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Pete Holmes tells us about bringing evangelical Christian standup “Pete Holmes” to TV

His new HBO series Crashing finds its material in the comic and podcast host’s life story.

Crashing
Pete, with nowhere else to go, takes a ride on the subway in Crashing.
HBO

The very thought of yet another semi-autobiographical TV show, starring a comedian, set in and around the world of comedy or show business, could make viewers roll their eyes. We have Louie, 30 Rock, even Curb Your Enthusiasm. Do we really need another show like this?

Crashing, HBO’s new entry in this oft-brimming subgenre, is eager to change your mind. What makes the show so good is its dedication to chronicling every detail of the rise of a young comic, Pete, who’s played by comic Pete Holmes. Today, Holmes is perhaps best known for his podcast You Made It Weird, but Crashing essentially takes his biography wholesale — he was raised an evangelical Christian, he married his college sweetheart, and then they divorced right as his comedy career was starting to take off — and turns it into a TV show. (Holmes co-created the show with comedy legend Judd Apatow.)

The series is autobiographical in another sense, too: It’s incredibly interested in the nuts and bolts of becoming a comic. Crashing is almost a procedural, obsessed with the process of standup comedy, of writing jokes, of learning to be comfortable onstage. You probably won’t learn how to be a standup simply from watching, just like Law & Order won’t teach you how to solve crimes, but you might get closer than you’d ever imagine. Pete’s struggles with the comedy world, the dissolution of his marriage, and his own upbringing ring true, in the way autobiographical comedy often does.

I recently hopped on the phone with Holmes to discuss how working on Crashing required him to embrace his worst standup moments, what his podcast taught him about acting, and the importance of telling stories about evangelical Christians in Hollywood.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Crashing HBO

Todd VanDerWerff

This character is you, but also not you. And the place where that’s most obvious is in his jokes, which are good, but not good enough to be as funny as you can be. How did you create a comedian who shows promise, without making him immediately amazing?

Pete Holmes

All the standup of Pete's needs to be — he's not good, but you could see how maybe he will be good. Honestly, that's the feeling of the first five years of doing standup for everyone that I know, certainly myself. You, yourself, go, "I'm not good, but I think maybe I'll be good if I keep at it."

It's a little bit like an actor crying. An actor who looks like they're trying to cry, it doesn't look right. That's something actors told me: You have to look like you're trying not to cry, because that's what people do when they're really crying. So I have to look like I'm trying to do well, but I secretly don't want to do too well. And honestly ... some of the most traumatic stuff that we did was the bombing, because even though it's in the script, it still hurts.

I would do a lot of old material. I would do a lot of stuff that was from that period in my life. So we're not just guessing what it might sound like when he's starting in standup. And [if we get a season two], we know what I'll be doing from that time, and thankfully the jokes are funnier, but it's not just gonna jump to being great standup. It's gonna take us through every step of the way.

Todd VanDerWerff

There are times throughout Crashing’s first six episodes when it seems like he’s just going to pull it all together and suddenly be great, but that never happens. He just steadily gets a little bit better and a little bit better. Do you remember moments when you felt like you were figuring that stuff out for yourself?

Pete Holmes

Every once in a while [while writing Crashing], we'd pitch something like, "Oh, and wouldn't it be great if at the end he goes back up and he just destroys. He learns the lesson, and now he has the keys to the kingdom and he's a great comedian." But one of the reasons the show is called Crashing is that there are all these ups, but there are downs, and the downs are really funny. The ups keep us from being depressed or giving up hope, but it's really the comedy that we find in those crazy downs that keeps the show going.

There are a number of times [I remember in my own life]. One time, I was still married. It was one of the few times my wife came to watch me do standup. I was doing 30 minutes, something I had never really done before. One of the weird relaxing things of standup is that it's not about the words. It seems like it is, but it really has so much more to do with your confidence and your comfort level and your delivery and your presence and your playfulness.

I remember that show I went up, and there weren't a lot of people there, and I was improvising and adapting the jokes for the room. Maybe someone would shout something out, and instead of having that stop me, I would incorporate that and have it redeemed and bring it to a funny conclusion. My wife was like, "I saw you as a headliner tonight. You were behaving like a real comedian would behave onstage."

In the beginning, you're just doing an impression of what you think a comedian would do onstage, and then slowly but surely, on a few magic nights, you would go up and the impression would become authentic, and suddenly, just for a moment, you really were a comedian.

