I realized I didn’t give myself any love before bed. So I do have something, which is that, if I’m really feeling self-hate, which I think is something that comes up a lot during this quarantine, I kiss my arm. I just give it a kiss.
HH: It sounds cheesy! But that’s why I make jokes on Twitter about kissing your little arm. I used to give so much love and kisses to whoever my partner was and I never used to acknowledge myself. So yeah, I’ll give my arm a little kiss and say, “Love you!”
SR: I guess I sort of do something similar. I slept in my parents’ bed until I was 11 years old.
HH: I had that too.
SR: No matter the night, I still have scary thoughts. I’m really freaked out going to bed alone, so I put a pillow against my back.
HH: I can only speak personally, but for me I realize, I’m not very good at being alone. So I’m trying to be patient with myself. I think I will get better with this. I like to be with other people, I like to hear other people talk. I miss sitting in a room of people, talking. Just being alone and talking to myself, it’s good I don’t do that often. (Laughs) But I think I’m going to start playing with it.
SR: And that’s the beauty of a phone call, that there’s another voice on the other end.
HH: I will admit that I do love doing therapy this way. I don’t do Skype, I just talk with my earbuds in and walk around my room. I have ADD so it’s actually sort of nice because I end up getting a task done while we talk.
SR: Yeah! I have ADD too and it’s very nice to have the auditory stimulation and then something to do with my hands. Doing therapy on the phone, I imagine, would be slightly more comfortable too, because you’re in a space of your own and you don’t have to make eye contact.
HH: Yeah, I think a lot of people should try it. It does feel better for me. [In the same vein,] I learned I could practice guitar while I watched TV. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I tried to play musical instruments growing up, but I didn’t know I had ADD— probably because my parents didn’t believe in itit in or something, cause boy, it was obvious— and when you have ADD, practicing an instrument gets really boring if you’re not good yet. But when I’m practicing moving my hands and fingers back and forth, not needing it to sound that good yet, I can have the TV on. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, trying two things at once. (Pause) I still can barely play. (Laughs)
SR: Hm, I’ve never thought of that. I learned when I was 13, and once you get it, it’s all muscle memory. That’s the nice thing about instruments.
HH: I’m definitely better than I have ever been when I tried practicing before. I think because I have distractions while I do it.
SR: Maybe your next project can be a singer-songwriter album.
HH: Right? I’m going to come out of this as a full musician. A man no longer can teach me.