There’s always been this sort of mystique around the world of stand-up. You’re sitting there, literally and figuratively, in the dark. The lights come up and right from the start, you’re brought in. You’re watching the show and you’re laughing and having a good time, but there’s something more. There’s something just as powerful and funny going on behind it all as well that there’s this impulse to want to see.
Crashing, which had its third season premise Sunday night on HBO, does for stand up what The Larry Sanders Show once did for talk shows. It gives you a glimpse into just how much work and effort goes into making that thing you love to watch. (That comparison should come as no surprise, given that Executive Producer Judd Apatow got his start writing and directing episodes of Larry Sanders). If you were to stumble upon Crashing knowing very little about the inner-workings of the stand-up world, by the end of a season, you can walk away truly feeling like you’ve experienced the ups and downs without ever leaving the comfort of your own living room (or your bathroom, perhaps, if you’re watching it on HBO Go).
Stand-up comedy is in a bit of resurgence again, thanks in part to the release of so many specials and the success of shows like Crashing. It’s that thing that has always been there, but it’s a show like Crashing that reminds you both why it has always been here and why it always will. There’s so much humanity within the world of stand-up, even as you watch someone onstage that may seem to be super-human. It’s not and they’re not. It’s relating.
And with the character of Pete Holmes, that humanity is never more apparent. The character lives within this contained roller coaster of ups and downs. Much like life there’s an unpredictability to Pete’s career ups and downs, and that’s why audiences can relate to him so well. You can apply what Pete is going through in stand-up to whatever you’re going through currently, and it all somehow still works. Whether he struggles to understand why he didn’t make the cut when the person he took under his wing did or the internal struggle of whether all the money he’s making as part of a Christian tour is worth him is allowing him to be who he currently is onstage. While these seem isolated incidents, they’re really not. We can all relate to something eerily similar. That’s the true breath of fresh air.
This is part two of our two part interview with Pete Holmes. This time, we talk to Pete about season 3, the evolution of his character, how to write stand up for a sitcom, the smaller moments, and the importance of cringe.
With season 3, we’ve really watched this evolution of the character Pete. He’s going from leaving his wife and having to sleep on couches in the first season, to now he finally has his own apartment. How close would you say we are to you today are we within the show?
I think we’re getting closer and closer to who I really am. At the beginning, it might have been 30 percent. We’re getting closer to 50/60 percent by now. And then if we’re fortunate enough to do a fourth season, I think that’s the number that you can continue to see. When I play this character, even though it is me, I just try to be me but a little bit sweeter, a little bit more naïve, and I don’t have any boundaries. That’s basically the difference. And honestly it’s kind of fun. I don’t always like that I’m older and that I have a certain gear where I’m just more grown up and like with my parents I can be more confrontational instead of just being a sweetie boy all the time. But when I play that character, I can be like that sweetie boy. It’s kind of nice. It’s like a little vacation. A nostalgic vacation.
How much thought do you guys put into getting the perfect blend of success and failure into the show? Because it’s really balanced out in this third season especially.
That’s a tricky thing. Judd is very good about that. He doesn’t want us to just… It would be easy to just kick my character in the face over and over and over. I mean anybody could write that show. It’s like “Well, what if he has this opportunity and then it blows up in his face?” Or “This blows up in his face.” So we want to walk that line of salty sweet. Because that’s what comedy is like. You think you get some break that’s going to change your life. Like in the first season, when my character starts doing warm up, you’re like “Well this is great. This is $500 a week. I am now all set.” And then those things can go away just as quickly as they came. And that’s really sort of one of the messages that I’m trying to share in solidarity with my community. Even if it’s not comedians, if it’s any creative or dream endeavor that people are going for, a lot of the time people are going to find you don’t make it once, you make it 50 times. And I want to tell people whatever they may be pursuing, they’re in good company. So whenever things are getting too heavy, Judd is very good about saying “Well something should go his way because this show can’t just be a bummer.” And then whenever things are getting too good, I have 10 writers that are quick to pitch 20 ways to get humiliated because they’ve all been humiliated a thousand times because they’re comedians.
So are the majority of the writers comedians on the show? Which is pretty rare, even for a series about stand-up, to have that many comics in the writing room.
Well stand-up is hard to do on T.V., I think. It’s very hard. The way we do it is so much of it is unscripted, even if it’s an important set. In the third season there’s a very important set, I can’t say what it is. We don’t have a lot of spoilers, but it would be a spoiler. But there’s a set that’s super important. And even that, I’m just doing stand-up. I’m picking certain material, I might be performing it a certain way. But really you’re just trying to make the background actors laugh. Because when it’s perfectly scripted or it’s totally choreographed, I think somebody even not super familiar with stand-up can tell that it’s false. And then the other way, of course, is to get a lot of stand-ups on your staff.
