Portraying stand-up comedy on the screen in a narrative form is nothing new. It is something that Hollywood has really tried hard to pull off, with oftentimes varying results. From the really good, like Funny People; to the not so good, like Punchline. There are so many factors that go into making any film or television series work, but capturing the stand-up community just right is one of the more challenging things you could set out to do in this business.
Perhaps the reason that Crashing, which second season airs Sunday nights on HBO, works so well is because the line is so well blurred between where the real Pete ends and the fictional Pete begins. And that is clearly no accident. There is something so fresh and authentic about Crashing, the latter of which is probably due in no small part to the fact that it is based upon the real life situation of Pete Holmes, who found himself divorced in New York, crashing on the couches of comics as he himself was trying to make it as a comedian.
In this season of Crashing, we see Pete really start coming into his own. We see him having his first one night stand, falling in love, questioning his faith, and overall realizing what it means to be doing stand-up comedy in New York, and how to take full advantage of the big city he’s in.
We talked to Pete Holmes over the phone recently about the show’s second season, the evolvement of his character, his character’s eye-opening moment with faith, as well as much else.
CAPTURING THE STAND-UP COMMUNITY
For the first season I remember we had several meetings about locations and where things would happen, what we could get and couldn’t get, and all that stuff. But maybe by virtue of having a second season, almost every time I wrote in the script, let’s say like “INT. Comedy Cellar,” we would shoot there. And so what’s great was I could just remember what was it actually like getting kicked out of the comics table, a table in the back just for comedians? And I’d write the scene as I literally experienced it. We turned the volume up a little bit, making it a little more punchy or interesting or dynamic. But almost every time I was drawing upon something that really happened to me.
PERMISSION TO FAIL
“I know I make this joke a lot, but I always say ‘That’s why the show is called Crashing, not flourishing. I want to slow it down as much as possible, because doing stand-up takes FOREVER. It deserves an entire series to explore the nuances of failure that you have to undergo, even just to be an amateur comedian, forget about making it. Just to become a successful person telling jokes on stage involves so much failure. And that I think is the huge underlining message of the show is that if it sucks, you’re doing it right. Marina Franklin says that to my character. And that to me is, maybe not THE thesis of the show, but it’s one of them. Whatever your pursuit is, it doesn’t have to be comedy… I think it’s fun that you can project whatever your dream is onto my character… The dues you have to pay take so long. Everything in our world is so instant that the only things left that take forever, as far as I can see, is pregnancy and show business or some sort of artistic pursuit. Meaning there are these reminders that ‘Yeah, these worthwhile things take years and years and years and years.’ And there’s just not too many people telling that story. We like to see things done like a montage of struggling and then Pete is better, and I’m happy to say that HBO, Judd, and myself are all on the same page with this. We want to tell this as close to real time as we can, without being too monotonous, painful, or boring.”
CRASHING PETE VS. REAL PETE
“Everything’s based on something that happened to somebody on our staff. It’s all rooted in reality. But we do get more and more away [in the second season] from stuff that happened word for word. But there’s always a through line of something that either I can relate to or did happen to me. Like the fourth episode of the second season deals with jealousy of a friend getting a job that Pete wanted. And that exact situation hasn’t happened to me, and my jealousy didn’t manifest exactly in that way, but I could certainly relate to that idea. But overall, I did date a comedian [as seen in the second season]. It wasn’t the first person after my wife, but I kind of blended a couple relationships into one. So that’s all real. My character learning how to separate sex from love and all these sort of things which I really had to figure out and was very confusing for me. And discovering the alt-scene. Having an alternative comedian tell me ‘I think you’d do better in the alt scene.’ Dating a comedian is real, alt scene is real, and then getting into the college market, and what a dog and pony show that whole thing is. That’s all sequential to my life. And I think as we keep going, as we’re dealing with a show that has dozens of stories and little moments and things, three big chunks of reality kind of serve as a guide post. The show as a whole might be this kind of complex river, but we put these blocks in it of things that really happened to me to kind of help control the flow of the water.”
TRUTHFUL FAN ENCOUNTERS
“Someone might come up to me and say ‘Hey, I got married when I was 22 and my wife left me and I was Evangelical and all these things.’ I like that. It’s not the whole picture, because I don’t know them, so it’s para-social. But I enjoy that people feel this openness to come up and talk about that, and quite frankly, it doesn’t really weird me out. I kind of wish the world were more like that, that we would share our insecurities and failures and find similarities with one another, instead of all going around and wearing masks and pretending like everything’s fine. It would be a healthier world if we could just B-line at the grocery store, and turn to somebody and be like ‘My wife left me, too.’ I like that world. It’s such an open place.”
