Judd Apatow and Pete Holmes' new series for HBO asks a simple question: Is dysfunction really essential for good comedy?
Crashing tracks Pete, an aspiring stand-up comic, who travels from suburbia to the hardscrabble comedy scene of New York City after his wife, Jess, leaves him. But for a comic, much less a husband recently separated from his wife, Pete is astonishingly upbeat.
The show explores the pleasures of watching this well-meaning newbie rub against comedy's most talented and edgily virulent pessimists. Pete Holmes — playing a younger version of himself — is as pleasant as he is useless. He's never had a real job. He's comfortable letting his wife support him, and even sees it as his due (he compares their arrangement to someone supporting a spouse through medical school). But here's the twist: Pete is uniquely untroubled by self-loathing. He likes himself just fine. He sleeps well. He doesn't drink or do drugs, and — this is key — he doesn't care that he isn't cool. He gets along with his parents, he's religious, he's well-meaning, and sincere. The upshot of all this is that the cool kids of comedy — including Sarah Silverman and Artie Lange — take pity on him and start setting him up with gigs and couches.
It's an unlikely premise, to be sure. And it's unclear whether Pete's inability to be properly depressive means he's fated to be mediocre. More generally, though, the show feels like a sunnily contrarian corrective to a trend — ushered in by Louis CK's terrific show Louie — of interesting and ambitious "dramedies" featuring damaged comedians. Louie was followed by Maron, Lady Dynamite, and One Mississippi — all shows about the struggles of successful comics who become accidental casualties of their own expertise. Stand-up is hard, and the combination of sensitivity and grit it requires is a perfect recipe for human misery (and makes for pretty effective TV).
But the secret ingredient of all these series is genius: that these people are remarkably good at what they do authorizes their failings in other areas. Their perceptiveness, coupled with their jadedness and need, allows them to transcend the ordinary. Their reactions are not the "normal" reactions. Their conversations aren't normal conversations.
Crashing, by contrast, is almost aggressively normal. The show had to carve out some space in saturated terrain, and it tries to do so in a few different ways. For one, it's explicitly about amateurs. According to Apatow, "Crashing is about open mic-ers and people who aren't good yet, which I don't think I've ever seen handled as deeply as this. It's an interesting world of people who are trying to escape real work by doing something like this, and yet you have to suffer so much to get good at it."
For another, Pete Holmes brings his dopey, stable, likeable persona to bear on a tradition that generally likes to position its protagonists as edgy and on the brink. An opening monologue from his delightful but short-lived talk show encapsulates his affect pretty well:
I wasn't high school cool, but you know what I was? Camp cool! Summer camp! A place where a good attitude and participation make you popular? I was like the Fonz, baby! Let the cool kids have their summers mending their lacrosse nets and learning to take off a bra with one hand. Me? I'll be by the lake dutifully observing the buddy system. That's more my jam.
Holmes is a tremendous stand-up and comic actor (watch him as Badman or Professor X if you don't believe me). And if his recent HBO special Faces and Sounds showcases his gift for pulling laughs out of long silences and meta-narratives about his bits, it also registers his stubborn commitment to joy as a comedic principle. A devotee of Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass, Holmes has no use for people who brag that they're a "hard laugh." "Yeah," he says (in a bit that doubles as a coded message to too-cool-for-school comics), "work on that."
And maybe there's room for a joyous approach to the stand-up life.
The trouble with Crashing's first few episodes, however, is that it's fighting on multiple fronts. For one thing, it seems to be challenging some genre conventions that have already been pretty successfully deconstructed. It's true that Louie and Maron sometimes fetishize the damage that makes their comedy possible, but plenty of shows have addressed that. Aziz Ansari's Master of None demonstrated that you don't have to be dysfunctional to be a stand-up. Maria Bamford proved (with Lady Dynamite) that misanthropy doesn't have to be the default mode for a show about a comic (even a sometimes suicidal one). In Better Things, Pamela Adlon celebrates the massive difficulty of remaining functional, offering a withering critique of those who find poetry in remaining a mess.
So what does Crashing bring to that overflowing table of meta-commentary about the stand-up life? Well, Pete Holmes. And Pete Holmes, it's worth saying again, is a real pleasure onscreen. His adventures with Artie Lange and Sarah Silverman are amusing to watch. Some scenes are downright hilarious. But the show doesn't rise to anything like "great TV," and that's because Holmes — a fantastic comedian when he's given space to be — must play an amateur here. It's his job to seem mediocre.
That hamstrings the show's ability to reach beyond the obvious. Remember Louie's tremendous encounter with Joan Rivers in Louie? That could be a productive dialogue between two comics because Louie, though nowhere as experienced as Rivers, brought some expectations and misapprehensions to the table that gave the characters room to disagree. Holmes' character, by contrast, is an utter naïf. He has nothing to offer, no resistance or point of view beyond fawning adoration and assertions of his whitebread background.
And because Holmes' normalcy is so much of the story, even though it remains unarticulated, there isn't much meat to a lot of the dialogue. One of the most interesting scenes in Crashing takes place between Pete and his mother, who offers a surprisingly accurate assessment of his act. But the scene doesn't go anywhere. It's unclear whether Holmes even heard her; he might just see this as the latest instance of suffocating mothering.
This is the trouble with shows about stand-up. Apatow has long been fascinated with insider stuff about the climb to the top, but Funny People proved that it's hard to make that rich material pay dividends. The perils — the sheer loneliness of stand-up — are fascinating (and explored in fascinating detail in Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton's upcoming documentary Dying Laughing, which airs Feb. 24). But it's not quite enough of a hook to sustain a character this airy, this dopey, this light.
Pete's mother advises him to find a point of view. I hope the show does the same. Its ingredients are delightful; it just doesn't know what it wants to be yet.