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Pete Holmes Is the Happiest Comedian on TV

‘Crashing’ is different from the now-familiar genre of comedy about comedians. It’s willing to get warm, and weird — and so is the guy who created it.

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

Pete Holmes can’t believe Crashing, his HBO comedy series, got made, either. “In reality, I was barking about 10 years ago,” he says, referring to the practice of rookie comedians shilling on behalf of a club for the chance to test out new material. “Frankly, I can’t believe in that time nobody’s scooped us. Nobody did this show.” But Crashing’s greatest barrier to entry was dissuading his potential audience’s impression that several someones already had.

Every new series faces a burden of proof — a threshold it has to meet to convince viewers to invest their precious time. Crashing’s was twofold. Along with executive producer Judd Apatow, creator and star Holmes had the unenviable task of selling potential fans who weren’t especially interested in any formerly struggling comedian’s thinly veiled origin story, let alone the tidal wave of them that washed up on television’s shores after Louie. Holmes also had a more unique challenge: making his own story new for those who’d already heard it, in some cases many times over.

“People joke with me, ‘How many things do you have to do where you talk about your personal life?’” Holmes says. “Are you gonna run out of stuff?” He’s referring, in part, to You Made It Weird, the enormously popular interview-confessional-comedy-riff podcast he started in 2011. The obvious reference point is WTF With Marc Maron; the shows share a reputation for personal revelation and have boosted their hosts’ careers. But You Made It Weird, and Crashing after it, is suffused with Holmes’s warm, gregarious energy, the polar opposite of the jaded, cynical nihilist typified by Maron and representative of stand-up comedy. Holmes freely describes himself as an “L.A. weirdo,” a yoga-enthusiast vegan who’s just as likely to name-drop How to Be Here author Rob Bell as industry pals like John Mulaney or Kumail Nanjiani. He reserves a section of every episode for asking guests about their feelings on God, and talks about relationships with a sensitivity he’s well aware is atypical for a straight white guy.

As a host, Holmes is an open book, resulting in the asymmetrical intimacy that certain podcasts engender. Holmes may not know us, but we know plenty of deeply personal things about him. I’ve listened for years and can easily summarize the chapters of Holmes’s biography that now serve as Crashing’s source material: the devout Christian upbringing that gradually morphed into New Age spirituality; the marriage straight out of college, ending in divorce six years later when his wife left him for another man; the early, undignified days in comedy doing open mics and taking UCB classes. For fans like me, Crashing isn’t merely a case of having seen this story before. We’ve seen — or, rather, heard — this exact story before.

“I know exactly what you mean,” Holmes says when I bring up the cluttered field his show has plunged into, and he makes his own case for what sets it apart. “It’s [about] a religious guy whose wife leaves him who happens to be a comedian” — a comedian named Pete Holmes.

Crashing, which was renewed for a second season on Wednesday, is about quite a bit more than that, starting with the insular subculture of working comedians, particularly its bottom rungs. After his wife, Jessica (Lauren Lapkus), breaks the news, Pete throws himself on the mercy of various acquaintances who have a spare couch and starts hustling for gigs. But Crashing’s specificity comes from that core idea and the tensions it produces. “It’s very interesting to me to see a show about a guy in a compromising situation and in an often compromising field, but even as he dives into it, he’s going to try to maintain pieces of his soul,” Holmes explains.

That same contradiction drives Holmes’s appeal as a performer. He’s not a clean comic in the vein of Mike Birbiglia or Jim Gaffigan, and his optimism doesn’t stand out in the current landscape as much as it once might have. (A New York Times trend piece on “sweet-tempered stand-up” name-checks him alongside a half dozen colleagues, including Ron Funches and Josh Gondelman.) But the novelty of a person like Holmes ending up on a place like the Manhattan open-mic circuit is instantly apparent in episodes like “Barking,” where his character beseeches Greenwich Village tourists to come to a comedy club in the hopes of earning five minutes onstage. “People would think I was on drugs or there was something wrong with me or I was mentally unstable because I was so happy to just be handing out fliers in exchange for stage time,” he says. “That was real.”

(HBO)
(HBO)

What made Holmes such an unnatural fit for his chosen path so early on is now what makes his show so distinct. “Every single one of us goes through about a decade of stinking, on average, and we can tell that story,” Holmes admits. “But there’s also something really fun about telling the truth, and the truth is that it’s not all bad stuff.” Crashing is as interested in asking how to be a good opener for an established road act as it is in exploring a breakup. The former may sound niche to the point of alienation, but Crashing’s interest in the minutiae of stand-up counterintuitively works in its favor. Pete-the-character is plunging into this strange microverse right alongside us. (Did you know you can make a decent living as Rachael Ray’s warm-up act? He didn’t either!) The crucial addition is Holmes’s infectious enthusiasm. Show-biz comedies are often a nonstop torrent of apathetic drudgery, suffused with a familiar cerebral, narcissistic insecurity. The running joke of Difficult People is that its antiheroes will never make it, and the moral of BoJack Horseman is that success doesn’t buy happiness. Crashing, on the other hand, throws Pete a few W’s after he takes the biggest L of his life.

