If there was one television sub-genre that didn’t seem like it needed any new additions, it was the “white guy stand-up comedian playing himself as a stand-up comedian.”
There’s been a low-level but natural apprehension, going into last night’s HBO premiere of “Crashing,” from executive producer Judd Apatow, created by and starring Pete Holmes. Based on a number of his real experiences, the series follows Holmes-as-Holmes moving past a specific turning point in his life, when he discovers his wife’s affair with a coworker and moves to New York full-time, to pursue comedy.
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Thus, the series gets its title from the fact that Pete really doesn’t have anywhere to live when he makes his move — or money to pay for a place — so he spends his nights on the couches of friends and famous comedians between standup gigs. It’s a fairly by-the-numbers premise, and one that doesn’t offer a lot on paper. But because the world of comedy so often loves to sell itself as bleak, self-hating and pessimistic, so interestingly messed up, we had no reason to expect “Crashing” would be any less depressing or self-deprecating than the others of the past few decades.
Though critics have of course noted its lighter tone and unsinkable vibe, the true artistry is here is in making a relatable, familiar story out of an uncommon character — Holmes himself has a contagious, unbeatable optimism and joy — while pulling off a high-difficulty balancing act all around him. An off-kilter lead is one thing — “Girls,” “Insecure” and HBO comedies of years past have shown we’re elastic when it comes to our premium-cable protagonists — but to play him against the entire universe of his show, and come up smiling no matter what, is the work of a thousand little details.
By the time you’re getting mugged and cut up by a hobo in a New York subway, you’ve dropped about as far as you can go. But as Pete finally passes out on Artie Lang’s couch, small, relaxed smile on his face, it’s impossible not to feel the same exhaustion for him — and the same relief when he puts his head down on Artie’s pillow.
In another fresh and giant risk, Holmes and Apatow let Pete tell some legitimately horrible jokes on stage. It’s not usual for a series about comedy to let its lead bomb onstage, although usually not without making sure we know it’s not a common occurrence. (We’re reminded here of a running bit in the Tig Notaro documentary, “Tig,” in which we see her bomb with a particular joke, take the full emotional hit of that, talk it out, and then gradually refine the joke itself — when she finally drops it and it lands, toward the end of the film, we’ve been given everything we need to feel, for a moment, what that means to a comedian.) Here, we’re looking at an origin story of sorts — the way the sausage gets made is the sausage itself, which is profoundly satisfying.
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Fans of Holmes’ podcast, “You Made it Weird,” or his short-lived TBS late-night show, will no doubt already be familiar with Holmes’ demeanor — but that doesn’t make his attitude and personality any less unique. Every comedian has a “thing,” a particular viewpoint that is digestible and specific, whether that’s Maria Bamford’s transparency and voices or Patton Oswalt’s disgusted-nerd exhaustion. But in an industry defined by the masochistic mystique of its most jaded and self-hating stars, Holmes’ “thing” is that he is having a ball, genuinely enjoying life — an unbeatable formula that seems as genuine as possible, yet is perfectly calibrated to troll the entire enterprise.
After a million addictions in search of a reason, thousands of self-pathologizing attempts to understand the comedy world — what unites its stars, the commonalities they share — the question always seems to land on the exact same boring “artists are inherently unstable,” “genius is madness” note that they’ve been selling us since Van Gogh. It’s a good story: For the untalented, it’s a sour grapes relief, and to the artist, it’s a free pass to melt down.
That doesn’t mean it’s true, though: Just that a win/win lie often doesn’t feel like a lie at all.
Like the internet shock-humorist, doubling down on diminishing returns until all that’s left are Hitler jokes, is learning, we needed something fresh, something new, to break the system — and Pete’s success, with this show and in comedy in general, may provide some of the keys to what comes next. He’s an outlier because he is unique, but that doesn’t — logically it can’t — mean his appeal is sui generis, based on nothing at all. What “people” like about Holmes, his comedy, this show: That’s an origin story too.
And even if “Pete Holmes” were a put-on persona — like Anthony Jeselnik’s nastiness, or Larry the Cable Guy’s entire thing — it would still have that power. The fact that it really seems impossible just makes it exponentially stronger: Authenticity as a brand can be messed up a thousand ways, but only succeeds in one very particular and specific one, which is to be actually authentic. That is undefeatable.
Because when Pete Holmes smiles, he does it with his whole face; his body language is friendly and open, and demands a hug. After decades of Gen X coolness and hall-of-mirrors hipsterism — not caring about not caring about not caring; its clear endpoint and funeral the ongoing garbage fire of comedy-writer Twitter takes — then the most destructive, or at least disruptive, thing you can do is care: Something Pete Holmes has never strained to do. It feels a little revolutionary.
“Crashing” airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, after Apatow’s “Girls.”
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