RELIGION AND COMEDY
“The truth is the majority of comedians are atheists. I think one of the things that we’ve done, that I’ve done on my podcast, is covered that a lot of people define atheism as not believing a man with a beard on a throne on a cloud in the sky. And one of my favorite things to do, even though I do believe in God, is to share that I don’t believe in THAT God either. It’s like ‘We don’t believe in the same God,’ which is a bonding place, and then you can begin to really have the conversation about how people tell the story of the universe to themselves when they’re stuck in traffic or a loved one dies or they think about their own morality. So people often say that atheism is kind of a catch-all to say ‘Let’s not talk about it,’ or ‘I don’t think about it very much,’ which is fine. But when I was starting, I think one of the only other Christians I knew was my wife.”
PENN JILLETTE TEACHES PETE
“I loved Penn in the season premiere being sort of the amalgamation of all of those [comedians who opened his eyes about religion] because he does it so compassionately. A lot of that scene was improvised, and even the parts that were written were based on a conversation that he and I had. And I’m a big fan of Ricky Gervais and Bill Mahr, but they wouldn’t have been right in my mind to reach a character like my character. Bill Mahr goes the sarcastic approach sometimes. We can’t have that scene, and have him be like ‘Do you really believe a snake gave an apple to a woman?’ That’s not the sort of argument that would break a character like mine or a person like me. What does get into my brain is somebody like Penn Jillette. He said things that we didn’t even include, which were like ‘Don’t you think it’s selfish to live in this world and only want more? Or to see that reality is only an entrée into Heaven?’ And I was like ‘Wow. He is really kind of blowing my mind.’ So I wanted someone that was like warm and convincing and fun about their atheism, instead of any kind of snark or even cold, hard facts. I don’t think that’s necessarily what challenges a believer like I was.”
THE DIFFICULT ARTIE EPISODE
“Artie [Lange] loves the show and we love Artie. I think the 6th episode [which is titled “Artie”] is probably the most special episode we’ve done. It was difficult to do, obviously, for everybody. Between season 1 and 2, Artie got in trouble again. We kind of went through the first season, going ‘I just hope it goes away,’ like you do with a lot of people who are addicts. ‘He seems okay. He seems healthy. It seems good for him to be working.’ Whatever you might want to tell yourself. Now we’re all close with Artie and we all love him and we’re all friends. And in between seasons 1 and 2, he gets arrested, and it becomes very clear that he’s not really trying to stop in the ways that we were hoping. So Judd was like ‘Okay, Artie obviously wants to keep doing the show. Obviously we want Artie to keep doing the show. But we have to set up some boundaries for him for his health and his life.’ And then we were like ‘We need to find a way to talk about that.’ Everybody knows. Let’s put it this way. I wasn’t like ‘Let’s write the difficult Artie episode.’ Judd was like ‘We have to write the difficult Artie episode.’ It was Judd’s courage to be like ‘We need to tackle this head on. You need to call Artie and talk to him about his addiction, why he doesn’t stop, how he deals with everyone telling him to stop, what his life is like.’ And then the first thing Artie and I even talked about was ‘Are you open to even doing this?’ Before a word was written. And Artie, as on Stern and his podcast and his books, can’t stop talking about it. He wants as many people as possible to hear his story in the hopes that people won’t start doing heroin. That’s something he says on the show and all the time that his fantasy is that he could’ve stopped himself from trying it the first time. So we started talking about it, Artie and I started improvising, Judd and I started writing this down and were showing it to him, and then we’d have more conversations.”
“What ended up happening was there is a little bit of a therapy offered in dramatizing a real struggle. It gives you this kind of third-person perspective on something that’s happening to you, and Artie is still struggling with. What we’re doing is having the conversation that we’ve wanted to have in real life but we’re acting it and he’s playing the part of Artie, and it kind of gives you distance from it. I can say with me, like with my divorce for example, which is clearly a much smaller of a thing, but it gave me this perspective of an outsider. And from that outsider perspective, you can start kind of tweaking some of your emotions and some of your interpretations of behavior. And Artie said that he did find that it was therapeutic. And I know that I did, because it’s a pretty big elephant in the room.”
Crashing Season 2 is currently airing Sundays at 9:30 pm EST on HBO. You can also stream the show on the HBO GO app.