Crashing
T.J. Miller (right) appears as himself.
HBO

Todd VanDerWerff

TV Pete gets a lot of advice from other comics, and some of it is good and some of it is bad. Some of it sounds good but then turns out to not be good advice at all. Do you remember any advice you received that maybe sounded good but didn’t work for you?

Pete Holmes

One of the great fortuitous things about when I was starting was every time I took a road gig, because I was clean, I would get paired with these really great comedians that often, I know now, would ask for a clean opener because it's always better to have a clean opener. You'll be the first one to say "fuck," and it's way funnier if you're the first person to say "fuck."

I remember that I was bombing, and I said to [comedian] Bill Burr, "I just don't know what to do. I tell a joke, and it hangs there, and everybody knows that I know it sucked, but I don't know what to do." And Bill was like, "If you tell a joke that sucks, just say, 'Well, that sucked. Sorry about that.'"

And he's right, but I wasn't good enough. If you're gonna heckle yourself, essentially, you need to have the joke you do after that moment be very, very good. And if all of your jokes are pretty bad, you can't just be like, "Well, that sucks," and then do another bad joke. If you're Bill Burr and you do a joke, and it doesn't work, and you know the next joke should be great, you can be like, "Oh, well that joke didn't work," and then do a great joke. That's when the advice makes sense. But when you're too new, sometimes the advice that works for the pros doesn't work for the amateurs.

Todd VanDerWerff

There’s a moment in Crashing where T.J. Miller essentially says that he can see where your TV character will be funny, even if he’s not a funny comedian just yet. And I’ve seen young comedians like that, where you can see they have promise but just aren’t there yet. How can you determine whether somebody has promise, even if they’re not yet very good?

Pete Holmes

We really are dealing with some sort of X-factor, which is funny because the first time I saw T.J., he wasn't doing very well, but I was watching him, and I was like, "What the hell is going on here?" You just knew it. We all did. It was a terrible crowd, but he was doing the thing that none of us [could do]. That confidence — something was going on that was undeniable. That's really the name of the game, trying to get to a point where even if they don't like you, you're still doing your thing in this undeniable way. You’re going to stick to your guns, and you're going to stay grounded in your persona.

I just did the Today show, and the stage manager, the production assistant, a young lady with her headset who's probably not making very much money, was so funny. In improv we say, "Yes, and." You agree, and then you add to it. She was just doing that instinctively and making me and my girlfriend laugh. And we were like, "Have you studied improv? You have to."

Sometimes you just need somebody to say, "Hey, I think you're great. I don't know what it is, but I think you have something." Countless people did that for me. It's almost in the same field as romantic attraction. You have an instinct that goes, "I think you're one of us."

Todd VanDerWerff

You host one of my favorite podcasts. How does doing a podcast feed into your comedy and acting, and vice versa?

Pete Holmes

People are like, "Acting is listening. It's reacting." On the podcast, something that I never thought would inform acting, I got all this practice listening to people, reading facial cues, learning rhythms of other people. Especially on a TV show like Crashing, where every episode there's a different guest, and I had to learn how to adapt and give them space to be themselves and really figure out who I am when I'm with them, that really did feel like the podcast.

If on Tuesday you were doing a scene with T.J. Miller and he's larger than life, you find your space there. And then if on Wednesday you're with Sarah Silverman, who's so sweet and more relaxed, you have to figure out your rhythm with her. It's almost like boxing with someone. You figure out how to defend and blend with them. That's definitely something I got from the podcast.

In general, the experiment of the podcast was how much can I share before you hate me? And the wonderful answer was, as long as you're authentic and not a dick about it, people have a much higher tolerance than I ever imagined for listening to you air out your demons and your shortcomings and your failures. Then how much more was I ready to do an episode about how my mother is in love with me on HBO, because I had already discussed that for hundreds of hours on the podcast?

Crashing
Lauren Lapkus stars as Pete’s soon-to-be ex-wife Jessica.
HBO

Todd VanDerWerff

You and I both grew up in evangelical Christian households, and I was really into a comedian named Mike Warnke, and listened to his albums over and over. Were you into Christian comedy at all, even before you were thinking about standup as a profession?

Pete Holmes

I was more into Christian rock. I never really got exposed to Christian comedy, but I did kind of do Christian comedy when I was in college. I was in a sketch group that would write these morality plays that were somewhat funny, and at the end they would have some message about how you shouldn't get an abortion. Kind of embarrassing, but that's true. I also did improv all four years in college, where you would get in big trouble if you said bastard or something, where you can be salacious for something that you could say on network TV at 3 pm. A heightened sense of keep it clean, keep it appropriate.

