Crashing Is an Antidote to Cynical Comedy Shows

Pete Holmes’s new HBO series is a refreshing break from the darkness of similar prestige shows about the lives of stand-ups.

Mary Cybulski / HBO

“This is great,” says the comedian Pete Holmes, early in one episode of his new HBO series Crashing, which premieres Sunday. He’s talking to a group of fellow stand-up strivers who are about to spend the afternoon handing out comedy-club fliers to earn stage time for their own performances; unlike him, they look miserable. “West Village, look at us!” Pete continues. “Standing on the corner, eating street food. We’re gonna do a set tonight at a club in Manhattan. I love this.” One of the crew tilts his head at Pete. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

The exchange more or less sums up Pete’s relationship with the world of comedy, and the world at large, within Crashing. The show, which was executive produced by Judd Apatow, revs up its plot with a development that would level a less starry-eyed protagonist: Pete walks in on his wife cheating on him. After a requisite period of self-pity, though, what unfolds is an account of irrepressible cheeriness.

Pete, a floppy-haired gentle giant and a fictionalized younger version of Holmes himself, seems incapable of sustained anger or malice. He apologizes to a man towing his car and is so unthreatening that his wife’s lover, “Leaf,” treats him in the head-patting manner of a guidance counselor. But as he moves from couch to couch—his wife supported him financially while he “worked” for free at comedy clubs, so his imminent divorce comes with a side of homelessness—he starts to forge connections and professional footholds, largely by way of the same too-kind disposition that gets him mocked in initial encounters. Via Pete’s headlong, wide-grinned adventures, Crashing turns a familiar conceit into a delightful extended riff on the power of positive thinking that’s hilarious and hopeful in equal measure.

Crashing has many of the hallmarks of one of 21st-century TV’s defining genres: the comedy about comedians, the peek behind the laugh-factory curtain. Guest stars abound, most immediately with Artie Lange playing a kind of hoarse, vulgar guardian angel. Shop-talk flows constantly, as characters rehash sets and rework bits, and roasting is lingua franca. “You look like you work for a homeless person,” T.J. Miller, a real-life Holmes associate best known for his work on Silicon Valley, tells Lange backstage before a show. “Are you interning on Skid Row? What cargo are you carrying in cargo pants? Nostalgia for the ’90s?”

Crashing feels distinct from recent comedian-centric shows like Louie and Maron and movies like Don’t Think Twice that have traded in a certain darkness—the agonized performer, humor as an outlet for the world-weary. Despite his troubles, the character of Pete isn’t a tortured genius; he’s a gleeful dweeb. (“I like Albany,” he says to one crowd by way of an opener. “It’s all of the bany. It’s not some of the bany, I like that.”) His ambition is coated heavily in fandom, and he practically melts whenever he meets an industry A-lister. You sense, even as Pete’s private life is a wreck and his professional one makes what might objectively be called meager gains, that he has to fight off an urge to pinch himself at his good fortune. He’s telling jokes and rubbing elbows with his heroes—how cool is that!? Every aspect of the show seems informed by its main character’s—and creator’s—joy.  Plots unfold with rollicking energy, actors ham it up, and the script seems sometimes to read only, “Chuckles abound,” as when Pete and some pals spend a montage mock-surprising one another with excellent news.

It’s a sensibility that fans of Holmes’s other work will recognize. You Made It Weird, his podcast on the Nerdist network, features Holmes talking with guests in multi-hour geek-out sessions, complete with improvised bits and microphone-distorting laughter. The Pete Holmes Show, a Conan follow-up that lasted for 80 episodes from 2013 to 2014 on TBS, similarly mined its host’s obsessions and sunny tendencies. He performed monologues that were more like miniature stand-up sets than the usual “You heard about this?” news fare, donned costumes for superhero spoofs, and once wrapped the famous mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey in a bear-hug, saying, “That’s my signature move.”

Pete’s eager-to-please style isn’t for everyone, and Crashing’s detractors will supply their own adjectives. “Charming” will turn to “cloying,” “sweet” to “sappy.” A generation has learned that television comedy can involve real psychic stakes, and some viewers used to seeing Louis C.K. deal with the true-to-life travails of parenthood might not enjoy the less weighty sight of, say, Pete intruding clumsily on his wife’s yard sale. Preferences between the two modes will say more about predilection than merit, but in certain moments one does almost glimpse Holmes standing just outside the shot, laughing a little too hard at himself.

At its best, though, Crashing is a kind of corrective, and an honest one at that. Comedy need not be only the refuge of the cynic. It also has room for figures like Holmes, for whom the craft is less a burden than a blast. “I want to make people happy,” Pete says, but his words feel almost redundant. If prestige TV has lately been home to some of stand-up’s prickliest denizens, Holmes bounds in with a smile, steadfast in a belief that laughter does more than serve as a bitter tonic. It renders life whole, it eases troubles, it makes good things happen and bad things go away.  This is great, indeed.