We have a couple. We have a handful of people [who are not stand-ups]. Janet Leahy, who was a Mad Men writer wrote for us and is not a stand-up. Dave King, who wrote on Love and Parks and Rec, I don’t believe he’s a stand-up. Some of these people might have tried it for a brief time. Our showrunner Judah Miller is not a stand-up, as is Oren Brimer, one of our co-EP’s. But other than that, yeah. Almost everyone is [a stand-up]. We have a lot of stand-ups on the staff. There’s just no substitute for saying what happened while you were coming up. Because any stand-up is going to have 15 stories that are just perfect for us.
Right. I feel like if you didn’t have any stand-ups in the writing room, the community would probably be able to tell.
Yeah. It’s like doing a show about Lithuanians, you’ve got to have some Lithuanians on the staff.
Well now I can’t wait for the Lithuanian episode of Crashing.
[Laughs] Well I am Lithuanian and I’ve heard they’re really big into stand-up. So I would love to have a Lithuanian episode. That would be awesome.
Something you briefly touched on is the show does is show the small things as the biggest victories. To anyone else, a set at The Comedy Cellar is just a cool thing to do. But for Pete, it is life changing. Are taking the smaller moments and blowing them up something you guys set out to do or do they come up organically?
Absolutely. It’s funny. The Cellar, since the movie Comedian [Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary] has always been this mecca in my head. Honestly it still is. In the first season of Crashing, Judd practically begged me to the Cellar to go up. I had never performed there. I wanted to. I used to hand out fliers for the Boston [comedy club] which was right around the corner from the Cellar. And I would watch comedians go in and would say out loud, as if it was a T.V. show, “Someday”. Like really knowing that would mean I made it if I performed there. But I was still scared. I mean we shoot there, we’re there all the time, but I wasn’t doing stand-up there because I was still afraid. It had been exaggerated in my mind after a decade of putting it on a pedestal. It still made me weak in the knees to think about performing there. Then finally Judd dragged me there and I went, and obviously it was amazing. Now I perform there all the time. But we wanted to show what that’s like when a place means making it. A lot of people like my mother or my father understand that getting a T.V. show means making it, or whatever it might be. But what they might not know is sometimes it’s just working the best club in the city.
Exactly. And with the comedy condo episode for instance, it’s really interesting that you guys cover something that seems so inside baseball and manage to place inside of all of that an argument that a lot of people are having these days with the #MeToo movement.
That’s exactly right. Mike Birbiglia said something to me when we were writing the show. Mike consulted on the show. He said “If you’re not telling secrets, who cares?” So every episode, especially the stand-up episodes, we’re trying to share something that people might not know. Even if it is as simple as “This is what it could be like if you stay in a condo.” Like there’s always these sort of nightmare condos with shitty carpeting and weird stains and stuff. Or “This is what it’s like when you’re aware of the status of headliner, middle, and emcee. And how everybody is treated differently, or how women are treated differently. Or how the waitress who works the greenroom is treated differently.” There’s all these sort of little secrets, and that episode I’m particularly proud of. My friend Oren directed it, I think he did an amazing job. But it seems sort of like a microcosm of what’s going on. With the first set, Jason does this misogynistic and racially-charged leaning set. And it goes really well. And with the second show Jamie, a woman, speaks out and talks about how f*cked up it is, and then culturally the audience doesn’t like it anymore. They needed someone to explain and raise their voice and be like “This is fucked up,” and you see that the audience really changes their perspective. So I thought that was a really interesting, albeit a small way, to address what’s going on.
And it’s also just another one of those moments that the show embraces the cringe factor of life. How important do you think it is for cringe to have a place in comedy?
Well I love cringey stuff. Obviously Extras is an influence on the show for me or the British Office. Those are just shows that I was obsessed with starting out, and I think you can see some of that influence there. That’s what it feels like a lot of the time for me to be alive. It’s not always easy. It’s not always smooth. And there’s often just these moments where you have no idea what to say, or you wish you hadn’t said what you said. And especially when you’re doing comedy, the number of awkward exchanges I had… When Bill Burr was on the set, I would tell him stories about standing outside of The Cellar and me making a joke that died and he made fun of me for 10 minutes. And now we laugh about it. But it would be a disservice to the community, I know we keep talking about the community, but I’m trying to keep in mind all of the awkward discomfort that almost every comedian I know experiences when they’re coming up. And frankly still experiences from time to time. Because when you’re dealing with a lot of funny but ultimately, I don’t want to say damaged but let’s say quirky, people you’re going to have a lot of moments where you eat some shit. And those are the moments that make me laugh as a viewer and those are the moments that make me feel like we’re representing what it feels like to be a comedian. So there’s always going to be plenty of those.
And maybe that’s something that can be used as almost a cautionary tale for those looking to go into stand-up as well.
Well yeah, I could’ve used it. I could’ve used a heads up. It’s like I didn’t know that it was going to be so ball-busty. I didn’t know what they meant when they said you had to have a thick skin. I thought it was like the club owners and maybe the audiences. But it turns out it’s almost everywhere. You’re sort of surrounded right from the beginning. And even the sweeter comedians have to go in with their guard up a little bit if they’re going to survive.
Crashing airs Sunday nights on HBO at 10 PM EST.