A big moment for me was in church in youth group one day, the pastor, maybe a visiting pastor, played Bill Cosby's routine about Noah building the ark. That was a big aha moment. Of course it turns out that Bill Cosby is a bad person, which is a shame because it kind of ruins the point I thought I was learning, which was: There's a way to do comedy that isn't going to get me kicked out of my community.

Ultimately, I would end up leaving that community, not with any bad feelings — I've kind of moved on to other things. But I certainly didn't want to get kicked out. So for a long time, that's why I really loved clean comedy, and Brian Regan and a lot of these guys that have large Christian followings because of how clean they are. Brian is the biggest show in Utah. It sells out in about two seconds because he's one of the few options you have if you want to go to a show and you know there'll be no swearing and nothing even slightly naughty. And he’s amazing!

Todd VanDerWerff

You’ve worked clean and dirty. What are the challenges on both sides of that divide?

Pete Holmes

I look at it just like life. Most of us start life with more rigid rules. We go to school and you can't wear a hat or you can't chew gum or you have to sit where they tell you to sit. Seeing the comedy version of that is interesting. What happens if we impose rules on ourselves? You can be dirty, but what happens if you say, "I'm gonna do this work with one hand tied behind my back"?

Clean comedy used to be my favorite kind of comedy. The reason I say “used to be” is I think the next step in that evolution is to say, "Okay, I know the rules, and as the Dalai Lama says, now I know how to break them well." So I still somewhat consider myself a clean comedian, even though I say "fuck" and "shit," because I don't think it's about the words. It's about your attitude, your vibration. It's how you're coming across. Is this a love person, or is this a fear person? Is this a silly person, or is this an angry person?

All that being said, I still think Brian Regan is the best comedian working, and he's clean. I don't think that's a mistake. He's running with weights, and that's going to keep him way fitter than some of us that are just out here saying whatever thought crosses our mind.

Todd VanDerWerff

There’s been a lot of talk since the election about what blue America doesn’t understand about red America and vice versa. And even though this is accidentally true, your show is really well-positioned to talk about those things, being about an evangelical Christian working in the New York standup scene. What do you think Hollywood gets wrong about evangelicals, and what do evangelicals misunderstand about Hollywood?

Pete Holmes

This is an exciting opportunity, because I'm writing a show about an evangelical, and I was raised evangelical, and one other person in our staff was raised in a similar tradition. And it was fun because others in the writers’ room would be so unfamiliar with what our world is like and what our practice is like or even what our politics are. Like a lot of things, it can get reduced to, "Oh, they're probably Republican," or, "They're probably anti–gay marriage.” These things boil down to three or four facts that help you go, "Well, those aren't my people then."

There is this sort of trend — I'm talking about Hollywood in the '70s and '80s and '90s, big-picture Hollywood — to convey religious people as crazy. You see that a lot in horror movies. There are often perverted religious beliefs that make you kill or torture, or you see the religious character being completely unwilling to change or grow or bend.

We have an exciting opportunity with Crashing to show someone who's loving God but the best they know how, the way they were taught, and the way they are familiar with. Hopefully, we’ll see and relate more to Pete than maybe other religious characters on other shows. I'd like to think that in the second season we'll see some of those [political and social] issues brought up, and we won't have to see some sort of [prejudiced] kind of character but really someone who's more like Christ, who went around and hung out with the lepers and the prostitutes and loved and learned and opened a safe space for these people.

I'm curious to see what evangelicals or Christians in general think about our show. Certainly Pete is shedding his faith, and it's going to evolve and adapt in ways that might not be part of the church's mission statement, but also I hope they can go, "Hey, thank goodness this was a guy who was trying to love his neighbor, who was trying to love God."

Instead of some sort of nutjob or weirdo or unintelligent backwater goofball who still believes in a man in the sky who is mad when he masturbates, if we can add a little bit of specification to well-meaning, intelligent people interpreting this tradition in the best way they know how, and then also see that be malleable and see potential for growth and conversing with people who don't agree with him in a peaceable and open way, that could be potentially pretty healing for Christians and for show business, both sides.

I have lofty ideas about the show, but I'd like to think that maybe we could heal some of these things.

Crashing airs Sundays at 10:30 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go.

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