There’s a natural ceiling on just how dark a show based on Holmes’s own life can get, and not just because of his temperament. “I have to point out that it’s inherent because you know, not that I’m some superstar comedian, it does work out for me, for Pete,” Holmes confesses. “Even as you’re watching it, there’s a meta thing going on. No matter how much we kick fictional me down, you have to pick up on — and I think people do, subconsciously — that it’s gonna be OK. Kid’s got an HBO show. It’s fine.” Crashing skips past the paradox that defines shows like Girls or Broad City, stories about hapless slackers authored by people motivated and accomplished enough to get something on the air. But its warmth also serves a thematic purpose.

“We wanted to simultaneously do something that has the harsh reality of what it’s like to be a stand-up, but then also tallies the inherent joy when someone knows what they want to do and what they think they might be good at,” Holmes says. “I liked Entourage, but Entourage was always like, ‘There’s a problem, but then they get over it pretty quickly and Vinnie does the movie,’ you know what I mean? We’re working in more of a famine. You’re just so happy when Pete finds a single crust of bread, and that means so much more to him than someone who’s living in a bounty.” Pete isn’t yet immersed enough to take his employment for granted the way the comfortably situated title characters of Seinfeld or Louie do, their jobs more frequently mined for interstitial bits than conflict (with some exceptions). His reduced social status leaves him vulnerable, giving him a dream to lose and an entire livelihood to gain. Though Pete starts significantly lower on the food chain, his career’s upward trend feels like an extension of Holmes’s obvious affection for his craft.

Fortunately, that affection never slips into self-regard. Crashing tweaks Pete’s ego as well as his peers’. A hostile club audience jeers him offstage in a scene from the pilot that exemplifies Crashing’s delicately calibrated approach to Pete’s performances: They’re good enough that we can recognize there’s real talent there, but bad enough that we can see just how many man-hours he needs to put in. For a performer who’s now selling out theaters, it’s an impressive demonstration of perspective on his early work and a willingness to admit its faults. Later, his now-ex-wife instantly shoots down T.J. Miller’s self-important rant comparing comedians to philosophers. Holmes credits that spirit to Apatow, who takes on a similar advisory role as he does with Girls and Love: guiding a first-time creator into the world of grounded, serialized storytelling. “He has a good eye for when it starts to get a little preachy, or when it starts getting a little ham-fisted,” Holmes says. “I had no idea that [producing] is so hands-on. I always thought it was just some guy smoking a cigar and occasionally phoning in notes on a red telephone.”

One of Crashing’s recurring themes is that, to improve his act, Pete has to plumb greater depths than the “What’s the deal with X?” material he’s starting with — like, for example, the divorce he’s going through. Crashing takes its own advice, clearly buying into the mythos of stand-up as truth-teller even as it’s careful to write in some pushback to its more overblown incarnations.

“Mike Birbiglia said this thing which became my mantra for the series: If you’re not telling secrets, who cares?” Holmes recounts. “You can just meet somebody at a party and then you look them up and you know they’re widowed. That’s a very strange moment we’re living in. How much more, then, does the artist, as their job, have to reveal? How much deeper do they have to dig to find anything that’s worth talking about?” The confessional instinct is relatively new in the history of stand-up, and it’s still not universally practiced; comics like Anthony Jeselnik still make a living off of polished, self-contained one-liners. It is, however, increasingly expected as comics make ever more of themselves available through outlets like podcasts. “We started consuming the whole buffalo, and I think that changed the face of comedy,” Holmes speculates. “It’s not necessarily enough to — I mean, Seinfeld is so timeless and amazing, but nowadays the Seinfeld model is like, What is Jerry struggling with emotionally?”

(HBO)
(HBO)

Accordingly, Crashing itself is a catharsis of sorts. Holmes describes the process of mining his own past — of making this show — as a therapeutic exercise in empathy. “If you did go through a trauma, it would be a good exercise to write a script about it, because you have to imagine it from everyone’s perspective, not just your own,” he says. “You have to write your wife as a sympathetic human being that wants love and has desires and feels this way and wants this thing and acts this way. And you have to write the guy that has sex with your wife in a mildly realistic way, which was interesting.”

Crashing’s strongest moments come from this willingness to look at Pete’s life from multiple points of view: that of the unfulfilled woman supporting her husband’s dreams as well as the flailing man-child being supported by his wife. “I think most movies and TV shows where a guy’s wife leaves, usually the next scene or two scenes later, he’s at a bar and getting drunk and having lots of anonymous sex, doing all the things he wasn’t ‘allowed’ to do when he was married,” Holmes says. “But this show is about a guy [who] never wanted to or thought he would have sex with anybody else,” and has to readjust his self-image accordingly. That’s how we get crushing scenes like the climax of “Yard Sale,” when Pete’s wife tells him she might have been willing to bankroll his striving if she were really in love with him. No one’s at fault here, because everyone is.

As far as whether he’ll ever run out of material, Holmes says he’s far from done with the comedy come-up: “It’s like, what are the other weird hurdles you have to jump? Each one is weirder and funnier than the last.” An L.A. interlude isn’t out of the question, and there’s always the potential for more comedians-playing-themselves cameos from the likes of Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman. For now, though, Crashing has a nearly infinite amount of space between show-Pete’s and real-Pete’s stations in life to turn into sad-absurd-deadpan-emotional comedy. There doesn’t seem to be room for Crashing in the current TV landscape, but Holmes has managed to make some anyway. He’ll keep making it weird.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.