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HBO’s Crashing proves that not every comedy about comedy has to be self-loathing

The new show from Pete Holmes and Judd Apatow has two key ingredients that keep it from going stale.

Pete Holmes, King Goof.
HBO

Both in life and when playing himself on HBO’s new semi-autobiographical comedy Crashing, Pete Holmes is a beaming labradoodle of a man who thinks being alive is just the most amazing thing.

He loves love, God, making new buds, street hot dogs, and performing stand-up comedy. His enthusiasm is boundless, his affection more generous than some can handle, and his khakis taller than most people.

Crashing tackles the turning point in Holmes’s life, when he discovered his wife was cheating on him, and he moved out of the suburbs to double down on trying to make it as a comic in New York City.

Rating


4


In this TV version of events, Pete has no apartment or reserves of cash to his name — he thought his wife supporting him while he toured open mics was like "putting someone through medical school" — leading him to depend on the sporadic kindness of people who will let him crash on their couches, even if his total earnestness tends to freak jaded New Yorkers out.

As produced by Judd Apatow, Crashing also features plenty of inside comedy baseball and cameos from higher profile comedians like Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman (playing themselves) to show Pete exactly what he could have, if only he could get his general shit together.

If you’re anything like me when I got the assignment to review Crashing, you might be thinking to yourself, “Dear God, do we really need another comedy about comedy?” The answer isn’t exactly “yes," because dear God, there really have been so many shows about comedy over the years (get ready for Showtime’s I'm Dying Up Here in June!). But Crashing makes a solid case for itself anyway by leaning into two distinctive features that set it apart.

Pete Holmes’s charm comes from him being unabashedly square

Things were good with Jess (Lauren Lapkus), until they weren’t. But Pete still thinks life is pretty okay!
HBO

That we have so many movies and TV shows about writers and comedians — from Annie Hall to 30 Rock shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise given the commonly accepted wisdom that people should write what they know. Usually these writer characters, whether directly based on the people who created them or not, are depicted as self-loathing misanthropes who tell jokes just to get through another grueling day of being a human. In recent years, Louis CK’s Louie has become the go to exemplary show for showing the ins and outs of being a working comedian, and it's often defined by the fact that he is miserable.

But on Crashing, even when Pete finds his wife Jess (Lauren Lapkus) sweating off a heated round of sex with another man, he doesn’t embrace pessimism. He's sad, but he’s not down.

Part of Pete's ability to look at his pain with a patient smile comes from stubborn denial, but even more stems from his religious faith — another unusual trait for an onscreen comedian. Pete is an earnest Christian. He married his wife after they went to Christian college together, and firmly believed — and still does in the first few episodes — that their union was part of God's plan.

He finds no joy or material in hating himself or others, and he gets uncomfortable when comics around him go "blue" with raunchy sets. This set of traits makes him about as much of an anomaly for a comedian starring in a show about his own life as a straight white guy comedian starring in a show about his own life can be.

Many of Crashing’s best moments come from the constant clash between Pete’s instinct to see the good in people and the cynical comedians around him eyeing his optimism with open suspicion. Artie Lange is confused and ultimately amused by his devout joy; TJ Miller calls him "fucking weird"; even Pete’s wife finally admits that she came to find him "creepy."

But Pete keeps on keeping on, insisting that there are laughs and fun to be had in good, clean fun. He can be so endearing that it truly is a shame that his jokes really aren't all that good — but the fact that the show lets him tell shitty jokes is another point in its favor.

Crashing is really good at telling really bad jokes

Today in real life, Pete Holmes is a successful comedian with an HBO show and long-running podcast (You Made It Weird). But Crashing takes place at a point in his life when he was still figuring out what he had to offer the world as a comedian. The series is more than happy to show him falling on his face while doing so.

Whenever Pete manages to get some time onstage in the first few episodes, he tends to crash and burn as some snarky audience member heckles him and scores more laughs than him. He consults his notes and tells vague jokes that feel like the half-former observations they ultimately are. He gets nervous, loses his footing, and looks out at the audience with the panicked eyes of a baby deer that just stumbled upon a merciless hunter. (So, yeah, okay, he’s Bambi.)

As Pete immerses himself more in comedy and takes advice from the veterans he meets along the way, his confidence visibly grows. His material gets sharper — or he at least learns how to sell it in a way that audiences, who can always smell the blood in the water of a bad set, can respect.

But it still takes time and patience for Pete to find a rhythm that makes sense for him, and he still struggles to tell jokes with more of a personality than “Albany! I like that, much better than just some of the -bany.”

So no, Crashing isn't about some brilliant, tortured comedian. It's about a decent guy trying to help people feel — as he puts it — “good and silly and fun and right,” stumbling gamely all the way. Being a comedian can be a thankless grind, but in Pete (not to mention Holmes’s) hands, it’s a joy to remember that the whole point is to make people laugh.

Crashing premieres Sunday February 19 at 10:30 pm EST on HBO.

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